The Power of Mindfulness

By FCPS & Fairfax County Government
Healthy Minds
January 14, 2019

It is important to take steps towards minimizing stress. One way to do this is through the incorporation of mindfulness. This is a particular way of paying attention, of purposefully bringing awareness to what is happening in this moment. It can be applied to the five senses, thoughts and emotions by learning the skill of focused attention. Mindfulness creates space; space allows one the opportunity to change impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses.

  • Without Mindfulness:  Stimulus > Reaction
  • With Mindfulness:  Stimulus > Mindfulness > Response

This says it all! Being aware (mindful) allows us to pause (even a split second is enough) and choose a response rather than be in reactive mode. It allows the brain to integrate the connections between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex which lead to better decision making, increased focus, learning and memory retrieval. It allows the chemicals in the brain to change from producing the stress chemicals (adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine) to producing the feel-good chemicals (dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin).

When we are feeling stressed or anxious, the brain’s job is to protect us. The brain however, cannot tell the difference between daily stressors and those that are life threatening; the chemical production is the same! So, fight-flight-flee...to the rescue. But not really. In the words of Dr. Dan Siegel, a leading expert in the field of mindfulness, we have the upstairs brain (prefrontal cortex) and the downstairs brain (amygdala). When in fight-flight-flee, the downstairs brain (amygdala) is in charge; we literally “flip our lids” and the brain is no longer integrated. This is when we are in complete reactive mode! The only thing that matters to the brain is survival.

So, how do we re-integrate the brain? B-R-E-A-T-H-E!!  When we take a conscious breath, we create space. Space allows the upstairs and downstairs brain to start talking again...to connect. Chemicals change and now we can make choices, respond, learn, remember and ENJOY each moment. That is how mindfulness works. Awareness, Breath and Choose. It’s as simple as ABC!

Here are two breathing practices to start with. Try these at a stop light, waiting in line, before you get out of bed, before you go to sleep, before you begin work...be creative! Try it out; doesn’t matter where or how long, just begin! 

  • Anchor Breath: Notice where you feel the breath the strongest. Maybe it’s your chest, belly or maybe the throat/nose area (this is your anchor spot). Place your hand on the anchor spot and feel the belly, chest or nose area move as you breathe in and out for ten counts, sixty seconds, two minutes or more.  And remember the mind WILL wander...that’s ok, just gently guide it back to your anchor spot and continue feeling the body move with each breath in and out.
  • Counting Breath: Mentally count each inhale and exhale. Inhale -1, Exhale -1; Inhale -2, Exhale -2 and so on. If you lose count begin again with one. Continue for ten counts, one minute, two minutes or more.

Healthy Minds is for parents, educators, and community-based providers who are interested in supporting student mental health and wellness. It represents a collaboration between FCPS’ Office of Intervention and Prevention Services and the Fairfax County Government. SUBSCRIBE to Healthy Minds and receive a monthly digest of our most recent articles.