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How does mindfulness work?

We've all heard the word mindfulness, but what is it really and how does it work? What makes mindfulness meditation, yoga, breathing techniques and somatic experiencing so effective? In somewhat general neurological terms I'm aiming to answer those big questions based on Bessel van der Kolk's book-- The Body Keeps the Score.

What is mindfulness?

First off, let's start with the big question. Mindfulness is a state of witnessing our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment in the present moment without judgment. It has proven to help with many psychiatric, psychosomatic, and stress-related symptoms and it activates the brain regions involved in emotional regulation, body awareness and fear.

What does it do?

Physiologically speaking, we could say that the main goal of mindfulness is to restore and maintain the proper balance between our rational and emotional brains in order to be able to turn off our talking mind by command, choose our responses in the face of strong emotions and have better control over our lives.

How does it work?

We all have been in a situation where we drive home but we have absolutely no recollection of the driving, or of witnessing a beautiful sunset yet we feel unable to enjoy it because our mind won’t stop bothering us about the deadline we have at work.

Logically you might be able to understand and verbalize that a work project is not worth so much anxiety, but you still feel anxious— or that overwhelming fear of failure you’ve had since childhood that you know is taking over your life, but you still feel paralyzed.

This is because the rational brain (prefrontal cortex) is good at helping us understand where feelings come from, but it can’t really change or eliminate our emotions, sensations or thoughts. That is, our rational brain has proven to have no direct connection with our emotional brain (amygdala).

The only the system that can potentially change the emotional brain is the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is devoted to self-awareness and mediates decision making. The MPFC enables us to observe what is going on during a stressful situation and helps us to make a conscious decision without overreacting. It is basically the “brakes” for our emotional brain.

Witnessing our emotions helps us know what we feel and why, making it easier to find a solution within us or in the outside world. However, we can’t quite do this unless our watchtower (MPFC) is able to observe what is going on inside us. Research shows that constant exposure to stress and trauma cause an imbalance between out watchtower (MPFC) and emotional brain. This is why mindfulness, which strengthens the MPFC, is critical in helping us deal with issues such as minor daily stressors to severe trauma.

How do we practice mindfulness?

Neurologically speaking, there are two ways how we can maintain balance between our logical and emotional brains.

One is modulating the messages from our MPFC by strengthening its capacity to monitor our body’s sensations—through mindfulness meditation and yoga. Another way is calming our emotional brain by using our senses to help us connect with the world around us without judgment— through breath, movement and touch.

Both types of regulations involve witnessing the chatter in our minds while allowing our bodies to feel whatever feelings or thoughts arise without judgment (I will continue to go further on mindfulness and body awareness on my next post).

Mindfulness is a state that is achieved only with practice. It’s not necessarily an innate talent, nor are some people born more mindful than others. It takes time, patience and awareness. It’s like a muscle we have to be constantly working in order to build, keep and enjoy the gains.


Michelle Quiroga, LPC, RYT

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