Manage emotions with meditation
How the brain processes emotions is a fascinating and not entirely understood subject. Our senses transmit information to the brain, our body’s central processing unit, which gives instructions to the body on how to react. A car screeches to a halt, barely missing a pedestrian, and the driver’s body reacts with fear and anxiety – complete with increased heart rate, dilated pupils and rapid breathing. A friend is diagnosed with cancer and we become sad, responding physically with slower metabolism and feelings of tiredness, while the tear ducts go into high production mode.
It is part of life to experience the gamut of positive and negative emotions, but problems arise when our emotions “hijack” (1) our brains, which leads to poor decision-making. Mindful meditation has been recently studied and found to effectively counter emotional hijacking by actually reducing response by the brain’s emotion center, the amygdala.
Mindfulness meditation reduces response in the amygdala
The amygdala has a primary role in emotional reactions: it’s responses to external stimuli determine how we feel emotionally and physically. Gaëlle Desbordes, research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital, found that receiving instruction in meditation actually reduces the amygdala’s responses to emotional stimuli, even when the mind is not in a meditative state. Healthy adults with no experience meditating were given an eight-week course in either a mindfulness meditation practice, a compassion meditation practice or a health education course (control group). Within three weeks prior to the course and three weeks after, brain scans were performed on participants while they viewed more than 200 images portraying positive, negative and neutral emotional content.
Meditation was not mentioned or suggested to the MRI participants, but the mindfulness meditation group showed a decrease in response in the right amygdala to all images.Those in the compassion meditation group had mixed results, and the control group had no change at all.
This suggests that training in mindfulness meditation can result in increased emotional stability and control over emotional reaction. (2)
Mindfulness meditation tops opioids for pain reduction in one study
Another study showed that mindfulness meditation can reduce perceived emotional and physical pain. Dr. Fadel Zeidan, at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, tested 75 healthy subjects and scanned their brains while they experienced pain from a 120-degree thermal probe. The subjects were divided into two placebo groups (“sham” meditation training, which was essentially deep breathing, and a petroleum jelly cream that participants believed to be a pain-reducing cream), one control group (which listened to an unrelated and boring book on tape), and the study group, which received four days of mindfulness meditation training. They were then subjected to the painful thermal probe once more.
The results were quite surprising. Participants were asked to evaluate pain and emotional unpleasantness from the probe before and after the study. Except for the control group, all groups experienced pain reduction and attenuated emotional unpleasantness. Mindful meditation cut pain by 27% and emotional discomfort by 44%. Researchers were floored by these numbers, as morphine has been shown to lessen pain in similar studies by 22%. The sham mindfulness group reported 9% less physical pain and 24% less emotional pain; the placebo cream group had 11% less physical pain and 13% less emotional pain. (3)
There is more than one way to practice mindfulness, but the goal of any mindfulness technique is to achieve a state of alert, focused relaxation by deliberately paying attention to thoughts and sensations without judgment. This allows the mind to refocus on the present moment. All mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation.
Basic mindfulness meditation
Sit quietly and focus on your natural breathing or on a word or “mantra” that you repeat silently. Allow thoughts to come and go without judgment and return to your focus on breath or mantra.
Notice subtle body sensations such as an itch or tingling without judgment and let them pass. Notice each part of your body in succession from head to toe.
Notice sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and touches. Name them “sight,” “sound,” “smell,” “taste,” or “touch” without judgment and let them go.
Allow emotions to be present without judgment. Practice a steady and relaxed naming of emotions: “joy,” “anger,” “frustration.” Accept the presence of the emotions without judgment and let them go.
Cope with cravings (for addictive substances or behaviors) and allow them to pass. Notice how your body feels as the craving enters. Replace the wish for the craving to go away with the certain knowledge that it will subside.
[Source: Benefits of Mindfulness. HelpGuide.org. Accessed Sept. 30, 2016.]
Want a little visual help? Try these two videos:
Guided mindful meditation
Tranquil mindfulness bell video accompanied by a Tibetan singing bowl struck repeatedly with a soft mallet:
Cool stuff on the brain and how it changes as we learn new skills, including meditation:
- “Amygdala hijack” was coined by psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence: Why it Can Matter More than IQ. 1995.
- Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TWW, Wallace BA, Raison CL and Schwartz EL. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Front Hum Neurosci. 2012;6:292.
- Zeidan F, Emerson NM, Farris SR, Ray JN, Jung Y, McHaffie JG & Coghill, RC. Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief employes different neural mechanisms than placebo and sham mindfulness meditation-induced analgesia. The Journal of Neurosciehce, Nov 18, 2015;35(46):1530-15325.