3. Why You Need Mindfulness & What that REALLY Means
Welcome back. Today I want to talk about why mindfulness is so helpful specifically in our quest to defeat overeating.
Now one thing I want to clear up is that mindfulness does not equal meditation. Meditation is a form of practicing mindfulness and cultivating more of it in your life, but mindfulness itself is really just a state of being conscious or aware of our direct experience; of what’s going on in the present moment. And there are lots of ways other than meditation that you can cultivate this. Just taking some deep breaths or doing a body scan are really simple ways that you can practice being mindful. I do use meditations in my course because for me that’s one of the best and most direct ways that I can help you achieve more awareness about specific topics that I teach, and I absolutely recommend it, but if you’re just starting out and you’re really wary of it or really don’t feel like you can spend 15-20 minutes doing a meditation, rest assured that you can start where you are with simple exercises that just take a few minutes and work your way up from there and increase your mindfulness tolerance.
I also want to share what’s going on in your brain when you are mindful. When you understand the why behind it, and see that there’s nothing mystical about it, I think you’ll be more compelled to do it.
So this explanation comes from a great book called Your Brain at Work by David Rock.
It is about performing better at work by understanding your brain and it is wonderfully researched, really well presented. It’s probably my favorite book about the brain.
Your Brain at Work summarizes recent a 2007 study called “Mindfulness meditation reveals distinct neural modes of self-reference” by Norman Farb at the University of Toronto. The study shows we humans have two distinct ways of interacting with the world using different sets of mental maps.
There is the narrative network that runs on default, and it involves the prefrontal cortex and memory networks, and it’s involved in planning, daydreaming, and ruminating. And it becomes active when you think about yourself or other people. It holds together a narrative or story, hence the term narrative framework.
The other network is the direct-experience network, and it involves totally different brain regions — the insula which relates to bodily sensations, and the anterior cingulate cortex which is involved in detecting errors and switching your attention.
So one network narrates and creates meaning and the other network experiences. And what’s really interesting is that we can’t engage these networks at the same time. They are inversely correlated, meaning that when we activate the one we shut down the other.
Your Brain at Work gives the following example:
"...if you think about an upcoming meeting while you wash dishes, you are more likely to overlook a broken glass and cut your hand, because the brain map involved in visual perception is less active when the narrative map is activated. You don’t see as much (or hear as much, or feel as much, or sense anything as much) when you are lost in thought."
The book goes onto say that the study also found that, "people who regularly practiced notice the narrative and direct-experience paths, such as regular meditators, had stronger differentiation between the two paths. They knew which path they were on at any given time, and could switch between them more easily. Whereas people who had not practiced noticing these paths were more likely to automatically take the narrative path."
I love the way this demystifies mindfulness and sheds light on why it helps us destress. Mindfulness isn’t just deep breathing or relaxation. Mindfulness enables us to better notice and deactivate the narrative network in our brains. This is the part of our brain that that thinks about the past, and worries about the future.
And think about this, According to the National Science Foundation, an average person has about 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day. Of those thoughts, 80% are negative and 95% are repetitive thoughts.
So it would definitely benefit us to give ourselves a break from that narrative brain circuitry from time to time.
We are literally giving ourselves a break from our stressful thoughts. And yes, I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that stress is a major cue or trigger for many of us to overeat, so just being able to pause a stressful story we are telling ourselves is huge.
But consider too that overeating is also often due to a story or set of beliefs that we have about ourselves and the world.
We want our bodies to be different, so we diet. And we want to escape uncomfortable emotions and cravings for food, so we eat. Often times the drive to lose weight and the drive to overeat comes from the very same place - that desire to push reality away. And that’s because of that narrative circuitry - because of the stories we tell ourselves, the meaning we assign to ourselves and everything else out in the world.
Mindfulness helps us sit with reality, even when it’s uncomfortable, and when we do we see that reality isn’t actually painful. It’s the narrative that's painful. And the more we practice mindfulness, the more we witness our networks switching back and forth, AND the better able we are to activate them on demand. So we aren’t just more aware, that awareness in turn helps us be more in control of our attention and our actions.
Subsequent studies have shown that those who are higher on the mindfulness scale have greater cognitive or executive control which according to nature.com is
"the process by which goals or plans influence behavior. This process can inhibit automatic responses and influence working memory. Cognitive control supports flexible, adaptive responses and complex goal-directed thought."
So the more mindful we are, the more we are able to stop our bad habits, and that’s what overeating is, a bad habit, and one that stems from negative beliefs created by that narrative brain network.
So mindfulness has a double benefit. It gives us space from the negative thoughts that drive us to overeat, AND it helps us stop the overeating habit once it’s been activated. When you are mindful you will experience less stress - i.e. less reason to overeat in the first place, AND when you do experience stress you will have more power to stop the automatic response of overeating.
And mindfulness isn't something we are born with, it’s a skill that can be learned and cultivated with regular practice. And like I said, you don’t have to jump into it with meditation. PositivePsychology.com has a great list of mindfulness exercises that you can use, some that only take a few minutes, and I’ll link those in the show notes.
And if you are interested in meditation, I am giving away a free meditation on my website, focused on the concept that overeating is the enemy and if you haven’t heard me talk about that yet, please take a listen to episode 2.