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Mindful : April 2019
... Amygdala reacts to crowd as a threat (may be either a hard-wired reaction or a learned association from past), and engages fight-or-flight response (physical sensations). Cortex interprets the sweaty palms, racing heart, breathlessness of fight-or-flight response as evidence you’re scared of making a fool of yourself. Those thoughts further trigger the amygdala’s fight-or- flight response. Anxiety Spiral she says. “If you have a smaller amygdala, you aren’t so stress reactive.” The next question: Can people who aren’t mind- ful by disposition rewire their brains to become less reactive to stress? Taren enrolled high-stress, unemployed people in a three-day retreat, where half were taught relaxation strategies. The others were trained in a condensed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program. “ We wanted to find out if there’s something specific about mindfulness that’s causing these effects,” says Taren, “not just that stressed-out people relaxed and felt better.” Taren measured the amygdala size of both groups, and after just three days of mindfulness train- ing, the meditation group had smaller amygdalas. That suggested they’d actu- ally made their brains more resistant to stress. Perhaps even more sig- nificant, Taren found that the mindfulness training had weakened the connec- tion between the amygdala and an area called the anterior cingulate cortex, a frontal region responsible for executive functions like decision making and paying attention. Decoupling the stress center from the logic center allowed people to feel more distance from their anxiety, which made it more manageable. “ You’re able to just observe those emotions, which dampens the stress response that keeps the front of the brain from working,” she says. Taren’s work echoes a growing body of research from neuroscience labs across the country → Cor tex thinks (or even anticipates the night before) “ the crowd is going to judge me” (or some negative thought) and triggers the amygdala. Amygdala engages the physical sensations of fight-or-flight. Anxiety Spiral 1 Amygdala Pathway The stimulus in both the amygdala and cortex pathways is a crowd watching you while you’re speaking, in reality or in your imagination. Stress-habit person 2 Cortex Pathway Mindful-habit person Amygdala is less likely to react to crowd as a threat or trigger a strong fight-or-flight response, perhaps because the amygdala is smaller and less reactive in a person trained in mindfulness. Cortex interprets any fight- or-flight response that does arise with detachment, perhaps because the mindful brain has less connectivity to the amygdala. Cor tex says, “Hey, these are just physical sensations. Everything is OK. Breathe. Just notice the sensations. It’s OK.” Breathing evokes relaxation response, calms down amygdala, reduces fight-or-flight response. No Anxiety Spiral 1 Amygdala Pathway Cor tex is less likely to think or anticipate that a neutral crowd is a threat, perhaps because mindfulness appears to strengthen the attention centers of the cortex. Any negative thoughts are less likely to trigger the amygdala. Amygdala doesn’t engage the fight-or-flight response. No Anxiety 2 Cortex Pathway April 2019 mindful 59 neuroscience