We live in a world where multiple things are competing for our attention, and it’s easy to get distracted, unfocused and stressed. Depending on how we use and train our mind, it can become our best friend or our worst enemy. Many of us are unaware of how stress or anxiety works in their brain and are even continually thinking when trying to relax in bed. Our minds can keep ‘going’, and sometimes this obsessive thinking can lead to a negative spiral, a dark hole of distress, unhappiness and addiction. These poisoning emotions increase levels of stress, which translates into chronic anxiety and emotional distress.
The problem is chronic stress can lead to an increased craving for anything which can ease this tension – such as alcohol, smoking, illicit drugs, junk food, shopping, gambling, video gaming, and more recently the obsessive overuse of social media.
Stressed people are looking for short-run boosts of dopamine (a chemical released in the brain that makes you feel good), for immediate gratification even, when they know their choices in the long-term will harm their health. For example, the consumption of fast food, rich in an addictive mixture of fat, protein, sugar and salt, seems to induce an immediate reward by activating specific reward-driven dopamine pathways in the brain. Like nicotine and opioids, with time this becomes a compulsive behaviour with loss-of-control over food intake.
Mindful meditation and other brain training techniques can be helpful in overcoming some of these harmful psychological processes. Experiments suggest that learning to observe our thoughts, instead of being carried away by them, improves awareness and subjective well-being. Negative emotions, moodiness, worrying and stress are reduced, while the level of self-esteem and life satisfaction are increased.
Multiple clinical studies have shown the practice of mindfulness meditation has positive effects in the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder, insomnia, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and depression. Sophisticated neuroimaging studies with functional magnetic resonance imaging, suggest regular mindfulness meditation training can alter the function of brain regions involved in self and emotion regulation, body awareness, meta-awareness, memory consolidation and reconsolidation.
The most advanced forms of meditation are focusing on enhancing wellbeing, inner serenity, compassion and kindness. Designed to train our minds to concentrate on a serene, positive and compassionate states of mind, these meditations cultivate a process of greater intimacy with our own interiority.
Starting to practice loving-kindness meditation regularly is essential if we want to develop a state of inner calm and peace of mind. Instead of being like leaves blown here and there by the wind, we can learn to take control of our mind and actively cultivate this source of harmony and wellbeing that originates from within our mind. Learning to be aware, also enhances our self-care, and self-respect. It teaches us to treat ourselves and others with benevolence and is essential if we are to recognise that we are not our thoughts.