Mindfulness can help people train themselves to get unstuck from a vicious cycle of negative thinking, often a cornerstone of trauma.
There is a significant amount of data supporting mindfulness as a treatment approach for patients with PTSD. Much of the literature, however, doesn’t speak to the neurological changes that occur during the mindfulness process. Research regarding mindfulness mediation’s impact upon the brain in general points to changes in brain structure and function that could account for the reduction of symptoms of PTSD.
Neuro-imaging techniques, such as MRI and FMRI, have allowed scientists to examine brains of patients suffering from PTSD. Three of the areas impacted by trauma include the
Pre-frontal cortex (PFC)
The amygdala is a structure in the brain’s limbic system (known as the emotional seat of the brain) that helps determine whether or not a threat is approaching, and if so, sends out a danger signal, initiates the fight-or-flight response, and then helps indicate when the threat is gone. When one has experienced trauma, the amygdala remains hyper-alert to even non-threatening stimuli, and activates the fight-or-flight response system despite being safe. While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
While experiencing PTSD, the brain can get caught up in a highly alert and activated loop during which it looks for and perceives threat everywhere.
The hyperactive amygdala is constantly interacting with the hippocampus, the area of brain that plays a role in memory function. Brain scans have found smaller hippocampi in those with PTSD, perhaps reflecting the impaired memory experienced post trauma. Usually, the hippocampus works to connect and organize different aspects of memory, and is responsible for locating the memory of an event in its proper time, place and context. When experiencing PTSD, memory becomes fragmented, and the hippocampus has trouble coherently piecing together memory, from discriminating from past or present, and from integrating memory of experiences with feelings and factual knowledge. This is an extraordinarily distressing component of PTSD and manifests in the form of intrusive memories and flashbacks. Triggering memories provoke the amygdala, maintaining its hyper-activity.
The third area of the brain affected by trauma is the frontal lobe; specifically, the PFC. This area of the brain is involved in regulating behaviors, impulses, emotions, and fear responses. In those with PTSD, the PFC is notably less active and less able to override the hippocampus as it flashes fragments of memory, nor to signal the amygdala that the danger is not real.
As the above research suggests, the neuroplastic brain indeed responds to trauma. As certain areas of the brain become hyperactive, and others deregulated, throwing off the fine-tuned and exquisite orchestration that usually works to keep someone safe from real threats—PTSD is cultivated.
Changes in Brain Structure:
As I mentioned earlier, deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD in addition to the over activity of the fear center, the amygdala. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the PFC.