Despite being a fairly self aware person, life has always presented situations where I have found myself thinking: who is this person and why am I acting this way? For example, why would I become uncomfortably tongue tied in interviews despite adequate preparation and knowing what’s to come? Or: why does it feel impossible at times, in the middle of a conflict, to remember those great communication skills I’ve learned? And the absolute worst one: Why do I fall back into old patterns I swore I’d never repeat again?
In my search for answers to these questions and in the process of studying the brain, I fell in love with Mindfulness.
The four main parts of the brain and their functions are:
Cerebrum: learning and analyzing new information, form thoughts, make decisions, functions of memory
Cerebellum: balance, posture, coordination
Limbic System: emotions, impulses, drive
Brain Stem: basic life functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and blood pressure
Neuroscience – the study of the brain and nervous system – describes that under certain conditions of stress, blood flow is diverted from our higher cortical areas – what’s called the Neocortex – to the lower areas of the brain. The Neocortex is part of the Cerebrum and the part of the brain that makes us uniquely human. It allows for abstract reasoning, aesthetic values, judgment, and language.
Stress causes blood to move away from the Neocortex and into our Limbic System, putting our emotions and impulses in the driver’s seat and triggering our flight or flight response. This means that in stressful situations we can actually lose access to the brain functions of the Neocortex and specifically the Prefrontal Cortex, leaving us with the problem-solving skills of a two year old and the feeling like we’re swirling in a soup of emotions.
This is where Mindfulness comes in. Neuroscience is finding that through what we call Mindfulness – which is a particular way of paying attention purposefully, consciously, and without judgement – we can actually keep our Prefrontal Cortex online when confronted with stressors. By developing a kind, accepting, and witnessing presence to our own experiences, we can keep our brain functions intact and integrated through the challenges.
What exactly is the Prefrontal Cortex responsible for? As interpersonal Neurobiologist Dan Siegel, MD outlines, the PFC offers 9 functions we may find especially useful in a difficult moment:
1) Bodily Regulation
2) Attuned Communication
3) Emotional Balance
4) Response Flexibility
5) Fear Modulation
8) Moral Awareness
You can see how maintaining the ability to connect to the Prefrontal Cortex is a good thing, and how problematic it can be if there is less than optimal blood flow to that area of your brain in a stressful situation. The good news is, by practicing this skill of Mindfulness in moments where stress is low actually helps strengthen and train your brain’s ability to maintain the practice when things get tough.
I LOVE this idea. Simply by doing this practice I am actually changing and strengthening my brain so that it can function more optimally under stress. Like any exercise, it might not be easy at first, but it is simple enough to start using immediately, and once learned it is free and accessible in any moment.
In my personal life, I get a little jolt of joy when I find myself being able to stay calm, creative, and connected in the middle of a challenge. It’s even more satisfying to hear people I work with relay stories of how they were able to witness their patterns and make wise choices in a heated moment.
Last week, I had an allergic reaction to something I ate in a restaurant. In the past, a similar event would have sent me into a panic; one time I actually hyperventilated and passed out. However, this time I was able to modulate my stress response and take action to stay safe. I had learned how to be with my breath, body, and thoughts in a calm, present, and supportive way and be a witness to the experience without getting unnecessarily carried away. I was able to respond to my needs at the moment, versus reacting without mindful awareness, and that felt really good. After I had taken stock of my allergic reaction and things seemed to stabilize, I gave my brain a loving pat and thanked it for staying together and helping me get through what could have been an extremely stressful experience.
This is just one example of how Mindfulness can be engaged in any moment. One can be presented with numerous and varying degrees of challenges daily in New York City, from eating something unexpected at a restaurant, to feeling overwhelmed by expectations at work, home, or in your love life. The practice of Mindfulness is like exercise for your brain, allowing it to learn how to deal with the blows of life so that you’re ready to meet these challenges when they arise while staying connected to your best self, consciously and with clarity.
If you would like to learn more about Mindfulness practices and how to incorporate them into daily life, please come to our workshop this Saturday. I will be there to answer any questions you may have, and to guide you through some tips and techniques on how to stay Mindful in New York City.