I am not one to throw around the word “magic.” But, honestly, sometimes that is what it feels like.
I was someone who thought I had no choice but to succumb to my thoughts and emotions. I tried every little strategy there was. At first, I would start out hopeful, but soon realize I was stuck in the same patterns I was in before. Nothing had changed.
The first time I came across mindfulness – honestly, I was hesitant.
Probably not for me.
Probably wouldn’t work.
But I tried it. And I practiced it.
And I am forever different, because of it.
The Road Less Traveled: Taking a New Neural Pathway
In my husband’s PhD program, he did brain research. He researched how the brain worked, the effects of stress on the brain, and studied medical therapies that could help the brain function more optimally.
I’ve always been fascinated about how our minds work, so we had plenty to talk about and I had lots of questions for him.
I remember one thing that really stood out to me. He told me that when we engage in certain patterns of thinking, it creates grooves in our brains. He told me to think about it like walking on a path in the woods. If a path has been walked on many times, the path is more clear. It is worn because of the frequent travel.
If you want to take a new path that you haven’t taken before, it’s going to take a bit more effort. It won’t be quite as easy as your usual route.
However, the more you choose to take this new path, the more distinct it will become. The more you take it, the more clear the path will be and easier to travel. We take paths that are familiar to us and that is why you may be stuck on negative path. But the more familiar you can make that new path, the more automatic it will be for you to take it.
We can literally rewire our brains. I challenge you to take a new neural pathway.
I challenge you to take the road less traveled – it will make all the difference.
Your Thoughts Release Chemicals
I was simply blown away when I realized this. And so much more careful about what I thought too.
Before I talk about this, let me first say, I do not have a specific position when it comes to mental health medication. I think it is a decision that needs to be made personally by the individual. I know some people have stories about how helpful medication has been for them, and others prefer non-medication methods. I think it is dependent on the situation and the person and every person and situation is different.
With that being said, I was amazed when I realized that thoughts actually release chemicals the same way a medication might.
If you have a happy thought – dopamine, the pleasure chemical, is released into the brain. If you have a calming thought, serotonin, the calming chemical, is released into the brain.
And on the reverse, if you have a fearful thought or a stressful thought, the cortisol chemical is released into your brain.
Now, this wouldn’t be such an amazing concept, except the fact that we can we actually control what we think. And when we control what we think, we literally are controlling what chemicals are being released into our brain.
With mindfulness, I have been able to take a step back from my thoughts, and feel that I have more choice about what I think.
A negative thought will pop up – and before I make a decision about if I engage with it – I think,
Do I want to release cortisol into my system right now? Do I want to release the fear, panic, or stress chemicals right now?
If the answer is no, I do not engage the thought.
Or on the reverse, if I start to feel bad about something, I will decide to think a positive thought, and I will literally be able to feel a difference. I can notice the feeling of dopamine being released from the positive thought, or the feeling of serotonin being released from the calming thought.
I know this might sound completely crazy – but this is science.
We truly do have this much power over our minds and how we feel.
The Attack of the Amygdala
It is important that the thought is not engaged in right away. If you start to engage the thought, it will be MUCH harder to get out of that mental state. Once the chemicals are released, they are in your system, and it will likely be a while until you can calm down or get out of it.
I have heard it called the “attack of the amygdala.” The Amygdala is the fight or flight center of your brain. Once it is alarmed, it is likely going to act as if there is an emergency. That’s it’s job, really. In evolutionary terms, this is a very helpful system. When humans were living in the wilderness, and saw a predator, the fight or flight chemicals were quite helpful. You gain the adrenaline to fight the predator or you go into a state of fear and run for your life.
Again, helpful back then, not so much now. That situation just isn’t quite as common anymore.
So keep in mind when you run into certain thoughts – ask yourself, will releasing these chemicals help me survive a dangerous situation? Or, would a rational mind be more helpful right now?
Usually, it is the latter.
And remember, if you allow your amygdala to be attacked, it will be A LOT harder to come out of it, than if you never allow it to start.
Okay, so how do I become mindful?
So, maybe at this point in the article you are reading this and thinking “Wow, you’ve made it sound so easy and so simple, glad it worked out for you. BUT, in my experience, it is NOT so easy and NOT so simple.”
Trust me, I’ve been there. I really, really have.
It is like anything else. The more you practice, the easier it becomes.
Will you try it today and have it suddenly work for you?
Will you diligently practice it daily for 6 months?
You will see change.
To be mindful is to detach from your thoughts a bit. It is to recognize and acknowledge you are having certain thoughts, but also realize you are not your thoughts. It is to create a distance between you (your higher rational self) and your thoughts. It is having a curiosity to your thoughts, but not an emotional reaction. A simple Oh, I notice I am feeling sad right now. Oh, I notice I am feeling worried. Oh, I notice I am feeling embarrassed.
It is to notice, but not to engage. You say it calmly. You say it gently. There is no judgment around having the thought. You are not trying to stop yourself from having the thought altogether, you are just not allowing yourself to engage with it further.
It is a method of having awareness around you thoughts. You are able to recognize that certain thoughts, if taken further, will put you into a negative emotional state. You develop an awareness around what thoughts will be productive for you to think, and what thoughts will not.
You are compassionate toward yourself. You show yourself kindness. And you encourage yourself. Remember, your negative thoughts may still be automatic, just gently counter them with encouragement.
For example, if you think,
I am not doing a good job.
Counter it with,
You are doing the best that you can, and that is enough.
Notice if you feel any change when you think the encouraging thought. The more you say it, the more likely you will believe it.
So, just to re-cap, the important components of mindfulness are:
- Noticing Thoughts
- Not engaging the thoughts
- Being non-judgmental of thoughts
- Gently countering negative thoughts with encouraging thoughts
- Being compassionate toward yourself
Remember, the more you practice, the more worn the pathway will become, and the easier it will be. Even if a negative thought is tempting to engage in, keep in mind the chemicals it will release into your body. And if you allow yourself to engage the thought, your fight or flight center may be activated, which will take much time and effort to calm down.
I have mentioned before that listening to podcasts every morning on my drive in to work helped me to get to a more positive mental space, so this is one option to try.
If you are someone that might benefit from one-on-one work and accountability, I invite you to do coaching with me, as I would love to be part of your mindful journey.
Also, there are many, many articles on mindfulness if you would just like to educate yourself more.
You might notice I don’t have anything cited from what I wrote about in this post. The reason for this is because what I wrote about did not come from one specific source – it is a collection of knowledge gained from my experience working in the mental health field, conversations with my husband and his PhD work, and a wide variety of research, articles, and podcasts. If there is any aspect of this post you would like to dig into further, please let me know, and I will see if I can find a specific article/podcast for you!
Magic, Miracles, and Science
I titled this post “The Magic of Mindfulness” because mindfulness truly feels magical and miraculous to me. Not even just in my own life, but how I have heard about it affecting others as well. And how far reaching and life altering its effects are.
Mindfulness has been found to be a very effective treatment for:
Attention Deficit Disorder
Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
And the list goes on..
Maybe you are wondering why I would call something that is scientifically proven to be magic or a miracle?
I remember when my husband and I were first dating – what now feels like many years ago. We were talking about C.S. Lewis’ book Miracles.
I came from a traditional Christian perspective. My husband was also a Christian, but a scientist as well.
We were debating miracles. Are they real? Honestly, I was ready to get mad at him because I felt like his science mind was going to try to talk me out of the idea of miracles. I just figured scientists probably didn’t believe in that kind of thing.
But I will never forget what he said:
Science doesn’t push me away from miracles, science makes me believe in them more. Isn’t it a miracle that there are stars in the sky, that we live on a planet that supports life, that something happened – whether the big bang or something else – that we even exist? Isn’t it a miracle that we are here together having this conversation? Isn’t speech a miracle? Aren’t thoughts a miracle? Aren’t scientific discoveries that heal people and save lives, miracles? Science doesn’t make me believe in miracles less, science makes realize that miracles are all around me. Every movement, every breath – all of it – it is a miracle.
And he was right. Magic and miracles are all around us.
I hope you too, can experience the magic of mindfulness.
- Think about what you read about the neural pathway, the thought chemicals, and the attack of the amygdala. How does this affect how you would like to engage with your negative thoughts in the future? Do you trust that practice will make it easier to take a new neural pathway? Do you think you will be more intentional with thoughts realizing thoughts are releasing chemicals into your mind and body? Will you be more careful to calm the thoughts, before going into the flight or fight mentality? What will you do different because you now have these perspectives?
- What practical steps will you start taking today to become more mindful and gain better control over your thoughts and emotions? What strategies and suggestions in the “how to” section stood out to you?
- Write down one commitment / action step you know will keep you in line with your goal of becoming more mindful and give you the extra motivation and support you need to follow through on this goal.