How To Calm Your Brain With Mindfulness Meditation

Mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve executive brain function, reduce stress, help with pain management and change the structure of your brain.

It sounds simple: sit with your eyes closed and just focus on your breathing. As soon as you notice you’re distracted, return your focus to the breath. But, boy, the mind likes to wander. Practising mindfulness meditation, which has been shown to improve executive brain function, reduce stress, help with pain management and actually change the structure of your brain, is anything but easy. But I feel I’m up for a challenge. I want to give my meandering mind a good workout by meditating more, worrying less, and being a little bit more, well, mindful. I spoke with Catherine Phillips, founder of the Mindfulness Institute and a psychiatrist who teaches at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, for guidance.

What exactly is mindfulness meditation?

It’s not just a time out. It’s not a relaxation exercise. Sometimes people think of it as clearing their mind, getting rid of their mental clutter. It’s not about that at all. It’s the practice of being as fully present in the moment as possible with openness and curiosity — and meeting ourselves, just as we are, with acceptance, patience and kindness.

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Why is it so effective?

By practising paying attention and sustaining that attention, we’re working with executive brain function. And whenever we notice that the mind has wandered, we exercise our working memory. This contributes to increased self-regulation and emotional regulation. When you’re aware of your internal and external worlds, you have the opportunity to consciously choose to respond skillfully and creatively.

A lot of mindfulness studies have been performed on Buddhists. Are there benefits for the average person who isn’t meditating for hours at a time?

Absolutely. There have been some studies, for instance, suggesting the benefits in pain management for people with chronic pain continue long after they stop a meditation program. But to get good at anything takes practice. Just like taking care of your car — the better you know the inner workings of your vehicle, the better you can maintain it and take care of it. The better you know yourself — your emotional patterns, your reactivity — the more ability you have to work with those emotions. Awareness is really the key to everything.

Can micro-meditation help?

While meditation requires formal practice and time set aside, there are a number of ways you can practice informal mindfulness. You can pay very close attention to ordinary activities such as brushing your teeth — what the toothbrush feels like, what the toothpaste tastes like and so on. Or set an alarm on your phone as a cue to bring mindful awareness to your body, your thoughts and your feelings. If you don’t check in with yourself over the course of the day, by the evening you may have a tension headache or difficulty falling asleep, or any one of a number of things linked with stress. Whereas if you check in with yourself, you may catch that stress before it actually manifests in chronic symptoms. You can’t get rid of stressors, but you do have some choice in how you deal with it.

As I start to increase my mindfulness practice, what should I be mindful of?

People might think that they’re failing because their mind wanders and they’re not as good at concentrating as perhaps they thought they’d be. But remember, we’re not supposed to get a really still mind. Whether the mind wanders five or five hundred times in an exercise you deal with it each time exactly the same. In fact, your brain might be getting a better workout the harder you work at bringing the mind back to the present moment.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

Kathryn Hayward is a fortysomething senior editor at Today’s Parent, and a mom of two.

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