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Mindful : February 2015
Whether big hairy spiders or unopened bills fill your nightmares, next time you’re afraid, resist the run-and- scream impulse. The best way to work with your fears is to approach rather than avoid. It’s a habit you can build on. In 2003, at a biotech company called Promega in Wisconsin, a g roup of employees sig ned up for an eight-week mindfulness course. At the end, like many people who take such courses, they reported feeling happier and less stressed. However, unlike most people who take a mindfulness course, they also had their heads wired up to EEG machines, which measure brain activity. The results showed that over the course of the eight weeks, there had been a shift in activity at the front of the par- ticipants’ brains—whereas before there had been greater activity in the right prefrontal cortex, by the end there was more going on in the left prefron- tal region. The shift was strongest in those who reported the la rgest benefit to well-being, a nd was still evident when the participants’ brains were measured again four months later. lean into fear By Ed Halliwell Illustrations by Hilde Thomsen This was one of the first studies to associ- ate mindfulness practice with sustained neural changes. It’s significant because previous research had shown that when there’s more left-sided activ- ity, people feel happier, less anxious, and more able to deal with the challenges of life—they have what’s called a n “approach” mentality. Meanwhile, people who have more right-sided activity in this part of the brain tend to be more fearful and shy away from new things—an “avoid- ant” mentality. After taking a mindfulness course, participants not only said they felt better, the evi- dence could be seen in their brains’ “left shift.” What had happened to produce such a change? The course participants had spent two months learn- ing and practicing a new way of being. They’d repeat- edly trained themselves to manage stress by paying attention and bringing awareness to it—approaching their experience rather than trying to avoid it. As well as attending the course sessions, they practiced meditation at home for around 30 minutes a day. Over an intensive period of training, they’d applied the mindfulness prescription to their lives. → Ed Halliwell is a mindfulness teacher and writer. He is codirector of The Mindfulness Initiative in the UK. He is on the faculty of the School of Life in London, and writes a blog, The Examined Life, for mindful.org. His website is edhalliwell.com. February 2015 mindful 35 resilience