If watching a hockey game, on television from the comfort of your own home, can nearly double your body’s stress levels, it seems reasonable to assume that you can calm down by basically doing the opposite. Sitting calmly, meditation and sometimes vaguely defined “mindfulness” are being touted as cures for stress, but researchers wanted to figure out exactly what mechanisms might be making a difference. “Stress” on it’s own is such a broad term that three separate experiments were devised to more specifically measure what mindfulness might be doing for your brain.
Attention to self-awareness
The first exercise focused on self-awareness, or mindfulness. The idea was that paying attention to your own breathing, hunger and heart rate would eventually train your brain to be better at focusing and dealing with external distractions. After three months of practice, participants were tested in a variety of scenarios, having their brain activity measured as well to try and find a specific change in the brain that might account for the feelings of self-improvement reported by people who may have unconsciously been trying to justify sitting in silence for three hours each week.
In fact, there was measurable changes, both in participant’s test results and brain scans. People did better on tasks testing their attention spans, and showed more activity in their medial prefrontal cortex, a region of the brain associated with executive decision-making. This meditation practice wasn’t a cure-all though, as these exercises didn’t seem to change how people handled other stresses, like dealing with difficult social interactions.
Specific exercises for social stress
This wasn’t a huge surprise to researchers. Just as you wouldn’t expect bicep curls to tone your calves, practicing certain mental challenges don’t necessarily change your whole brain at once. Further supporting this slightly departmentalized model, researchers had people flex other parts of their thinking processes. One exercise asked people to share brief personal stories with a partner, including both positive and negative aspects of earlier experiences. A third exercise had them talk with a partner from a particular, internal point of view, like one’s inner child, then ask your partner to guess what perspective was being shared.
As with the first mindfulness exercises, practicing sharing and listening with another person was found to make a difference, specifically when challenged by emotional social encounters. So sharing feelings about a story didn’t improve one’s concentration, but it did make giving a giving a short presentation in front of an audience easier, lowering heart rates and boosting activity in a brain region called the insula.
On one hand, these tests poke holes in claims that one practice can improve every aspect of one’s mental life, which fits with what we’ve known about physical training for ages. On the other hand, it means that just like you can focus on specific exercises at the gym, you can also give extra attention to areas of your emotional life you want to improve on. Like being aware of your heart rate during a hockey game.
Source: Mental Training Exercises Can Alter Your Brain and Reduce Stress by Lucy Jordan, Seeker