When a client is afraid, there’s a practice that can help them stay grounded in the present . . .
. . . instead of getting hijacked by panic and “worst-case scenario” thinking.
And that practice is mindfulness.
In the video below, Tara Brach, PhD will get into how mindfulness disrupts the neurobiology of fear, and she does it with a powerful metaphor that you could share with your clients.
Dr. Brach: Sure, one of my favorite ways of describing this is from my colleague and friend, Dan Siegel, who many might have heard of, and he has a kind of metaphor of the hand as a brain. If you see my hand here, if you close your fist, this is your brain. If you start looking at it, inspecting it, you see the wrist this is the brain stem, or the spinal cord leading into the brain stem. My thumb is the amygdala and the limbic system, and the four fingers are the frontal cortex. The way our brain processes stimuli is that information comes up the spinal cord, and it goes in, and the brain stem and the limbic system operate together to work with arousal. Then, there’s a down-regulating that happens from the frontal cortex that lets us know, “Wait a minute, that was then, and now is now, and maybe we don’t need to react this way.” So, when the brain is integrated, when everybody’s communicating, we’re in good shape. Well, what happens when we get stressed and we’re not in balance is really interesting, because the information comes up, but, because we’re not really in communication with an integrated brain, you get the stimuli saying, “Warning! Warning!”, and we flip our lid. We basically lose contact with the part of our brain that has perspective, the part of our brain that’s the site of empathy, the part of our brain that’s really the site of our moral capacities. When we get triggered and we get caught in fear, we lose access, and then there’s just a subcortical looping going on. In other words, we’re basically hijacked by our survival brain. So, what mindfulness does, and this is the key, is it strengthens the activation in the frontal cortex. It helps us to reintegrate our brain, so in a moment when we’re off, if we can have enough remembrance to notice what’s happening and to do a little bit of witnessing, we begin to come online again.
Dr. Buczynski: Tara, that was one of the best explanations of brain integration that I’ve heard. We talk a lot about how the brain needs to be integrated, but so many times, we’re not really clear on what we mean by that. Thank you, that was really helpful.
Dr. Brach: When we start cultivating the muscle of mindfulness, we actually are able to sustain our attention on what’s right here, on the wave of the moment, without distractions. There’s this ability to remember to be here. When there’s that quality of heart, there’s space for the wave to move through. So, in terms of the brain, mindfulness directly activates the frontal cortex. I’ll give you an example, Ruth, and all of you who are listening, which is, to me, a really interesting study. It found that a main strategy in mindfulness, which is naming what’s here, UCLA discovered that when we name an emotion, it activates the frontal cortex, and it deactivates the limbic system. In other words, we’re able to occupy more of that mindful witness and be less tossed around by the waves. In a similar way, when we’re able to regard what’s going on with that presence and with that heart capacity, again, rather than that limbic hijack, we’re able to inhabit a more whole and integrated sense of our being.
When a client begins to develop their “mindfulness muscles,” that client is more likely to be able to stay centered and calm in a triggering moment . . .
. . . and that can make all the difference between a hasty reaction and a wise response.
Now we’d like to hear from you. What are some questions you have about applying mindfulness in your clinical work? Please let us know in the comments below.
If you found this helpful, here are a few more resources you might be interested in: