Simple Mindfulness Practices That Can Change the Brain for the Better
Look up the term “mental health”, and you’ll likely find definitions that refer to emotional, psychological and social wellbeing. Which of course is true, but it’s only part of the story. When we fail to include the brain — the physical structure responsible for what we think, feel and do — we limit our ability to integrate mind-body health effectively.
The reason I’m asking you to think about this right now is we are in the midst of a mental health epidemic like we’ve never seen before, and it’s only getting worse. As we continue to have more and more access to information and knowledge, we are failing miserably in the application of what we know to how we live our lives.
We are spread way too thin, constantly multitasking, addicted to technology, driven to distraction, and trying to seize every moment as if it were our last. Our brains are hard-wired to crave new, novel information and sensitive to potential sources of stress in an effort to protect us from harm. But being on high-alert and triggered by our chaotic environment non-stop has caused our brains and bodies to turn against us.
We know what to do, but we can’t seem to do it. Our heart is begging us to slow down, take a breath, ditch the drama, focus on what’s most important to us including spending face time (not the app) with the people we love. But our hijacked brains are telling us we can’t — we don’t have enough, we aren’t enough, and only through constant striving can we even attempt to keep up.
And the result of all of this noise?
Pressure has become painful. Brains have re-organized in an attempt to keep us safe, becoming hypersensitive to stress and stimulation. Which means that, like a drug, when we try to quiet down or slow down it feels terrible. Like detox. In our discomfort, we slip back into old patterns that give us temporary relief, all while causing long-term damage.
I don’t want to minimize the severity of mental health, or try to place blame on technology, work, or chaotic political or environmental circumstances. But I do want to bring the brain into the mental health picture where it belongs.
What do our daily routines and habits have to do with our mental health?
· We multitask constantly and then are surprised when symptoms of attention deficit appear.
· We are surrounded by fear-based programming on our 24/7 news cycle and are surprised that we feel anxious.
· We see the horrendous, painful ways that we treat each other just by noticing what’s happening as strangers pass by each other, bump into each other, road rage at each other and are surprised that we feel irritable, impatient or alone.
· We see people starving and living in poverty and are surprised that we feel sad.
Many times, the way we feel is actually perfectly aligned with the information the brain is processing. The patterns and non-conscious cues we pick up in a broken world shift the lens through which we experience life to be stressful, overwhelming and out of control. Instead of seeing these feelings and emotions as information to guide us in a new direction, we want them to go away. We minimize them, push them down, and are surprised when they pop back up to our attention without our permission.
I’ve been saying for a while now that stress is going to save the world, with or without us. I don’t mean to be dismissive about this, but if we don’t start paying attention to what’s causing collective stress, our brains and bodies will continue to breakdown, burn out, and turn against us.
Please, pause for a few minutes to think about your own mental health.
What’s the status of your psychological, emotional and well-being? Notice where you feel stress in your own life, and instead of pushing it down or hoping it goes away, ask it questions so you can use the information to fuel change.
Pause: What do I really need right now?
Pause: Why am I feeling this way?
Pause: What small adjustment could I make to feel more aligned with what matters most to me?
Pause: How am I spending and investing in my own energy so that I can show up for the people who matter most to me?
Pause: How can I serve others to help them have better mental health?
Some final thoughts and resources, for now.
I’ve just finished reading an insightful and emotional book that has re-ignited my passion for speaking out about mental health. Without going into the details of my own story, I could relate in many ways to the challenges described in the book, What Made Maddy Run: The Secret Struggles and Tragic Death of an All-American Teen, by ESPN commentator and journalist Kate Fagan. I highly recommend this book, especially for parents.
I am also grateful to be participating in the Free Mental Wellness Summit 2.0, broadcasting September 25th through October 2nd, to share insights on how stress plays a role in mental health and brain imbalances.
My hope is that by bringing the brain into the discussion, we’ll empower more people who are struggling with the disconnect between their mind and their heart to use the simple, practical tools that can actually re-program the brain and body to live a healthy and productive life.