The Healing Power of Mindfulness

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This past weekend I attended a training by Julie Green on EMDR, mindfulness and self-compassion. EMDR is one if my favorite therapy interventions and I believe it can be helpful with making permanent changes in people's lives. The training got me thinking a lot more about mindfulness and how such a simple practice can help with rewiring the brain.  This can result in decreased anxiety, increased ability to cope, increased self-esteem, increased connection to one self and others and much more. When a person experiences trauma it impacts the wiring of the brain. While people often think of trauma as a single life threatening incident, it is actually defined as something much broader. Trauma is any life experience in which a person feels prolonged disturbance. This experience can be a one time event but more often it is abuse or neglect that occurs over time.  It can even be something such as impactful, negative words that were said by a peer, teacher, care provider or anyone else.  When a person experiences trauma it impacts the limbic system in the brain and can result in an increase in negative emotions, thoughts, behaviors and body sensations that are triggered whenever the brain is reminded about the traumatic event or events.  This can happen in or out of a person's awareness. The brain perceives these triggers as actual threats and reacts accordingly.  This is the brain's survival mechanism and it responds with a fight, flight or freeze response.  Trauma causes a person to generally be on high alert for threat. We can think of the part of the brain that is impacted the most as having an excess of red (danger) wiring.  The brain, however, has the ability to rewire itself which is where mindfulness can come into play. Mindfulness can create what we can think of as more "blue" (calming) wiring. "Green" wiring or engaging in positive, active behaviors can also help the red wiring to become less. The goal is not to do away with the red wiring as that flight, fight or freeze response comes in handy for all of us at times.  Instead, the goal is to decrease the red and to increase the green and blue. But what is mindfulness and how can I get more of this blue wiring you may ask? While it would be nice to go out and buy some of it from Home Depot or Amazon we actually need to engage in practices that will create it internally. Mindfulness is simply being present in the moment.  It is experiencing our senses in a positive ways so that we are not worried about past or future events but are completely and fully engaged in the present. Some examples of mindfulness are: 1. Focusing on breathing. I like to teach clients square breathing. Square breathing is inhaling for 4 seconds, holding your breath for 4 seconds, exhaling for 4, doing nothing for 4 and repeating that process 4 times. Straw breathing is another effective breathing technique. After cutting a straw in half breathe through the straw. Inhale through the nose and exhale through the straw. This helps to slow and calm our breathing. 2. Being aware of what's around us. One exercise for this is called "The Game of Fives".  Look around the room and notice 5 things you can see. Now notice 5 things you can hear. Next find 5 things you can smell, 5 things you can feel and 5 things you can taste. Start over and notice 4 things you can see, hear, smell, feel and taste, 3 things, 2 things and 1 thing. If you're like me and can't get through all of those, that's okay. Do what feels right to you. 3. Guided imagery. Many therapists do guided imagery exercises with their clients. The classic exercise is imagining a calm place and noticing what you can see, hear, feel, smell and taste. There have been studies that show that the brain has a hard time distinguishing when you are imagining experiencing something from when you are actually experiencing it.  So if your calm place is being on a beech in Hawaii if you immerse yourself in imaging being there your brain feels almost as relaxed as if you actually were.  I still would rather be there but it's the next best thing.  Their are many apps that you can find that include guided imagery if it is hard for you to bring up the experience yourself. 4. Mindfulness in everyday activities. As you are walking notice what it feels like to have you feet touching the ground. Take the time to really notice what is around you.  Be mindful while you're eating. What does your food taste like? How does it feel as it touches your tongue? What does it smell like? Basically you can just be present and aware with anything you are doing throughout your day. I challenge you to try to be more mindful throughout the day.  Mindfulness doesn't have to take a lot of time but the positive impact it has can be truly amazing.  
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