We use our grey matter every day – to solve problems, analyse, and often, to plain old’ overthink stuff. It’s this overthinking that brings about so much stress and anxiety – the comparisons, the second-guessing, the self-doubt. And yet, why when we use this powerful organ to think ourselves out of the myriad puzzles of complicated scenarios and challenges in life, do we give it so little credence when our bodies, the temples we exist in, become fatigued and run down?
Thinking yourself well is not a new concept. Hindu and Buddhist monks have been tapping into mindfulness to maintain a constant state of well-being for thousands of years. However now that the curious, evidence-loving west has put many of these practices under the proverbial microscope (more like fMRI and EEG scanners), there is not only proof that you can use your brain to think yourself well, but we’re beginning to understand how it works.
First, what is wellness?
Wellness, according to most dictionaries, is defined as a state of complete physical and mental health. The distinguishing factor from simply being ‘healthy’ is that ‘wellness’ is almost pursued as an ideal state or a goal. The World Health Organization includes social well-being in its definition, specifically stating it’s not merely a state of being disease free. This feels like a more synergistic understanding, especially since our ever increasing, fast-paced work lives, which contribute to so much of our stress, fall under a sort of social status ranking. And then, of course, there’s our increasingly complex relationship with social media resonance and likability. So, yes absolutely – social well-being is key to overall wellness.
But there’s another element, the epidermis of the definition if you will. And that’s, as the National Wellness Institute defines it “a conscious, self-directed and evolving process of achieving full potential” . Conscious. As in – you’re in the driving seat. Wellness is not just a state that happens to you when all the work, social, mental and physical tanks are full. It’s more about seeking how to maintain the balance, feeling into, listening to and sanctioning the intelligent self-aware thoughts that arise. And it’s a state that millions of people are learning to consciously pursue through tapping into different parts of their grey matter via meditation.
The brain and meditation
Without diving too deeply into the fascinating world of the brain – here’s an overview of what you need to know about your brain to understand how meditation can begin to help you experience wellness.
There are five areas of the brain relevant to the effects of meditation:
- Lateral prefrontal cortex (or the Assessment Centre) – involved in rational, logical and balanced thinking
- Medial prefrontal cortex (or the Me Centre) – where you reflect on and process information related to you, with the Ventromedial section processing information similar to you (and takes things too personally) and the Dorsomedial section processing information dissimilar to you (showing empathy for others and engaging in social connection
- Insula (concerned with bodily sensations) – where you experience strong or weak ‘gut feelings’ and are guided as to your responses
- Amygdala (or the Fear Centre) – the section responsible for emotional reactions and the fight or flight responses
But here’s where thinking yourself well becomes a bit more interesting. Have you ever heard the expression ‘mind over matter’? For the topic at hand, the expression might as well be referring to “mindfulness over grey matter”. You see, in meditation, we’re really learning to rewire our thinking patterns from Me-Centre centric thinking and the strong connection to the bodily sensation part of the brain to a stronger awareness in the Assessment area of the brain. This basically means you’re weakening neural pathways in the one part of the brain that ‘took everything on personally’ and reacted to emotions and experiences and perceptions and strengthening neural connections in a part of your brain that is comfortable observing the information at a distance without assuming it defines anything about you as an individual.
Naturally, by engaging your enlightened mind over your previously habitual brain – you’re applying ‘mindfulness over grey matter’. And as studies have shown there are a plethora of powerful healing results in thinking yourself regularly into a state of wellness.
How meditation can make you well
According to an article in a TIME magazine special edition here are some of the proven physical health benefits brought on by mindful meditation:
- Happy chemicals in your brain – serotonin, dopamine and endorphins are boosted for a lasting good mood
- Decrease in pain – results show a change in activity in critical key pain-processing regions in the brain, with one study in particular showing as much as a 40% reduction in pain sensations.
- Drop in blood-pressure – in a study conducted by the Medical College of Wisconsin, results showed that those who meditated for 20 minutes twice a day lowered their blood pressure by 5 mm Hg – with consistency – not just a temporary drop.
- Smooth digestion – when we experience stress, our body temporarily shuts off our digestion to give all its attention to a flight or fight state, but with the body in a relaxed state your parasympathetic nervous system is rebooted and digestion begins to flow smoothly.
- Swelling subsides – stress also increases inflammation in the body so a calm state of mind can reduce the inflammation from conditions like asthma and arthritis.
When mindfulness truly results in wellness
It’s not enough to simply learn a technique and practice it whenever you have a spare gap of time. The key to efficacy here is to make your meditation practice a daily intention. Not only does daily meditation reshape the way your brain functions, responds and actualises the thoughts you have, but it keeps your body in a state of fluid releasing rather than holding on. And the holding on is what builds dissatisfaction, stress and later manifestations of dis-ease.
Also, by simply stopping the daily practice your mind can very easily revert back to your old habits and thinking patterns. You’ve likely been reaffirming those for much longer, so to really experience the benefits, you need to want to pursue the best state of wellness you can be in daily.
Wellness and a desire to meditate shouldn’t be pursued to avoid getting a disease. Pursue it because being the healthiest and most mentally and spiritually aligned version of yourself offers your day to day life the biggest benefit – genuine happiness and acceptance.