The Inner Mechanics of Mindfulness

By James Greenblatt, MD, and Bill Gottlieb, CHC

Image courtesy of Pixabay

Improving Attention

In mindfulness meditation, for example, the meditator focuses on the breath, returning to it whenever he becomes distracted. Attentiveness is learned. And inattentiveness is unlearned.

“Mindfulness could lead to more automatic disruptions for periods of ‘day dreaming’ or ‘spacing out’ or ‘being caught in thinking,’” wrote researches from the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center in a scientific paper titled “Mindful Awareness and ADHD” (included as a chapter in the Clinical Handbook of Mindfulness).

But mindfulness doesn’t only improve attention. It also strengthens the brain.

Normalizing the Brain

Studies show that mindfulness training energizes the parts of the brain responsible for attention, impulsivity, and executive function.

As one study on the mindfulness and ADHD put it: “Neuroimaging studies suggest that mindfulness meditation engenders … changes in brain areas associated with attentional functioning typically impaired in ADHD.”

One of these areas is the default mode network, a group of interacting brain areas that have subpar functioning in ADHD — functioning that is normalized by ADHD medications. Mindfulness meditation may work in ADHD by improving “connectivity” in this network, wrote the researchers in the journal Cognitive and Behavioral Practice.

Calming Emotions

Mindfulness training also helps ADHD symptoms by calming emotions, say those researchers. In mindfulness, the meditator observes and accepts “emotional states,” seeing them as “temporary and passing phenomenon that can be responded to in a nonreactive manner.” In that way, mindfulness “helps patients” with ADHD “resist impulsive urges to act out on emotions.”

Mindfulness Isn’t the only Type of Mediation That Works for ADHD

Although most studies on meditation and ADHD have looked at mindfulness meditation, a few other types of meditation have worked to ease ADHD symptoms.

Mantra Meditation. In this technique, the object of meditation is a mantra, a word that is thought repeatedly. In the most popular form of mantra meditation — transcendental meditation, or TM — a meaningless word like eng or shirim (two official TM mantras) is thought recurrently, without trying to concentrate on it. As with mindfulness meditation, when the mind wanders you simply, easily, and without concern bring it back to the mantra.

In a study on TM and ADHD, 10 kids with ADHD, ages 11 to 14, practiced the technique in two daily sessions of 10 to 15 minutes each. After three months, ADHD symptoms were reduced, executive function was improved, and anxiety was eased.

Yoga. Some types of yoga can use deep breathing exercises and concentration meditation (concentrating on a specific thought, like the word Om). In one study, ADHD children ages 6 to 11 participated for one year in a program involving yogic deep breathing and concentration meditation. They had “remarkable improvements in … school performances that were sustained throughout the year,” reported the researchers in the journal ISRN Pediatrics.

Excerpted from FINALLY FOCUSED Copyright © 2017 by James Greenblatt, M.D., and Bill Gottlieb, CHC. Published by Harmony Books, and imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.