Waiting is not my forte. Sitting in traffic, unexpected ferry delays, and appointments that don’t start on time, challenge me to stay relaxed.
My usual reaction to unexpected delays is resistance, “Oh, no. Here we go. This sucks”. My body responds with furrowed eye brows, shallow breath, and tight jaw. My mind moves to analyze what I could have done to avoid this, or internally blame someone for my perceived wastage of time.
In the past I may have spun around in this sea of physical and mental reactions, not even noticing the relationship between my thoughts and my body’s responses.
Mindfulness, paying attention on purpose without grasping or resisting, has given me the opportunity to forge new neural pathways. Instead of avoiding discomfort, which takes a huge amount of energy, every moment is an opportunity to make contact with my experience just as it is. Compassion for myself results when I can listen rather than push away, distract or judge myself.
Research has demonstrated that the practice of mindfulness meditation results in neural changes that support neuroplasticity. Neuroplasticity is “the ability of the brain to change its structure in response to experience” (Siegel, 2012, p. 8). When we focus our attention differently, such as when we can pause, take a step back, let go of judgments, and be curious, “the mental process of focusing attention can change the physical structure of the brain” (Siegel, 2012, p. 8).
Through mindfulness, our prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain which helps us regulate emotions, engage in attuned communication, be flexible in our responses, inhibit fearful reactions, and access morality and intuition, gets stronger (Siegel, 2006, p.252).
In the context of therapy, mindfulness is hugely beneficial because it stimulates the prefrontal cortex, which is an area of the brain that is negatively impacted when we feel overwhelmed with anxiety, anger, or fear.
Body-centered psychotherapies such as Sensorimotor Psychotherapy make use of mindfulness to help clients cultivate somatic resources. Experiences which are deeply comforting and grounding are “stitched-in” with five sense perception, including sensations, impulses, movements, metaphors, and beliefs. With access to somatic resources, a person is more able to stay present in the midst of discomfort. The aim is that over time one is able to self regulate while processing previously avoided emotional material rather than rely on strategies such as avoidance, numbing with substances, or becoming out of control, which are not sustainable.
Sensorimotor psychotherapy emphasizes a “bottom-up” approach. An example of a “bottom-up” intervention is when a client executes the impulse to push away, while at the same time aligning the belief and felt experience that “I have the right to establish personal boundaries, and defend myself” (Ogden, 2006).
When we are mindful, we can observe that our experience changes from moment to moment. Through mindfulness practices such as meditation, we can strengthen the “witness” part of ourselves that is present throughout all our emotional weather patterns. Rather than filter everything through the lens of previous experiences, mindfulness helps us to navigate the world with fresh eyes. Being mindful fosters creativity, and the growth of new neural pathways that support neuroplasticity. Sensorimotor Psychotherapy is a mindfulness-based approach that nurtures somatic resources, so that self-sustaining strategies can be developed, and healing take place.
Siegel, D.J. (2006). An interpersonal neurobiology approach to psychotherapy. Psychiatric Annals, 36 (4), 248-256. Check out Dr. Dan Siegel, “About Interpersonal Neurobiology”
Siegel, D.J. (2012). Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Co., Inc.
Ogden, P., Minton, K., & Pain, C. (2006). Trauma and the Body: A Sensorimotor Approach to Psychotherapy. New York, N.Y.: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.