(347) 506-1612 DrWolkin@BrainCurves.com
Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

Repost: Mind Wandering: Wondering With Purpose

This post originally appeared in The Jewish Week

Have you ever lost your train of thought and found it elsewhere? How about “spaced-out” while reading, listening to a lecture, watching a show or even driving?

This could be your mind, wandering.

Mind Wandering refers to the phenomenon of being unable to focus on any single topic for a long period of time. As it turns out, it is very common. There is even evidence that indicates that mind wandering may constitute a psychological baseline; research shows that our brains’ daydream so easily and effortlessly that it appears to be our default mode of thought (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17188554).

MindWandering_PicIn a culture obsessed with efficiency, a wandering mind is often derided as a lazy habit, and a threat to happiness. In fact, Freud regarded mind wandering as an example of “infantile” thinking, a sign of procrastination, the very opposite of productivity. In a similar vein, in 2010, Killingsworth and Gilbert wrote in Sciencemag.org that: “A human mind is a wandering mind, and a wandering mind is an unhappy mind (http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/application_uploads/KILLINGSWORTH-WanderingMind.pdf) .”

Yet, on the flip side, a study from the University of British Columbia found that while mind wandering is usually associated with “laziness or inattentiveness,” the human brain is actually very active while daydreaming. (https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/05/090511180702.htm).

In that study, psychologists used brain scans to study participants as they performed easy, mindless assignments and found that their brains did indeed wander – but it was also during that period that the section of the brain known as the “executive network” was the most active.

This executive network, incidentally, is what we turn to when confronted with a high-level, complex problem. So daydreaming, according to this study, could help us solve some of our most pressing problems.

This suggests that mind wandering isn’t quite as mindless as it was previously considered. A daydream seems to produce parallel processing in two supposedly oppositional neural networks: the active executive part and the resting default.

How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? Let’s consider that the explanation resides in the fact that it’s not enough to simply daydream. Letting the mind drift off is the easy part. What’s much more difficult (and more important) is maintaining a touch of meta-awareness, so that if you happen to come up with a useful new idea while in the shower or sitting in traffic, you’re able to take note of it. In other words, “zoning out” might not be such a bad thing, as long as there is a conscious ability to hone and nurture what happens during that time.

To take this even further, research suggests that if we are somewhat mindful of where our minds are, without judgment, of course, the act of mind wandering might be essential to conjuring deep thoughts essential to living a connected and balanced life.

So, in an ironic riff on the idea that mindfulness is rooted in being “here and now”, when we are mindful of our mind wandering, it becomes functional.

I can’t help but realize how apropos this idea is during the time of the Jewish festival of Sukkot (“Huts”). This holiday is literally the quintessential WANDERING holiday! It commemorates the time that the Israelites spent wandering (yep, wandering) in the desert. The only shelter that they had at that time was from the temporary huts, or dwellings, that they erected during their 40-year journey.

What makes the journey distinctive is that while traveling in the desert, the Israelites were not wandering aimlessly from place to place, though it might have appeared that way.  They were consciously connected to something greater than themselves. In the desert, for the first time in their history, they truly grew into one nation connected to their ancestry and progeny, to their culture and religion, and to a “higher power.”

In today’s day and age, The flimsy sukkah structure returns those who observe the holiday to this time in Jewish history, while also catapulting us into our future as we make new memories for the next generation.

In addition to this generational interconnectedness, dwelling in this transient “home” also connects us to the tenuous nature of life. Just as our thoughts come and go, so does life. The temporary sukkah reflects our impermanence. Yet, sitting in the sukkah symbolizes at once the fragility of life, and also all that is at our fingertips to celebrate, if we choose to be mindful of it. This is the real beauty of the sukkah; that in the midst of the transience, there is the opportunity to experience joy and hope.

In honoring the nomadic, wandering lifestyle and in building our literal and metaphorical “sukkah,” we are allowing ourselves to continue to connect ourselves with our past, present, and fruitful future.

So go ahead, I dare you…wander.

Let’s wander toward thriving, together,

mysignature

 

 

Dr. Jen/Jennifer Wolkin, PhD

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

Repost: Zen and The Art of Dissertation Writing: A journey towards mindful-living through yoga and metaphor

This blog post originally appeared on YogaCity.

Trying to write my dissertation jolted me into a realm of self-blame and self-criticism.  I procrastinated because it was a burden, a dragon whose fiery mouth I wanted to avoid at all cost.  I was anxious and I struggled with that internal voice of doubt that whispered, “are you sure you are good enough for this?”

Early on, immersing myself didn’t feel good.  I definitely did not expect it to be easy. Nothing worth doing gets done without hard work ever is – but I certainly couldn’t have predicted the negative energy that I allowed the dissertation to create.

So I avoided it in an attempt to make all the negativity disappear. Of course, the more I avoided it, the bigger it became.

Then I began to devote myself to a modest practice of yoga to find more tranquility, focus, and calm. At first it was nearly impossible. My mind raced with thoughts: thoughts of fear, uncertainty, worthlessness, inability to succeed, and even thoughts about thoughts.

My initial poses were haphazard, pretzel-like and ungraceful.  My breath pattern was  quick and shallow, reflecting my difficulty holding the asanas as my mind strayed in all directions.  “At least,” I kept telling myself, “I was coming to the mat.”

As long as I carved out my space, a little rectangular niche of my neon green rubber yoga mat, I was going to be okay.  By the time savasana approached I could at least surrender my self-deprecating thoughts to some indescribable energy created by the convergent effects of movement and breath.

Yoga gave me perspective, which I craved, and I began to practice up to four days a week. Soon, the natural progression of my day became a yoga practice and then hours of writing.  The energy generated through yoga was evident in the organization of my thought and ability for my thought to be transferred coherently into words.  To do yoga and then write was a logical pattern I fell into.

Ultimately, I chose to bring my journey both off the mat, and out from behind my computer. I let go of the striving to finish it, and the attitude of just “needing to get this done and over with.”  Slowly but steadily learned to reinforce the small steps, as I remembered my practice and the way my once quick and shallow breath slowed down and became more melodic, deep, and visceral, to the little baby steps I made with my balance until my physical core and my spiritual core became stronger.

In this way, the yoga was an organic foray into learning about mindfulness and how to engage any process through a more mindful lens. As I cultivated my ability to focus on the breath as I moved in and out of asana, my mind wandered less; instead, I became present to the moment as it was unfolding.   Being present, it turned out, was more enjoyable and fulfilling than remaining on autopilot, and, at the whim of my wandering mind.  With the same practice off the mat, the dissertation no longer became something I just did, but became a journey, which I appreciated and sometimes even savored, at every stage.

Yoga practice fostered a lens by which I could see my dissertation as a metaphor for living life in general.  That is, as Jon Kabat-Zinn says, “on purpose.”

In the end, neither yoga nor mindfulness will eliminate life’s pressures.  Yet, take it from me: embracing life as a journey of poignant moments to be lived fully over the course of a lifetime makes me feel like I’m thriving.

Repost: 4 Lessons in Mindfulness from the Olympians

Repost: 4 Lessons in Mindfulness from the Olympians

This post originally appeared on Mindful.org

When you watch the Olympics, you can’t help but imagine the countless hours of training all of the athletes have devoted themselves to in order to accomplish the unfathomable feats of stamina, incomprehensible shows of endurance, and extraordinary acts of skill.

And that kind of rigorous training, steeped in competition, often can’t be fully actualized without training the mind as well.

Some of the athletes have been vocal about their penchant for mindfulness meditation as an integral part of their quest for gold. For example, Tom Daley, a diver from Great Britain, told the Telegraph: “You can only do so much in the gym or in the pool.” He continued, “Every morning I do 10 minutes of mindfulness where I do meditation and I use that in competition and every day life… It’s helped me massively and I feel like that’s one of the reasons why this year I’ve been the most consistent that I’ve been in competition.”

Other athletes might be practicing mindfulness without knowing that’s what they’re doing—they just experience the flow state that comes with focused attention.

But what’s clear is that the very mindful way these athletes approach their craft can be seen in their actions. Here are 4 lessons in mindfulness we can learn from the Olympians:

  1. Focused Attention is a Skill

    A main component of mindfulness is that it helps cultivate awareness by paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment.

    If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing).These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being. This kind of thinking is unhelpful for an athlete who can’t stop thinking about their last failed performance, or one who can’t stop obsessing over what this performance will mean going forward.Have you ever heard a sports announcer say that an athlete must have “been in his head” too much – which caused them to make a simple mistake, but one that cost them the game or race? When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.

    This year, Wilhem Belocian of France, bolted a split second before competitors. The false-start alarm rang out, and the 21-year-old’s hopes of winning a medal in Brazil were over. It was heartbreaking to watch as he collapsed to the ground and punched the pavement before laying on his back with his hands over his face, clearly in agony.

    Present moment awareness, honed, is true gift. Equally important is allowing ourselves to grieve, and then forgive ourselves, and move on

  2. Compassion is Essential

    Mindfulness is more than sitting on a cushion, eyes closed, back aligned, thumbs grazing forefingers, hands resting on thighs. No doubt, this is a feasible and efficient way to cultivate mindfulness, but it’s not the only way.The essence of mindfulness practice is learning to live with more integrity, by nurturing the power to choose our response in any given situation. We begin to live mindfully when we start to cultivate a way of being that embodies mindfulness-based principles like gratitude, loving-kindness, and compassion.

    When we are too focused on what we need to do to win, we lose ourselves in that thought and forget to remain in the moment.

    For an Olympic athlete, this kind of mindfulness practice is perhaps most reflected in the ability to engage in “good sportsmanship.”A prime example of this is reflected in the actions of Abbey D’Agostino, a Team USA 5,000-meter runner, and Nikki Hamblin of New Zealand. They both collided during a run, fell, and subsequently chose to spend the rest of the race encouraging one another, despite the fact that this had the potential to snuff out either’s chance to qualify for the next run. If someone who has trained and competed for years for this spot can forgive and help out their competition, surely we can see the bigger picture in our own lives as well.

  3. Stress is Manageable

    Stress-reduction has been noted as a useful byproduct of the practice of mindfulness.

    But an appropriate amount of stress is actually adaptive. For athletes especially, the stress-response (also knows as “fight or flight”) elicits an acute surge of adrenaline, and stimulates an increase of blood pumping to the limbs, which helps them as they race towards the finish line. While this mental pressure to beat out the competition is often crucial to success, sometimes the physiological stress response never turns off, and for many of us, stress begins to take the form of negative and unhelpful thinking styles that are often paralyzing.That’s where mindfulness comes in.

    A foundational element of mindfulness entails focusing on the sensation of the breath. Engaging the breath provides an opportunity to help lower your heart rate. Diaphragmatic breathing, or “belly breathing,” utilizes the diaphragm, and allows for a fuller, slower, and more rhythmical breath. This is a technique used to reduce stress by breaking shallow patterns of breathing that use the abdomen and the chest. It works, because the breath is intimately connected to the autonomic nervous system and the mind

  4. Autopilot is Detrimental to Your Health

    The practice of cultivating our attention to the present moment also prevents us from living on autopilot. When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.For an athlete, who is constantly putting their body through high-intensity training, it can be easy to let minor sensations slide, as the adrenaline itself drowns out some experience of acute pain. Mindfulness particularly allows an athlete to cultivate an acute awareness of their body, to know when and how to take care of it; when it needs a break, when it’s okay to push harder, when it needs to refuel, and when it needs a longer respite to heal.

    When we live on autopilot we often fail to notice our automatic thoughts, our innermost feelings, and the subtle physical messages that our bodies send us.

    To use Abbey D’Agostino as an amazing example again, after tearing ligaments in her knee, she understood that her season was over. But her message that it is more important to honor where her body is at, than to put it through activity that might exacerbate her injury beyond repair, prevailed nonetheless, and to many, she is still an Olympic winner—the true embodiment of what it means to be an athlete on the world stage.

    Sometimes life takes us out of the race that we are in, out of the path we saw ourselves on, but at the same time, this change allows us instead to succeed in things we never imagined.

Go For the Gold

We all have our own golden pursuits. And we all have our own hurdles in life to jump, targets to aim for, and sand traps to avoid. But the real gold medal is a life of thriving, cultivated by paying attention to fully living and enjoying every moment. It really isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey that we take to get there.

How will you take these Olympic gold messages with you as you reach for your life goals?

Repost: What Is Mindfulness (And how can it help you?)

Repost: What Is Mindfulness (And how can it help you?)

This blog post originally appeared on About Meditation.

about meditation mindfulness

As a psychologist, I often use elements of mindfulness practice with my clients, and before I do, I talk to them about what mindfulness actually means and how it can help cultivate wellbeing.

In today’s day and age, mindful and mindfulness are buzzwords that are used colloquially. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been told to “BE MINDFUL.”

Yet, what is mindfulness and what does it really mean?

What Is Mindfulness?

There are many definitions. My favorite is the one posited by John Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of Mindfulness Meditation’s use in Western psychological interventions. He proposes that mindfulness is “a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Part of why I like this definition is because it speaks to the components of mindfulness that are important in cultivating its benefits.

Let’s break this definition down.

On Purpose

When we don’t hone our focus, as Kabat-Zinn says, on purpose, we remain on autopilot. In this busy, hyper-connected world it’s too easy to lose ourselves in autopilot for much of the day….every day. Living this way we often fail to:

  1. Notice the beauty of life
  2. Hear what our bodies are telling us and
  3. Get stuck in mechanical ways of thinking and living that may be harmful to ourselves or others

When we’re in autopilot mode we get lost in ‘doing’ so we find ourselves striving and struggling and ‘getting stuff done’ instead of living.

In contrast, when we are attentive on purpose, we start to live more consciously. We’re more awake and more fully ourselves.

In this age of mass distraction, there is nothing more important. There are so many ways to disconnect and distract ourselves from ourselves. We easily disperse our energy, leaving little or none leftover to nurture ourselves.

In The Present Moment

If left to its own devices, our human mind habitually wanders away from the present moment. When we’re not in the here and now, we dwell in the past, grasping and replaying it, or we project into the future, trying to anticipate the unknown (and often catastrophizing). These habitual thought patterns don’t serve our ultimate well-being.

When we don’t allow ourselves to attend to the present, we:

  1. Place ourselves at greater risk for depression and anxiety, because we ruminate and regret the past or fantasize about the future.
  2. Fail to notice what our bodies and minds are telling us at the deepest levels.

We like to hang out in the past, because although sometimes painful, it’s known and comfortable. Or, we hang out in the future, because we think we can control it!

Instead, when we’re mindful, we hone our clarity and focus as we attend to every sensation as it unfolds, engaged and undistracted in the present moment experience. We let go of the tension caused by wanting things to have been or to be different, and instead we accept the present moment as it is.

Non-Judgmentally

When practicing mindfulness, we’re not trying to control, suppress, or stop our thoughts. I believe this is the biggest misconception many of us have when delving into practice.

Through mindfulness we don’t want to push our thoughts away. Rather, mindfulness helps us to pay attention to our experiences as they arise without judging or labeling them in any way. This, I think, is the essence of mindfulness.

When we cultivate a state of clarity in which we suspend judgment, we become witnesses and watchers of our present moment experience. Sure, there’s temptation to judge our experience as good or bad. Yet, letting go of judgments helps us to see things as they are rather than through the filters of our patterned and conditioned modes of thinking. This way, we are less likely to mechanically play out old habitual ways of thinking and living.

In the end, mindfulness doesn’t eliminate life’s pressures, but it can help us respond to them in a less reactive, more adaptive and healthy way. It will help us recognize and step away from unconscious emotional and physiological reactions to everyday experiences.

It also provides us with a scientifically researched approach to cultivating clarity, insight, and understanding. Practicing mindfulness allows us to be fully present in our life and work, and improve our quality of life.

Mindful Breathing

Many have found that one of the surest ways to begin to hone clarity and focus is to pay attention to the one thing that is always within us, our breath. By paying attention to the breath we learn to stay present with it.  At the same time, we learn to let go of the judgments when our focus is challenged. During this personally curated exercise, I help you become acutely aware of the sensation of diaphragmatic breathing. By breathing fully through your diaphragm, you are creating a relaxed physiological state. By sustaining your attention on the breath, you are training your mind to focus on this sensation as it unfolds in the moment.

Screen Shot 2016-07-11 at 2.40.44 PM

Repost: Love Was Love That Night…Until Hate Walked In: Mindful Grieving After Tragedy

Repost: Love Was Love That Night…Until Hate Walked In: Mindful Grieving After Tragedy

This blog post originally appeared in The Huffington Post.

Screen Shot 2016-06-22 at 10.57.38 AM

I feel extraordinary heartbroken at the news of the shooting death of at least 49 human beings who came together in a place they felt safe; a place whose four walls bore witness to love without its shackles.  The Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida was a place in which lovers could hold hands and kiss, to revel in a feeling of belonging without the still all-to-common threats of discrimination, alienation, and condescension. Inside those doors love was love, until hate walked in.

Hate walked in and obliterated this sanctuary, tearing apart lives that he thought were less worthwhile than his own, and infiltrated the heart and soul of a community and greater world who has had to fight for its birthright; to love and be loved.  This is what hate does. He is at once insidious and blatantly hostile, unrelenting, unforgiving, and lacks a conscience. He is heartless and mindless, self-serving and sadistic to the core.

As I grapple with the way hate snuffed the life out of so many vibrant beings this past Sunday, I grieve.  I am at once angry, anxious, sad, and shocked. You see, tragedies like these reverberate in the hearts and minds of much of humanity, as it rips through the basic foundation that we lay our trust upon. That is, we don’t expect people to just shoot other human beings in cold blood because of who they are and whom they love.

I am struggling with how to grieve along side you. My own journey of grief includes humbly offering all of us some words about grief from a psychological perspective, and providing five ways to grieve mindfully.

What Grief Is and Isn’t

Psychologically speaking, according to Dr. Kubler-Ross (1969), “Grief is an emotional response to loss.”

This emotional response is conceptualized as a non-linear expression of different stages of feeling states including Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance (aka: “DABDA”).

Biologically speaking, grief is a homeostatic process, a journey that our mind, brain, and body need to engage in, to best recover from the trauma of a loss. This is an evolutionary need, since attachment and connection to others is embedded within our limbic circuitry. Yes, whether we are conscious of it or not, or like it or not, relationships deeply imprint upon our neural circuitry.

Grief is not, by any means, a one-size-fits-all kind of process. In fact, it is a uniquely individual process that often feels amorphous and difficult to capture with words. When it comes to grief, there is no “normal” or typical way to go through it, and despite what some believe, in my opinion, there is no “normal” time period allotted for grief.

It takes a boat-load of self-compassion to allow oneself to feel whatever it is you are feeling at any given time, without judgment, without comparison to another’s explicit portrayal of their own process. In this way, to grieve is to be mindful of our own thoughts and feelings.

While there is no one “right” way to grieve, to actually grieve is essential for our ability to employ our human capacity to find a renewed sense of meaning. Grief elicits resilience and the capacity to continue to hold this tragedy in our hearts and minds, while still forging forward with purpose and direction.

Five ways to Grieve Mindfully

  1. Accept your feelings: Allow yourself to feel what you feel at any given moment, with a sense of self-compassion, and without judgment.
  2. Express your feelings: Just as important as accepting your feelings, is expressing them in a way that is helpful to you. Journaling, talking about the experience, scrapbooking, or dancing, for example, are helpful ways to process grief instead of allowing the feelings to stay stuck.
  3. Reach out: During this time, it is important to reach out in multiple ways. Reach out for guidance from a spiritual counselor or a psychologist. Reach out to share stories of your loved one with others. Reach out to offer support to other grievers. Find a balance between being with yourself, and being with others, but ultimately, reach out – don’t isolate.
  4. Continue to take care of yourself and others. Living life while grieving often feels like scaling a mountain. Grieving takes energy and can often feel draining. As much as possible during this tough time, continue to eat well, exercise, and maintain wellness practices.
  5. Celebrate life: It is important through the grief process to keep the memory of the tragic incident alive in some way that inspires healing, but also reflects and honors your mourning process. This can include donating to a charity, meditating on behalf of a loved one or a community, and even planting a tree in honor of the tragedy.

 

At times like this, many of us are also challenged in our own grieving process to try to explain the unexplainable to others in our life. I, therefore, invite you to also read my post: Five Strategies to Help Us Help Our Children And Ourselves In Times of Trauma.

Today, together as one world and one nation, we are grieving. Here are some resources so that we may process this horrific tragedy together. You are not alone.

Orlando:

  • Victim Service Center of Central Florida

https://www.victimservicecenter.org/

  •  APG Health Behavioral Healthcare

http://www.apghealth.com/

  •  Psychology Today List of Support and Grief Groups for Victims and Families

https://groups.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?city=Orlando&spec=14

NYC:

  • Center for Bereavement

http://www.centerforbereavement.com/

  • NYC Innovations in Mental Health List of Bereavement Groups

http://newyorkcity.ny.networkofcare.org/mh/services/subcategory.aspx?tax=PN-8100.1000

  • Psychology Today List of Support and Grief Groups for Victims and Families

https://groups.psychologytoday.com/rms/prof_results.php?state=NY&spec=14

 

If you don’t see what you are looking for, and need a referral to a psychologist or a support network during this time, please directly reach out to me with your name and a brief paragraph regarding the type of help you are seeking.  I will help you find a safe space to grieve. Please contact me at DrWolkin@BrainCurves.com.

With pure love for all my fellow mourners,

Jennifer Wolkin, PhD

Repost: The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD

Repost: The Science of Trauma, Mindfulness, and PTSD

This blog post originally appeared on Mindful.org

Screen Shot 2016-06-17 at 5.07.10 PM

 

If we were able to prove that individuals suffering from PTSD are experiencing reversible neurological changes, would that help to alleviate any taboo associated with trauma, so sufferers are able to get the treatment they need? New treatment protocols for PTSD that integrate mindfulness techniques may make that a possibility in the near future.

Mindfulness-based techniques in this context have recently gained traction with the support of more empirical findings. Overall, there is a lot of evidence supporting mindfulness as a treatment approach for adults with PTSD, and a recent burgeoning literature corroborating positive neurological changes is following suit.

First, I want to define trauma and PTSD.

Trauma Defined:

Trauma is a broad term, and according to the American Psychological Association (APA), it is an emotional response to a terrible event. Unfortunately, said terrible event can constitute a plethora of possibilities, including combat, rape, natural disasters, and assaults. There are other potentially traumatic events, and though less talked about, are no less palpable. Ultimately, any event might be considered traumatic if you have experienced and/or witnessed a threat to your life, your body, your moral integrity, or had a close encounter with violence or death.

Usually, when we are faced with danger, we go into fight-or-flight mode, during which our bodies release hormones to help us act faster, to either fight or flee. Trauma inhibits this very normal and evolutionary response to danger. What trauma does, instead, is elicit a profound sense of helplessness, during which one feels paralyzed from doing anything to be relieved from the circumstance.

PTSD Defined:

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD, is described as a severe response to trauma, and it is most powerfully characterized by three prominent symptoms, which include:

  1. Re-experiencing the event
  2. Avoiding any reminders of the event, or feeling emotionally numb
  3. Hyper-arousal, which consists of a very sensitive startle response

In addition to these three expressions of symptoms, PTSD causes a huge deal of distress and severely limits functioning in many different domains of life. As its name implies, PTSD is technically a “disorder”, and it is listed in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5).

I respect the need to classify something as a disorder in order for rigorous assessment of specific symptoms that can lead to a comprehensive and individually-tailored treatment plan. Yet, I believe, that there’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom. To hear more about this point of view, listen to this poignant, sensitive and informative interview with Barry Boyce, editor-in-chief of Mindful magazine.

There’s nothing truly disordered about having a reaction to seeing atrocities and tragedies beyond our mind’s ability to fathom.

The Brain and PTSD

In order to understand the neurological implications of PTSD, it is important to quickly parse the concept of neuroplasticity. For many hundreds of years scientists thought that, like physical development, once the brain reached maturity, it ceased to grow and develop in any way.

The modern view is antithetical to this, given research that continues to show ways in which the human brain is in a constant state of change. In this way, it is believed, new experiences actually impact our neural circuitry; that over the course of a life, our brain map reflects new and changing pathways. This idea is expressed eloquently and through case example in one of my favorite books, The Brain that Changes Itself, by Norman Doidge, MD.

Most of us view this notion of a neuroplastic brain through a rose-colored lens. Yes, neuroplasticity affords the brain an opportunity to heal from injury. Let’s not forget, though, that experience can also negatively change someone’s neuro-profile. So, in sync with neuroplastic principles, when trauma is encountered, the brain changes in response to the event in order to cope and adapt to the situation. These brain changes often don’t serve us going forward. While our brain adapts to develop a psychological defense against further trauma, it is not a brain that thrives long-term.

Neurological Components of PTSD

Neuro-imaging techniques, such as MRI and FMRI, have allowed scientists to examine brains of patients suffering from PTSD. Three of the areas impacted by trauma include the

  1. Amygdala
  2. Hippocampus
  3. Pre-frontal cortex (PFC)

 

The amygdala is a structure in the brain’s limbic system (known as the emotional seat of the brain) that helps determine whether or not a threat is approaching, and if so, sends out a danger signal, initiates the fight-or-flight response, and then helps indicate when the threat is gone. When one has experienced trauma, the amygdala remains hyper-alert to even non-threatening stimuli, and activates the fight-or-flight response system despite being safe. While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.

While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.

The hyperactive amygdala is constantly interacting with the hippocampus, the area of brain that plays a role in memory function. Brain scans have found smaller hippocampi in those with PTSD, perhaps reflecting the impaired memory experienced post trauma. Usually, the hippocampus works to connect and organize different aspects of memory, and is responsible for locating the memory of an event in its proper time, place and context. When experiencing PTSD, memory becomes fragmented, and the hippocampus has trouble coherently piecing together memory, from discriminating from past or present, and from integrating memory of experiences with feelings and factual knowledge. This is an extraordinarily distressing component of PTSD and manifests in the form of intrusive memories and flashbacks. Triggering memories provoke the amygdala, maintaining its hyper-activity.

The third area of the brain affected by trauma is the frontal lobe; specifically, the PFC. This area of the brain is involved in regulating behaviors, impulses, emotions, and fear responses. In those with PTSD, the PFC is notably less active and less able to override the hippocampus as it flashes fragments of memory, nor to signal the amygdala that the danger is not real.

As the above research suggests, the neuroplastic brain indeed responds to trauma. As certain areas of the brain become hyperactive, and others deregulated, throwing off the fine-tuned and exquisite orchestration that usually works to keep someone safe from real threats—PTSD is cultivated.

What are the positive benefits of mindfulness for adult patients suffering from PTSD in relation to the brain?

Mindfulness and the Brain:

There is a significant amount of data supporting mindfulness as a treatment approach for patients with PTSD. Much of the literature, however, doesn’t speak to the neurological changes that occur during the mindfulness process. Research regarding mindfulness mediation’s impact upon the brain in general points to changes in brain structure and function that could account for the reduction of symptoms of PTSD.

Changes in Brain Structure:

As I mentioned earlier, deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD in addition to the over activity of the fear center, the amygdala. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.

In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the PFC.

Impact on Brain Function:

A recent study looking at the neural functional impact of mindfulness meditation on those with PTSD implicates the interaction of two “opposing” brain networks in mediating beneficial outcomes.

In this study, 23 male veterans who served in Afghanistan and Iraq were divided into different treatment groups, one of which included mindfulness-based exposure treatment (MBET).

Results indicated that while each treatment group showed promise, the men in the group receiving Mindfulness-Based Exposure Therapy (MBET) experienced actual post-treatment brain changes that indicate mechanisms by which mindfulness could potentially help in the treatment of PTSD.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) indicated that at the start of the study, the veterans showed increased activity in regions associated with perceived external threats. After receiving MBET, fMRI showed increased activity in what is known as the brain’s default mode network (DMN). The DMN consists of interacting brain regions associated with internally focused meandering and wandering thought. Additionally, fMRI also showed that the DMN increased its connections with what’s known as the Executive Network, associated with the purposeful shifting of attention.

Both these networks were working in sync, providing insight into how mindfulness can help people train themselves to get unstuck from a vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.

…Mindfulness can help people train themselves to get unstuck from a vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.

The small sample size, the gender bias of the group, and the inclusion of only veterans means that there is room for much more extensive empirical exploration with regards to mindfulness as applied specifically to those with PTSD.

Mindfulness and PTSD:

Overall, these neural correlates of symptom reduction can potentially shed light on the therapeutic possibility of mindfulness-based treatments going forward. There is, without a doubt, great potential for these treatments in helping people better process trauma, and hopefully decrease a lot of potential suffering.

Yet, a caveat worth heeding: Given the precarious nature of the symptoms of PTSD, the most efficient and safe treatment should only be obtained by a professional. It is my opinion that mindfulness, as an integrative approach under professional supervision, is the most prudent.

In honor of PTSD awareness month, I invite you to learn more about the various aspects of PTSD as it relates to gender, relationships with others, chronic pain, heart health, and brain injury.

Please click here to download my free resource packet on PTSD. Inside you will also find helpful quotes and resources related to trauma and PTSD, and NEW this year, I have included an additional post on an oft-forgotten element of trauma: Post Traumatic Growth.

Download Dr. Wolkin’s BrainCurves: PTSD Reference Packet here.