My neighbor is in his 70’s and still gets his small motor boat on the lake several times a year, so he can tell me and the rest of the neighborhood fresh fishing stories. He and his wife enjoy their kids and grandkids when they visit, which is often. He takes care of his yard and home like a pro, and they go to church every Sunday. They are not rich but live comfortably within their means. This is perhaps the image with which we all hope our retirement and aging years will pass.
But aging is about change and most of us naturally resist the unexpected. Even if we can accept it, change, as my colleague, Dr. Ken Potts explains, “is often a process that is tedious, unnerving, overwhelming, even painful.” Click here to read more about Ken’s thoughts on change. Is there anything we can do about it? The short answer is yes.
Research has exploded in the last several years examining how mindfulness, contemplation and meditation change the brain. We used to think that brain development ended during our mid-20’s. We now know our brain is actually flexible throughout our lives, this is called neuroplasticity. This makes sense as the brain’s energy budget in the average adult human is 20% of calories we burn in one day even though our brain only represents about 2% of our body weight. In a way, our brain fine tunes itself for efficiency and can physically change over time in response to the environment and our behavior to use less of our overall energy resources.
This means if we don’t use certain aspects of our brain as we retire from a busy, demanding work life, our brain flexibility can tell itself to also drop brain functions and areas of our brain can and do actually shrink. The old adage of “use it or lose it” really does apply to our aging brains. The good news is this burst of research is leading us to a new understanding of how mindfulness practices positively and dynamically affect our brains. In fact, Dr. Andrew Newberg summarized evidence suggesting that those with strong contemplative and prayer practices do not experience the typical decline in grey matter associated with aging.
Affective neuroscience or the study of the neural mechanisms of emotion, is showing us that there are several brain networks that act together to mediate our experience. The emotional salience network includes regions deep in the brain like the amygdyla that detect emotional impulses and determine how important they are to you and your present experience. The default mode network is the one that runs like the electric current when your computer is in sleep mode, and you aren’t doing anything like a specific effort or errand. This network includes regions of the brain such as the posterior cingulate cortex, and these regions are involved in forms of self-referential thinking, like for example mind wanderings. The cognitive control network includes prefrontal regions of the brain directly behind your forehead. It serves to help us think logically and problem solve.
When these networks are healthy, the cognitive control network turns down the emotional salience network, telling it to relax and take a break, all is well; and the default mode network knows when to turn off and let us focus on something important using our cognitive control network like driving or something else going on around us in the outside world. If you are suffering from an anxiety disorder, there is a pretty good chance your emotional salience network has been putting in a lot of overtime, with the cognitive control network probably sleeping on the job. Depressed individuals often are too in tune with how bad they feel and spend too much time ruminating or “chewing their own cud” as my farmer grandmother used to say.This being in tune with their internal stimuli at the expense of countless external ones probably means their default mode has taken over the control tower.
Mindfulness in therapy may not be for everyone or be helpful in all clinical issues, but the evidence for clinical benefits of mindfulness or contemplative practices and the brain changes they help manifest seem to fall under two major psychological experiences: thinking (cognition) and feeling (emotion). For cognitive control, think about problems like Adult ADHD, age-related cognitive decline, mild dementias, or even just problems focusing at work. Like any training, the more you train your ability to focus and control your attention, the stronger your attention ‘muscle’ becomes. Of course, there is always a unique personal component to the problem where your personal history, your social environment and inner life all must be skillfully considered and integrated into therapy to achieve the best results for you based on your needs.
In the emotional arena, people suffering from anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, or complex trauma generally have a tough time regulating their emotions. People feel overwhelmed, and wish they could manage interactions more skillfully. As a framework for building up a calm, centered sense of self and some stillness of mind, mindfulness techniques can be very helpful in gaining more control over your emotional experience. With practice people learn to notice and accept disturbing emotions as they arise and find a renewed vigor to continue on in spite of these negative feelings. It should be noted there are also many more cognitive techniques in our therapist tool boxes and other ways to expedite the process of gaining more control over one’s emotional experiences. Any therapy should incorporate mindfulness techniques as one component of an overall program for improving psychological well-being and health.
In the later aging part of our lifespan, we all will face inevitable losses at a moment when lots of life changes are condensed into a smaller window of time. Isn’t it nice to know in this era of ever increasing health care costs, there is a mind medicine practice available to us that is accessible and easy to incorporate into our lives in a manner that sits well with our hearts and helps our heads in amazing new ways we keep learning more about all the time? Now that’s a refreshing change in this day and age, as refreshing as enjoying a brain boosting and peace giving mindfulness sitting.
Samaritan Interfaith inspires hope, facilitates change and creates lasting impact on individuals, families and faith-based organizations. We offer Spirit led, compassionate care through counseling, education and consulting.