How Mindfulness Soothes the Savage Almond

Mindfulness is not a one time proposition. Even though I know that, I fatefully resist taking the time more often than I should.

And I pay the price.

With distractedness.

With some anxiety.

With irritability.

With getting wrapped up in my own thoughts.

With ineffective responses to stress.

Mindfulness. What is it?

In my Aggression Reduction classes, a key to reducing the hostile reactions often accompanying anger is mindfulness.  So what does mindfulness mean?

Simply – and it is simple – it is stopping and noticing –

Noticing what is going on in your body.

Noticing what your mind is telling you.

Noticing your surroundings.

Noticing what you smell, what you taste, what you see, what you hear.

Noticiing your breath, breathing into the anger, not away from it.

And noticing that whatever is going on that the part of you that notices is safe.

Simply noticing.

Here. Now.

Without judgment.

How Does Mindfulness Work to Aid Anger Flexibility

As I describe it anger (and other strong emotions) are anxious reactions to invisible saber toothed tigers. When life presents us with situation that are not to our liking, as far as our brains are concerned, we are up against a saber toothed tiger.

It seems that society (supposedly) has advanced much more quickly than our brains have evolved. That three pound mystery that we carry around in a case on top of our shoulders is in place to do one major thing – to keep us alive and reproducing. So, it senses danger, often perceived danger, very quickly.

Our Inner Nut

When we sense something like this, the message goes directly to a couple of little dingleberries hanging off the bottom of our brain’s limbic system. They are called the amygdala (amygdalae?). Amygdala simply means “almond shaped.”

So think of it like this. When we come up against one of these perceived saber toothed tiger events, our own inner nut takes over, and if we react poorly to that, we may act in ways that are decidedly unproductive – maybe even dangerous.

Our minds can sometimes be our own inner bad neighborhood. It doesn’t make sense to go in there unarmed.

Soothing the Savage Almond

The part of our brains that are in charge of soothing the savage amygdala is the part of our brain that provides our ability to think, reason, make healthy choices and such. The trouble with this scenario is that because of our relationship with multiple forms of media, multitudes of opinions that are thrown at us every day, and the very fact that we use language as the tool for communicating, even the neocortex can become confused, convoluted, and all corked up in numerous ways.

Mindfulness does two things for the brain as a remedy for these difficulties.

Sitting and Noticing

First, when we sit quietly and notice what is happening¬† – as we notice our internal processes from a step away – we begin to separate ourselves from the power of our incessant mind-chatter. It doesn’t go away but we see our thoughts and feelings for what they are, simply thoughts and feelings.

Mindfulness takes us from being our thoughts and feelings to seeing our thoughts and feelings.

The NeoCortex is the Hall Monitor for the Amygdala

Next, at the same time, mindfulness has been shown to grow the neocortex and to make it stronger. It’s pretty powerful stuff. Some studies have shown that a mindfulness practice can cause noticeable brain changes in the first week or two.

To get you started you can download free mindfulness .mp3s. They are from the Meditation Awareness Research Center at the UCLA Semel Institute. Just click this link to get there. Did I mention they are free?

Remember, though, that this is a practice, no a one shot deal. If you can set aside 20 or so minutes to sit quietly, notice your breath, and begin to notice the chatter – and identify it – you may see that it is possible to use your brain to influence your brain.

Creative Commons License photo credit: mindfulness

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