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Therapists get this question a lot: “Okay, so now that I understand how my history made me a mess when it comes to relationships, what now? It’s not like I can go back in time and change my childhood.”
The “what now” is that there’s increasing evidence that the simple practice of mindfulness meditation can rewire your brain. In key areas, you can literally change and grow neural connections that support finding and creating better relationships. And in nine different ways, your brain can become more like those who grew up knowing how to love and be loved in healthy, sustainable ways.
As a psychologist helping others find their way to greater emotional wellbeing, I find that the most compelling benefits of a regular mindfulness meditation practice are a set of nine documented results.2 I’ve seen the results confirmed through my psychology practice, in myself, and in the lives of my friends and colleagues.
At least seven of these nine benefits bear a remarkable resemblance to the characteristics of people who grew up with healthy, attuned attachments. Childhood attachment experiences have a huge impact on how we are wired for relationships, throughout our lives.
So, if we can change our brain to work more like those people with healthy attachment histories, we too can have a brain that’s wired as if it had a happy childhood.
When I first learned about these from Dan Siegel, M.D., I was stunned that something as simple as mindfulness meditation could make such inroads with the challenges of finding and creating healthy relationships. Take a look at these benefits:
Stress and anger lose their grip on your body more quickly and easily. When you get home from a hard day at work, you aren’t still carrying the pent-up tension and frustration in your body, and so you won’t be driven towards an angry reaction to your partner’s benign comment.
In a way, it’s like resetting your body’s “alarm” button when it’s gotten stuck in the Onposition. Vital to your relationships is your ability to (a) recognize that that’s what’s going on, (b) understand what is happening in your brain and body that is keeping you there, and (c) un-stick that alarm button.
Being able to correct or repair unpleasant moods more quickly, without just sweeping them under the rug of resentments, frees you up to be less stressed by emotional upset, and more available to the next good thing.
Regulating your emotions doesn’t mean ignoring them, denying them, or cramming them deep inside (they eventually erupt anyway, but in festered form). The trick is to be able to get yourself back to baseline with relative ease and efficiency.
Research on attachment and healthy brain development shows that having someone be attuned to you – they listen and “get” you without distortion, and respond in a way which is actually contingent upon you instead of just their own inner stuff − is one of the chief ways that your brain gets organized for wellbeing.
That’s true in childhood, and we’re now learning that it’s also true for adults. Mindfulness meditation helps you to be a more attuned communicator. Even better, new evidence suggests that the more you practice this kind of “attuned” communication, the more likely that your significant other will get better at it, as well.
We often have a fairly limited repertoire of how we respond to those situations that just set us off. Some people always blame and yell when they feel ashamed; others cry whenever receiving criticism, even if it is constructive and positive.
The habits of our nervous system can seem like electrical surges, leaving us vulnerable to making a real mess when we don’t mean to. Having an emotional circuit breaker makes a real difference – creating the space for you to have a more mindful, conscious response. Mindfulness meditation, by beefing up areas which essentially buy us a tiny bit more time before we respond in a knee-jerk way, improves response flexibility.
There are some common misconceptions about empathy. Being empathic isn’t about being a doormat or a mind reader. It’s also not about fear (I need to read this person really well so he doesn’t get angry and hit me).
Being able to “get” and understand another person’s state of mind is essential for healthy relationships, but being able to do so without losing your awareness of your own state of mind is vitally important. Getting your brain to let you perceive someone else, without your protective gear and lenses, and without getting lost in their “stuff,” is something that mindfulness meditation does extremely well.
Getting to know yourself in a real way, and within a coherent framework (How did I get here?), results in being far less vulnerable to getting lost when it comes to being in relationship with others.
When we meditate regularly, we’re practicing our ability to notice what our brain is up to − what the thoughts are, what the feelings are. We become increasingly able to tell the difference between those momentary and ever-changing events, and who we really are. Through meditation practice, the brain gets rewired and “remembers,” more often and more easily, who you really are – not just your thoughts and feelings, so they don’t carry you away.
If you’re able to be more comfortable with things which once scared you (He’s going to leave me; I’m not enough for her), and not as reactive to emotional fear, you change your entire experience of being in an adult-to-adult relationship with others.
It’s important in relationships to have ready access to being able to soothe yourself when you’re afraid, so that your reactions and interactions aren’t overrun by your fight-flight-freeze response. There is compelling research on the brain mechanisms underlying the flexible control of fear, and those are remarkably similar to the brain areas that change in response to mindfulness meditation.
There’s actually increasing neurochemical and cellular evidence of a sort of second brain in our gut (okay, viscera). Most of us are familiar with having some kind of gut feeling, usually in response to something that has our attention. But what about all of those times when we’re an auto-pilot, or distracted? Is the information in our gut turned off’?
Hardly. Our viscera, and the rest of our body – our muscles, eyes, ears, skin, and so on – are telling us something. Most of the time, we ignore these messages, but the mindfulness practice of being more aware of what your body is telling you enhances the ability to be attuned to yourself, and what you unconsciously know – what we can refer to as intuition.
Becoming emotionally “smarter” – by using the extra information from your non-brain parts – enhances your ability to be in mindfully aware, conscious relationships with yourself and with others.
In addition to healthier, happier relationships with your partner and circle of friends, is there anything that comes from the first eight benefits?
The research on mindfulness shows that when people learn to meditate and practice regularly, their perceptions of their place in the world begins to shift – something corroborated by family members. They become more broadly compassionate, more likely to act on their highest principles, and demonstrate greater interest in the social good – what can very reasonably seen as living with higher morals. It’s like having a healthier relationship with your whole community, not just the people closest to you.
An impressive list! It does take practice – and the practice is simple, but not easy. The good news is that some of the research shows that you can see changes as little as twenty minutes of practice a day (and some experts say that you can benefit with even less than that – the trick is to be sure it is a regular, daily practice). I invite you to give it a try.
1Gratefully adapted from Tom Robbins: Still Life with Woodpecker
2For those who want to learn more about the research behind these nine factors, Dan Siegel has a great book, The Mindful Brain, where he provides references to many of the research articles relevant to these nine benefits.
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