You’ve probably heard the term “mindfulness” batted around, and although you might have a vague sense that it’s something that could be helpful in your life, you may not be entirely sure what it means.
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As a mindfulness teacher in an elementary school, when I tell most adults what I do, it often dawns on me that the practice of mindfulness is not widely understood. Although it may seem mystical or ethereal in nature, what my students are mostly learning is how to best utilize their own brains.
Mindfulness in its most basic definition is simply the practice of paying attention to the present moment, on purpose. The present moment can encompass bodily sensations such as the breath, heartbeat, and surrounding sounds and smells, as well as emotions and thoughts.
Studies have shown (The Hawn Foundation, MindUP Mindfulness Training Program for Educators and Children), that the practice of mindfulness in schools improves student memory, behavior, concentration, attendance, and overall happiness. But why? Because by mastering the skill of noticing the present moment, including their own feelings and reactions, students are learning how to calm the reactionary area of their brain that triggers them to become upset. We adults can equally benefit from this practice.
Inside each hemisphere of our brains is a small, almond-shaped mass of gray matter known as the amygdala. The amygdala is the brain’s alarm system—it responds to stress triggers with the primal reactions of fight, flight, or freeze. The amygdala doesn’t differentiate between big and little stressors (an argument with a loved one can be registered as equally stressful as being chased by a bear). Once it is activated, however, the amygdala blocks the brain’s pre-frontal cortex and impedes our ability to think clearly and logically.
Luckily, the amygdala has a signal which indicates it can stop sounding the alarm: oxygen. Deep breaths flood the brain with oxygen and literally help us think more clearly. Learning to stop and take several deep breaths in the midst of a stressful situation is one of the most important lessons my mindfulness students have incorporated into their lives. Even though we’ve all heard, “Just breathe!” a thousand times, it’s helpful to understand the brain mechanisms behind that common advice.
As I’ve heard from my students as young as five years old, we all face a myriad of stressors each day no matter how old we are. And being able to separate our panicky thoughts and amygdala-based reactions to those stressors from the less-dramatic reality of the situation is a skill that can be mastered with practice. In moments of stress, simply pausing to take a few deep breaths, placing your hand on your heart, and becoming aware of the present moment is often enough to shift your initial reaction into a mindful response. Ultimately, the practice of mindfulness can help us feel more empowered and in control of our experience of life.