The practice of mindfulness meditation has gained a lot of attention in recent years because research has shown it is an effective performance optimization tool. Mindfulness meditation practices vary, but they all use breathing techniques to calm the body and mind and help the user fully focus on the present moment.
How does mindfulness meditation work?
From a practical perspective, mindfulness meditation trains you to choose where you want to focus your attention. During the practice, you acknowledge thoughts and feelings and then let them go, without allowing your mind to wander into the past or the future. As a result, you experience increased ability to fully focus your attention on your daily tasks, even the boring ones. Incorporating mindfulness meditation into a holistic approach to performance and wellness can improve resilience to stress, symptoms of anxiety and depression, emotional self-regulation, problem-solving ability, sleep, stress hormone levels, and chronic pain.
Mindfulness meditation promotes changes in brain function, which helps explain the improvements many people experience when they engage in this practice. Below are 3 ways in which meditation impacts the brain and supports performance optimization.
Changes specific areas of the brain
The human brain can change and adapt in response to experience, and mindfulness meditation is one of those practices that can alter key areas in the brain. In fact, some parts of the brain become larger or more active in response to mindfulness meditation, while others get smaller or quiet down. Changes in the brain can start in as few as 8 weeks.
Regular mindfulness meditation practice increases activity in many areas of the brain responsible for complex information processing, introspection, self-awareness, and self-regulation of attention and emotion. When those regions work more and better, you are more able to focus your attention and regulate your emotions. Areas that control body awareness and sensation also become more active in response to meditation. This can help you detect physical signs of discomfort and distress, such as muscle tension. The area of the brain responsible for learning and memory also can become larger and have a positive effect on those functions.
Other parts of the brain can become less active after a few weeks of mindfulness meditation. For example, the brain center for threat detection becomes less active in people who regularly meditate. This can improve control of feelings of anxiety, fear, worry, and dread and can increase the ability to focus on the present.
Improves communication within the brain
Communication between cells in the brain happens through electrical signals that travel down wire-like structures. These wires have an insulating layer that helps information travel faster. The thicker this layer is, the faster the signal.
These insulating layers covering the “brain wires” can get thicker with regular mindfulness meditation practice. As a result, information flows better and faster among the various regions of the brain. Think about dial-up compared to fiber-optic internet. One of the pathways that benefits from mindfulness meditation practice is the one that provides voluntary control of emotions. In other words, regular mindfulness meditation can improve your ability to self-regulate (control) your emotions.
Reduces activity in specific brain networks
A single region of the brain never works alone to control a specific function, so neuroscientists have “organized” the brain into networks that consist of related areas. One of these networks—the default mode network, or DMN—is active when you aren’t doing or thinking about a specific task. For example, the DMN’s default is to be highly active when your mind is distracted, daydreaming, and wandering from thought to thought.
The practice of mindfulness meditation quiets the DMN, which can be a good thing. When it is less active, you are more able to focus on the present moment and the task at hand. When you can control the thoughts and feelings that constantly try to distract your attention, you can focus on what you want. Less activity in the DMN also can help you control the lapses in attention associated with anxiety. On the other hand, an active DMN can bring many benefits—it allows you to be creative, feel empathy, self-reflect, and find meaning in life. In fact, daydreaming can be productive and help build resilience. Mindfulness meditation enables you to focus when you need to and prevent unwanted from distractions stealing your attention.
How to get started
If you want to incorporate meditation into your Total Force Fitness toolkit, HPRC has resources to help you in this process. A great way to start is to listen to HPRC’s 5-minute guided meditation. It’s a short commitment you can do anywhere. Try to pay attention to the improvements in mental and physical health you might experience. You can also read some of HPRC’s other articles to continue learning about mindfulness meditation and perfecting your practice. Here are some suggestions: