Previous posts have focused on how mindfulness, prayer, and meditation can help complex trauma survivors climb from the pit of despair into the sunshine of healing.
In this last piece, we shall examine the neuroscience behind mindfulness, prayer, and meditation plus tie up any loose ends.
Changes in the Brain from Complex Trauma
Childhood trauma often leaves its victims with damages to the regions of the brain that control emotions, memory, and reasoning. These brain regions include the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the prefrontal cortex.
The amygdala is the area of the brain that controls our fight/flight/freeze responses and, because of repeatedly being triggered from trauma in childhood, becomes overactive. This hyperactivity leaves adult survivors always afraid and easily triggered by environmental stimuli and producing panic, fear, and anxiety.
The hippocampus is responsible for memory consolidation and storage. When a young developing brain is awash in stress hormones from traumatic stimuli, the ability for the person to consolidate and store memory is damaged. This can leave adult survivors with memory gaps in their childhood and sometimes impaired memory for adult events as well.
The prefrontal cortex is responsible for higher cognitive and executive functions. Executive functions include problem-solving memory, attention, and planning. Damage to this region by continual exposure to stress hormones in childhood leaves the adult survivor with problems in all the areas mentioned above and more.
Complex trauma also causes these regions of the brain to be abnormal in size as adults who have experienced severe and repeated trauma shown in MRI studies that they are 16-32% smaller than controls. This size difference further restricts a survivor in their memory, cognitive, and emotional regulating abilities.
Changes to the Brain from Mindfulness and Meditation
Humans have practiced some form of mindfulness, prayer, and meditation for almost as long as they have been walking the earth. In some cultures, Yogi’s and other practitioners have experienced calmness, serenity, and other mental health benefits.
Now researchers have begun to use neuroimaging to look into the brains of men and women as they enter a mindful, prayerful, and meditative state to measure which regions are the greatest affected.
A paper written by Taylor, et. al (2011) reported that they witnessed that the longer a person practices meditative mindfulness the greater the emotional stability of the person
Not only this but by using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) they reported that an induced lowering of activity from the left amygdala (the amygdala has two lobes, the left and right. Since the amygdala is, as seen above, responsible for the fight/flight/freeze response this result meant that mindful meditation calmed the amygdala and thus lowered the negative effects it can have on one’s mental state.
Prayer, Dopamine, and Serotonin
Neurotransmitters are chemicals that circulate in the brain allowing one brain region to “speak” to another. Neurotransmitters also are vital to regulating mood and other mental functions.
For the purpose of this piece, we shall examine two neurotransmitters, dopamine, and serotonin, plus the role they play and how prayer changes them.
Dopamine is a neurochemical that plays a significant role in motivation/reward behavior. Dopamine, also known as the pleasure or reward neurotransmitter, is vital for memory, behavior, learning, and movement coordination.
Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that is also known as the “happy” chemical because it is a chemical contributor to wellbeing and happiness. Low serotonin levels are indicated in many mental health issues including seasonal affective disorder and depression.
A study conducted by Newberg, et. al (2018) sent a group of subjects to a seven-day spiritual retreat that included many opportunities for prayer experiences. During and after the retreat they measured the levels of dopamine and serotonin and found they had significantly decreased after the program was over.
These findings are only the tip of the iceberg of new findings being found and built upon by scientists to understand why and how prayer can change the chemistry of the brain and bring happiness.
Beginning A Mindfulness, Prayer or Meditation Practice
Mindfulness, prayer, meditation, or any combination of the three are highly only helpful if one determines to practice them on a regular basis. Therefore, there are things one can do to enhance and maintain mindfulness, prayer, and meditation including the tips listed below.
Find a time and place that’s right for you. Finding a time and place where one is comfortable will enhance the desire to practice the three methods regularly. Most people would prefer to be alone in a quiet place, but others prefer to be with other people in corporate worship or in a yoga class. Whatever is right for you is what you want to try.
Start small. It is not necessary to spend hours in mindfulness, prayer, or meditation just ten minutes a day to begin will do fine. Do not pressure yourself. After all, the idea is to relax and enjoy the experience not to stress over it because it will last an uncomfortably long length of time.
Find a Meditation or Prayer Partner. Finding someone of like mind who wishes to spend time in meditation or prayer can enhance the experience and give a sense of camaraderie. Also, it helps to have someone to be accountable to so one can keep up the practice and to talk to about any challenges to the practice.
Keep a Journal. Keeping a journal from day one of practicing meditation and mindfulness will help you to focus on not only what happened today during your time but also how far you have come since you began. Keeping a prayer journal has long been recommended to people who practice religion as helpful in sorting out a person’s feelings and following petitions they have prayed to their god. Do not overanalyze what is written in your meditation or prayer journal, instead, write as though you were writing to your best friend. Enjoy the experience and relax.
Clearly, the benefits to the human brain of mindfulness, prayer, and meditation are enormous. Not only do these three mind practices make us feel better by releasing helpful neurotransmitters but they can decrease and control brain regions that have been affected by childhood trauma.
Scientists are only beginning to experiment and thus uncover the benefits of mindfulness, prayer, and meditation and further projects are planned all over the world.
Perhaps the future of western medicine will finally acknowledge that meditation, prayer, and mindfulness can work together in treating many mental health conditions including complex traumatic-stress disorder.
“The present moment is the only time over which we have dominion.” ~Thích Nhất Hạnh
Newberg, A. B. (2014). The neuroscientific study of spiritual practices. Frontiers in psychology, 5, 215.
Newberg, A. B., Wintering, N., Yaden, D. B., Zhong, L., Bowen, B., Averick, N., & Monti, D. A. (2018). Effect of a one-week spiritual retreat on dopamine and serotonin transporter binding: a preliminary study. Religion, Brain & Behavior, 8(3), 265-278.
Taylor, V. A., Grant, J., Daneault, V., Scavone, G., Breton, E., Roffe-Vidal, S., … & Beauregard, M. (2011). Impact of mindfulness on the neural responses to emotional pictures in experienced and beginner meditators. Neuroimage, 57(4), 1524-1533.