1. MRI scans show the Anterior Insular Cortex, a tiny part of the brain, lights up when we practise mindfulness. Excellent – something is actually happening.
2. After only 8 weeks MRI scans show there is an increase in density and thickness of the pre-frontal cortex. This helps us to respond calmly rather than react. We recover more quickly from stress and distress. Concentration and our ability to make good decisions improve.
3. Deep diaphragmatic breathing automatically soothes the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic system. This creates an analgesic effect and increases blood flow which improves functions like digestion.
4. Our perception tells us ‘something bad’ is happening and the amygdala, the holy crap fight, flight or freeze response, sets off cortisol and adrenaline coursing through our bodies. After 8 weeks of practise MRIs show this area actually gets thinner. This calms the limbic system to twice the level of people who don’t practise mindfulness (controlled test group).

Important bits…

Since the late 1970s, there have been well over 3000 publications and over 1000 research studies documenting medical and psychological research on mindfulness which demonstrate its validity and breadth of application.

A study at the University of Oxford in 2013 found evidence that 273 participants in their eight week mindfulness course experienced:

  • a 58% reduction in anxiety levels
  • a 57% reduction in depression
  • a 40% reduction in stress

Participants reported they were able to:

  • Recognise, slow down or stop automatic and habitual reactions
  • Respond more effectively to complex or difficult situations
  • See situations more clearly
  • Become more creative
  • Achieve balance and resilience

Regular practice means we can access the rather pleasant gamma wave brain states with relative ease and gradually the structure of the brain undergoes considerable change.

It used to be thought that the brain basically stopped developing and growing when we reached adulthood. In recent years, studies have proved that the brain has neuroplasticity and can actually rewire and change throughout our lives, especially when we engage in certain practices, like Mindfulness.

So there is no need to change or improve who we are. Just the act of noticing. Becoming aware of what is happening inside and holding what is present with kindness, love and compassion. Then, it’s out of our hands. These positive changes happen despite ourselves and the thinking mind.

Einstein Buddha, Science and Evolution – they’ve got your back.

The analgesic effect of mindfulness meditation involves multiple brain mechanisms including the activation of the anterior cingulate cortex and the ventromedial prefrontal cortex. In addition, brief periods of MM training increases the amount of grey matter in the hippocampus and parietal lobe. Other neural changes resulting from MM may increase the efficiency of attentional control. … these findings may represent an underlying brain mechanism associated with mindfulness-based improvements in mental health.

Researchers from Massachusetts General Hospital, Bender Institute of Neuroimaging in Germany, and the University of Massachusetts Medical School

The UK National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) endorses Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy(MBCT) as an effective treatment for anxiety and depression. This practice is clinically proven to be at least as effective as anti-depressants.

Mindfulness instead of anti-depressants?

Depression is a crippling condition which can leave us feeling utterly bereft and powerless. It is complex, chemical and emotional; deserves great care and attention and often professional help. At the same time, it is also a perfectly normal human response to certain causes and conditions, some of which we are aware and some not. We are not ‘wrong’ or ‘flawed’ to have it. Who knows, maybe the depression has something useful to tell us about our lives and skilful mindfulness practise will help us inquire into this.

Scientific research and our own experience tells us mindfulness makes a huge difference to those of us who suffer with depression. However, there are two subtle influences that can trip us up if we are unaware.

Mindfulness is often portrayed in such a way that leads us to believe it offers some kind of instant magical transcendence over all of our emotional and physical pain and if it doesn’t, we must be doing it ‘wrong’. It is true mindfulness offers tangible relief, but it is neither magical or instant. It is dangerous to allocate miraculous qualities to mindfulness, as this leads us to have unrealistic expectations. We are setting ourselves up for perceived failure, disappointment and even despair; not so great for those of us already hanging on by our fingernails.

There is also a subtle message from those in so called ‘spiritual circles’ that shames people who take anti-depressants whilst practising mindfulness – it shouldn’t be necessary right? This is utter dangerous bull…. rubbish. For starters, there are different degrees of depression and many reasons why a someone might need and a doctor might recommend, medication. Any vaguely sensible person would not criticise someone for getting a cast put on a broken leg, so why the harshness over a chemical imbalance? So to those of you who brutally judge others and have no medical qualification or personal experience of debilitating depression, this Mindful Delinquent has a spiritual message especially for you.

Sorry a little residual bitterness here at MD HQ. Where was I? Oh yes, Mindfulness is an incredibly powerful tool this is absolutely true, but it can be dangerous to suddenly stop or reduce the dosage of medication without consulting with your doctor first. There are many approaches to depression which can support us; fresh air, regular mild exercise, meaningful connection with others and therapies such as CBT, can all be part of a wider approach solution.

So here is some good news – taking an anti-depressant does not affect our ability to practise mindful meditation effectively. It really does not. I myself take a low dose of anti-depressant and know other practitioners who do the same. I find this, together with regular mindfulness practise and good self care works pretty well for me.

Traditionally Mindfulness had but one primary purpose, to relieve our suffering. This is not a competition about being ‘the best’ or ‘the most spiritual’; it’s about holding the barely tenable pain of depression and the human condition in general, with shed loads of kindness love and compassion. What happens then, happens despite ourselves. We get okay and most importantly, we get okay, when we are not okay. That is the transformative power of this practice – our relationship to what is happening changes and we become sort of ……….. alright. What we don’t do is sprout wings and elevate up the Chiswick High Road.