Meditation & Mindfulness for Stress Reduction
by Sarah McEwen, PhD
Reducing stress to improve brain health is achieved by lowering the cortisol-driven stress response in the body and mind.
Cortisol is a stress hormone that acts as a neurotransmitter responsible for chemical communications in the brain. The breakdown of chemical signaling in the brain due to excess cortisol results in neurological symptoms such as memory loss, depression, fatigue and insomnia. In addition, a whole host of physical symptoms may be attributed to high cortisol some of which include weight gain, acne, high blood pressure and high blood sugar.
During our evaluation, if we find that elevated cortisol levels are due to underlying disease such as Cushing’s disease, our experts across Pacific Neuroscience Institute’s centers of excellence can provide the appropriate consultation and treatment.
For stress related to everyday living, the Pacific Brain Health Center offers stress reduction techniques that help regulate cortisol levels to achieve emotional equilibrium and prevent brain cell damage. This works by:
- Reduction of cortisol stress hormone
- Reduction of cortisol releasing factor
- Deactivation of the stress response in the body
Mindfulness and Brain Function
Becoming More Mindful Through Meditation To Increase Brain Power
Mindfulness training is a widely accessible activity which is deeply rooted in centuries old Buddhist meditation practices. Scientific inquiry into understanding the neuroscience behind this ancient spiritual practice, specifically, “Contemplative Neuroscience” has applied leading-edge neuroimaging techniques showing that regular, mindfulness meditation practice increases aspects of brain function and structure that tend to decline with normal aging.
This includes areas in the prefrontal cortex, responsible for organization, planning, and attention, as well as the hippocampus, responsible for learning and memory, all of which tend to decline in size and activity over time.
Addional supporting research shows that mindfulness meditation strengthens brain activity and connectivity, psychological well-being, as well as brain volume. These data indicate that meditation can counteract memory issues and general cognitive decline associated with Mild Cognitive Impairment and dementia.
How Mindfulness Helps The Brain Function More Efficently
Mindfulness can be described as a way of training attention and fostering awareness. This can be done through a formal attention training program (mindfulness meditation) or the informal practice and application of being more attentive and engaged during daily activities.
When the brain is not engaged in higher order thinking processess it activates the mind’s default mode network (DMN) which can be conceptualized as the brain involved in self-related thinking and mind wandering.
Excess time in the default mode network has been connected to lower mental health outcomes and higher levels of amyloid-beta deposits (connected to onset of Alzheimer’s disease) in the brain. Luckily, mindfulness training can reduce default mode activity, while stimulating other aspects of healthy brain function.
Cognitive processes refers to mental functions that are used to interact with the world around us and perform tasks involved in everyday life. Certain aspects of cognitive processes such as attention, cognitive flexibility, and self-awareness can decline with age. However, mindfulness has been shown to improve these cognitive processes.
Research has shown that becoming more aware of your mental states increases activity in the prefrontal cortex and helps you better regulate your emotional center in your brain (the amydala). Additionally, the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex (the CEO of the brain) works in concert with posterior regions in the brain to help seasoned meditators strengthen the brain network that allows us to pay attention to a task at hand and ignore distractions.
Improving well-being through meditation
Combating regular stress is critical to healthy aging. When not regulated or controlled, stress can contribute to inflammation, neurodenegerative factors, excess cortisol secretion, and lead to an overall increase in risk for dementia and cognitive decline.
Meditation can stave off the negative effects of stress, and increase neuroprotective compounds in the brain, such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and boosting cognitive reserve.
A 2014 review paper found that amongst 47 well-conducted studies of structured meditation training, short meditation programs of about 8 weeks lead to reduced anxiety, depression, stress, pain and improved quality of life.
- Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being
- A Yoga Program for Cognitive Enhancement
- The Effects of Mindfulness on Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment
- The Effects of Mindfulness on Persons with Mild Cognitive Impairment: Protocol for a Mixed-Methods Longitudinal Study
Mindfulness and Meditation Programs
Choosing A Meditation Program
There are many different types of mindfulness training programs that exist as formal practices or as informal adjunctive ways to enhance daily activities. Both formal and informal types of mindfulness can include:
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction
- Psychotherapy for anxiety and/or depression
- Individual and/or group
- Psychotherapy for anxiety and/or depression
- Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy
- Meditation Techniques
- Mindful movement
- Tai chi
- Qi Gong
- Music therapy
Mindfulness training has also now become available outside of conventional instructor led training settings and has been translated into home-based mobile applications which can be done anywhere and are low cost and simple to follow. Some mindfulness mobile health mobile phone applications (Apps) available include:
- Brain Sync Audio
- Muse – the brain sensing headband
- Los Angeles-based meditation/mindful movement centers:
At the Pacific Brain Health Center we work closely with our patients to understand their rationale and outcomes desired to engage in a mindfulness-based program and will help you to arrive at the training modality that best fits your needs.
About the Author
Sarah McEwen, PhD
Sarah McEwen, PhD, NSCA-CPT, is a Cognitive Psychologist and Senior Research Scientist at the Pacific Brain Health Center. Her specialty is the study of physical activity and cognitive enhancement interventions to investigate biological, behavioral and health-related outcomes in patients suffering from cognitively debilitating disorders.
Last updated: November 24th, 2020