Your Amygdala and Mindful Awareness – MindUP Monday

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As you read this, wiggle your toes. Feel the way they push against your shoes, and the weight of your feet on the floor. Really think about what your feet feel like right now — their heaviness pressing against the ground.

If you’ve never heard of Mindful Awareness, congratulations, you’ve just done a few moments of it. This reflection exercise is one of many that has been accepted as useful therapy for anxiety and depression for over a decade — and has proven to boost focus and performance.

Research has shown that practicing mindful and focused awareness, even with as little as 15 minutes a week, alters the brain with measurable mental and physical effects. This ancient practice not only bolsters grey matter, but also changes the way different regions of the brain communicate with each other and therefore how we think and react to things.

By practicing mindfulness awareness exercises you can literally train the amygdala, which operates your brain’s “fight or flight” center to — behave. Just like building any other muscle by working out at the gym you can help train the amygdala to not be so negatively biased — thereby increasing the amount of time and the amount of control between an experience and your reactivity to it.

This primal region of the brain and it is association with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to life threatening danger. It served us very well during a time of group hunts and saber tooth tigers. Today however, the amygdala tends to be triggered by less life threatening things — like testing stress.

When the amygdala is calm, other parts of the brain can take the helm, like the pre- frontal cortex, which is associated with higher order brain functions such as self-awareness, concentration and decision-making.

Learning to be mindful and in tune with what is happening in the moment prepares us to make sound, mindful choice decisions at any time. Importantly in our work, a calm and quiet amygdala is the first step in preparing a child to learn. This is why the MindUP program spends so much time teaching children about their brains and the practices of mindful and focused awareness. Our work helps children strengthen their ability to self-soothe, which calms the amygdala and allows other parts of the brain to facilitate learning and problem solving. Children find this knowledge very empowering as they learn to exert it to control their own behavior.

For teachers this can be an important step in helping students create objective separation between their thoughts, feelings and emotions. For example, let’s say you have a student who gets very anxious prior to test taking. That anxiety can inflame the amygdala and suppress the student’s ability to access the hippocampus for memory or the pre-frontal cortex for decision-making. Helping children understand how the brain works and teaching them practices that help them access the best of their brain — is an important first step in achieving self-regulation. At MindUP we recommend a Mindful approach to testing. This can include a few minutes of deep breathing, and the use of breath for continued focus throughout a test. This practice can help children experience testing without the attached anxiety — and because it helps children have greater access to their whole brain – can contribute to better testing performance.

Teachers, try an experiment in your classroom and let us know what you find. We’d love to know what “return to present” techniques you have tried with your class.