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Enhance Your Life with Mindfulness by Dr. Sally Nazari

Sixty years ago, modern scientists began studying the brains of people who regularly engaged in meditation practices. They found that these practitioners could weather stressful events with more resilience, come up with more original and creative ideas and engage in improved cognitive functioning such as memory recall. In the last ten years, we also have come to discover that every time we think, feel or act, a neural connection occurs in our brain. Things that we think, feel or do most often strengthen these connections and pathways and those connections that we don't use become weakened and begin to fade away. We may notice this with our habits that have become automatic and often mindless.

Our thoughts and thought patterns work in the same way. Worry thoughts, angry thoughts, guilt, shame and even sadness all can become habitual and strengthen the neuronal connections that forge them. It then becomes much easier to go there. Because these connections become so strong, habitual, and repetitive, it often begins to feel like we are powerless to change them. Yet, we merely need to understand how we can change our brains and these neuronal connections to make effective and enduring changes. This is where neuroplasticity can be powerful.

Making Positive Changes

Neuroplasticity refers to the idea that our brain is, in many ways, malleable and can create new neural connections. Restructuring our brain through mindfulness happens through the practice of noticing our thoughts, feelings and sensations and bringing our awareness back to the present experience of these things rather than getting caught up in them. With repetition, the more we do, think and feel when doing challenging tasks, the easier they become. As we do this, we begin to both create and strengthen new neuronal pathways as well as weaken previous, maladaptive ones that were not helpful for us.

Research also has shown that three months of a mindfulness practice can slow down or prevent the natural agerelated decline in cortical structure. Scientists noted an increase in the size of the hippocampus amongst practitioners of mindfulness. The hippocampus is the area of the brain that aids in managing emotions, learning, and memory. In fact, we see a decrease in this area among people with PTSD and depression. In addition, scientists also noticed changes in the temporo-parietal area of the brain, which contributes to perspective taking, empathy and compassion. This is not a surprising result since, often, one of the documented benefits of mindfulness has been an improvement in interpersonal relationships. Additional findings also were reported in these robust studies including some that suggest mindfulness is a particularly useful tool for overcoming disruptions and challenges in our lives.

In their studies isolating the unique benefits of mindfulness, scientists saw the amygdala, or the brain's center for fight, flight, and freeze responses, shrinking amongst practitioners of mindfulness. In fact, the greater the stress reduction they noted, the smaller the amygdala become. Such a finding is valuable because it points to the resilience and clarity that mindful awareness can bring, which is particularly useful during difficult experiences.

Mindfulness does more than just help us to feel better in the moment—it can have cumulative effects as mindfulness can provide changes to our brain. For a greater quality of life, facilitating depression and anxiety recovery, reducing stress, lowering pain, increasing concentration, cultivating creativity, reducing insomnia and improving energy levels, the benefits of mindfulness practice easily can enhance our lives. This positions us to more effectively enact changes that will cultivate more fulfilling experiences.

Sally Nazari, PsyD is a licensed psychologist, Usui Reiki Master Teacher, and Jikiden Reiki practitioner providing individual, group, couples, and family therapy in Nyack. She also offers Mindfulness Matters, an 8 session group. Her interactive and solution-focused approach highlights compassionate understanding to help people work through personal life issues. For additional information on the services she offers or to schedule an appointment, call 236-5612 or visit DrSallyNazari.com.

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