Studies have shown that when you practice mindfulness over a period of time, it actually creates observable, measurable change in the brain. By the same token, prolonged periods of stress and depression accompany measurable change to a different part of the brain.
Your body responds in the exact same way to stress—whether it's trouble at work, difficulty at home or ongoing financial problems. Chronic stress keeps your body on "high alert," in emergency mode.
Neither the body nor the mind is equipped to handle chronic stress.
Along with the physical toxicity of chronic stress, it trains the brain in specific ways in a kind of biofeedback loop. By continually reinforcing certain neural pathways, the amygdala (a specific part of your brain programmed to respond to stress) actually grows measurably larger. The neural pathways that you reinforce tend to become the default, habitual way that you respond to life's challenges—and you lose the ability to more easily respond with higher-brain functions, like cultivating a sense of well-being or contentment.
Meditation, prayer and positive thinking, however, activate the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas in the brain. For people who regularly practice mindfulness, those neural pathways become stronger over time, and those parts of the brain become larger.
Mindfulness works especially well for sex, because it involves simply experiencing each moment with complete presence and lack of judgment or anticipation. (Not so easy to achieve; that's why it take practice.) Mindfulness Guru Jon Kabat-Zinn calls it "presence of heart," and what better place for a heartfelt presence than the bedroom? Especially considering the tsunami of distractions you probably bring to that sanctum.
With the truly significant benefits of developing a habit of mindfulness, why continue down that neural pathway of stress and unhappiness? Now that you know there's a better way, why not start a new brain-training regimen? Practice mindfulness.
Written by Barb DePree, MD, Gynecologist and Certified Menopause Practitioner, Lakeshore Health Partners.