How does it work?
Practising even just a little mindfulness rewires the brain, according to brain scan studies using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). Although the most striking changes are observed in long-term meditators, brain changes can also be seen in people who have only been meditating for eight weeks for an average of under half an hour a day. Such studies have not yet been carried out on children but it seems reasonable to assume we would see similar changes.
These brain changes include greater blood flow and a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration, for example increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, associated with learning and memory, and greater density in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection (Davidson & Lutz, 2008). Practising mindfulness also appears to decrease grey-matter density in the amygdala, known to play an important role in anxiety and stress (Hölzel, Carmody, Vangel, Congleton, Yerramsetti, Gard et al., 2011).
Much of the research underlines how practising mindfulness increases resilience and the ability to deal with stress and anxiety, countering negative affective processes implicated in depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia (Frederickson, 1998).
It helps us:
• Regulate our emotions, generate positive emotions and manage difficult ones (e.g., Boyatzis & Jack, 2012; Frederickson, 1998)
• Reframe/reappraise positively, which is associated with positive health outcomes (e.g., Carver, Pozo & Harris, 1993)
• Improve attentional control, which is associated with heightened resilience (Marchant, 2012 in Clough and Strycharczyk (2012))
• Be more present and attuned to others (Siegel, 2010)—we know that interpersonal confidence is important to resilience.
Around one in five children and adolescents experience problems severe enough to warrant the intervention of mental health services. Mindfulness offers young people strategies to “nip things in the bud”. Over time, humans have evolved two different neurological processes: the behavioural inhibition system (the avoidance system) and the behavioural activation system (the approach system) (Gray, 1981). The approach system is reward seeking and is associated with feelings such as hope and joy, whereas the avoidance system is sensitive to danger or punishment, holds us back from moving to goals, and is associated with emotions such as fear, anxiety, and disgust. This system helps to keep us safe but it can become chronically overactive, leading to anxiety, and depression and stamping out creativity and the ability to see
the bigger picture.
Meditation helps to strengthen the approach pathways while switching off the over-activated avoidance pathways for example, Urry, Nitschke, Dolski, Jackson, Dalton et al. (2004).
We can explain to young people that human beings have developed a number of “superpowers”, which have helped our species. We have developed a sense of the past and of the future, allowing us to see patterns in what has happened before to help us avoid repeating potentially fatal mistakes and allowing us to plan for better futures. However,
even “superpowers” have drawbacks, and so we often find ourselves “stuck” in the past and future. Or our switch becomes jammed in hyperalert “oh-no-there's-a-sabre-toothed-cat” mode. It may be appropriate for a young person to feel terror because a bully is targeting them at school, or because they feel their social standing is in jeopardy because they have been “fraped” on Facebook. However, it´s not a matter of life and death if they are unable to make it to a party because they have an assignment to complete, for example. Explaining to young people that they have a choice over how they frame situations, that it´s common to get stuck in panic mode and that there are techniques they can learn such as mindfulness can be enormously helpful.
Much of the current theoretical and empirical literature supports the view that young people with positive social and emotional skills demonstrate resilience when confronted with stressful situations (Greenberg, Domitrovich & Bumbarger, 2001). There appears to be a positive correlation between measures of children's social and emotional skills such as emotional regulation and measures of later psychological health (Greenberg, Domitrovich & Bumbarger, 2001) according to much of the research. This suggests that the earlier the better when it comes to interventions such as mindfulness training, which can develop social and emotional skills early before mental health difficulties emerge.