How Mindfulness Affects the Brain and the Body

Mar 14, 2016

Life today can be stressful.  But researchers are finding that a simple version of an ancient practice can alleviate a long list of modern ailments.

In this week’s Exploradio, WKSU’s Jeff St.Clair looks at how mindfulness affects your brain and your body.

University Hospitals mindfulness trainer Suzanne Rusnak is giving me lesson in meditation at the public library where we decided to meet.

Her voice is incredibly calming as, amid the bustle around us, she gently instructs me to focus on my breathing.  It's harder than it sounds.  

Suzanne Cushwa Rusnak is coordinator of Mindfulness Programming at University Hospitals Connor Integrative Health Network.
Credit JEFF ST.CLAIR / WKSU

I'm holding a microphone, monitoring the levels, anxious about the background noise...lots of distractions.

“When you notice the mind has wandered," she says, "gently guide your attention back to the breath.”

It's like herding cats.  

But gradually my mind quiets, and I begin to appreciate the stillness that lies beneath my constantly rambling thoughts.  And then it's over, a quick 10-minute intro session.

“Mindfulness is really a training in awareness," says Rusnak.

"Quite often we operate on autopilot and we’re not aware that we have options," she says, "and that’s where stress can really get the better of us.”

Stress.

It’s what our ancestors felt when a lion leapt out of the bush.  That fight or flight impulse is nowadays triggered any time we pull into traffic, run late for an appointment, or face yet another impossible deadline.

Rusnak’s mindfulness training is part of a study that’s measuring whether meditation can reduce one of the most common effects of this chronic stress, high blood pressure.

Mindfulness for stress reduction

It’s called the Serenity Study.

Dr. David Fresco is a professor of psychological sciences at Kent State University and adjunct associate professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine.
Credit DAVID FRESCO

Kent State University psychology professor David Fresco is the project leader.

"At a neurobehavioral level," he says, meditation changes, "the way your attention circuits work in the brain so that you are better able to focus on what’s important, you’re better able to let go of the things that might be troubling, or you can bring your attention to bear on the things that require your immediate attention.”

Fresco says people selected for the Serenity Study are typically one doctor’s visit away from being put on high blood pressure medicine, so first, he puts them on a healthy diet.  Then, they’re given a choice of receiving health coaching, or a program of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

The federally funded study is on-going, so Fresco doesn’t have results yet, other than the observation that doctors in Ohio are pretty aggressive in prescribing anti-hypertension drugs.

“We’re having a harder time recruiting because a lot of people who might otherwise have participated have already started this medication.”

Fresco has completed several other studies using meditation to treat disorders like depression and anxiety, and he says those results are encouraging.

"Mindfulness is really a training in awareness."

He’s using a program he developed called Emotion Regulation Therapy to teach patients to separate themselves from their thoughts and emotions - to simply observe them, and let them go.

He says it’s a simple practice, but not easy.

“You’re training the mind to attend better, and then you’re deploying those abilities in specific skills to notice the good, the bad, and ugly that happens every day and choose the ways you’re going to relate to it.”

Meditation has been shown to have numerous health benefits, for the body, brain, and the mind...as long as there's no traffic.
Credit NICKOLAI KASHIRIN / FLICKR CC

Meditation and the brain's wiring
Fresco says meditating is like going to the gym.

“I often talk to patients about it - it’s a muscle and you are conditioning a muscle.”

Well, it’s not really building muscle, according to David Creswell, director of the Health and Human Performance Laboratory at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, but meditation can change the structure of the brain.

He says people who meditate a lot can grow tissue in the frontal cortex, the brain’s executive center, and shrink the hot-button emotional center, the amygdala, and change how it’s wired.

“Mindfulness meditation training turns down how the amygdala talks with other brain regions that are central in driving this fight or flight response in the brain,” says Creswell.

Creswell says meditation has been successfully used to treat psoriasis, HIV symptoms, and chronic pain by curtailing stress hormones and the chemicals that cause inflammation.

A stronger mind
Clinical psychologist David Fresco says like any other workout regimen, building a healthy mind takes commitment, but has major payoffs.

“The more you practice," he says, the better able you are, "to harness that muscle and use it and not feel winded when you are confronted with something stressful.”

Stress is a normal part of life, but researchers like Fresco say we can moderate our physical response to stress by learning mindfulness. And by using the mind to pay attention to the present moment, he says, we actually build a healthier brain.