I write a lot about how effective mindfulness exercises can be at reducing stress and improving our physical and mental health. If you are like I was in my anxious days, you might be doubtful. You might ask why or how does it work. Well here is a great article by Warren Tryon from Psychology Today that seeks to answer that question.
Mr. Tryon speaks to three key concepts - neuroplasticity, rumination, and mindfulness itself. (You can skip down to the "Neuroplasticity" header if you’re not interested in the super science-y introduction.)
Neuroplasticity is the brain's way of learning, remembering, and healing itself. The brain is a great big network of nerve cells that send messages to each other by shooting chemicals across the gaps between them, known as synapses. You can imagine these networks of nerve cells and synapses as a network of highways, streets, and back roads. Over time back roads may turn into large streets, which may in turn, become a highway. We've all seen that old house on the side of a highway and thought what the road must have been like when its first family built it. Well our brains' neural networks are a bit like that - certain pathways can grow and become stronger and more ingrained over time. However, unlike our paved streets and highways, the brain is also good at downgrading pathways that aren't used as much anymore. This process of upgrading and downgrading the pathways between the nerve cells and synapses of our brains is one way to think of neuroplasticity.
Now Mr. Tryon's second concept, "rumination," is a bit of a scary one, especially if you're feeling depressed or anxious, so I won't spend too much time on it. "Ruminating" has a specific psychological definition, but basically, when you feel your brain is stuck in a rut, you are "ruminating." This happens when your brain is trying to solve something, but makes no progress. Maybe you always shoot your solutions down (depressive thinking). Or maybe you continuously come up with new problems as soon as you solved the last one (anxious thinking). Bottom line, this type of thinking, this "rumination" is not constructive and it makes us feel terrible. Even worse, this "rumination" can combine with our brain's awesome neuroplasticity to expand those pathways in our brain and hard wire in that repetitive thinking. So now we feel terrible AND our brain helps us relive it again and again. Awesome.
However, the beauty of neuroplasticity is that it works both ways. Just as rumination can utilize neuroplasticity for evil, so too can mindfulness use its power for good. As Mr. Tryon writes, "The simplest definition of mindfulness is paying attention to one’s experience in the present moment." When we do mindfulness-based exercises, like yoga and meditation, we shift our attention away from the repetitive thoughts or the troubles of the day and instead focus on the physical world around us - the pattern of our breathing, the movement of the trees, the sound of the wind, the heat of the sun. As we routinely shift our focus in that way, our brain downsizes those pathways in our brain that were so built up by our "rumination." And just as our painful repetitive thoughts used neuroplasticity to hard wire themselves into our brains, so too can mindfulness re-wire our brains so that we automatically shift our focus to the present.
How cool are our brains?! Hopefully now you have a better idea of why mindfulness can help. Maybe now you'll go try that yoga or meditation you were putting off. You don't need to do those mindfulness exercises to feel better, but they sure do help. It's science.