Many have experienced the sensation of their mind running wild, such as analyzing small uncontrollable details or being unable to fall asleep due to racing thoughts. With anxiety disorders on the rise, many suffer more seriously with uncontrollable thoughts. Currently, the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimates that around 40 million Americans (18.1% of the population) are affected by an anxiety disorder, including social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive thoughts, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Whether it’s uncontrollable thoughts or severe anxiety, professionals agree that practicing mindfulness can help.
Mindfulness is comprised of activities that connect the mind and body in order to bring heightened awareness and concentration, such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Research on mindfulness shows that daily practice can provide a better quality of life by decreasing stress and anxiety. Researcher Gary Weber has dedicated his professional career to scientifically proving how mindfulness works after using mediation and yoga to control his own thoughts and anxieties. Weber believes psychology can provide an insight into how mindfulness affects the brain and processing of thoughts.
In order to understand how mindfulness is effective, it’s crucial to understand how an individual defines his or her identity or “self.” For most people, psychological continuity (a theory developed by 17th century English philosopher John Locke) is the defining factor in identity. Psychological continuity is a chain of memories and events a person holds on to regardless of changes in his or her behavior, beliefs, or thought process. External environmental factors and a person’s internal monologue shape psychological continuity. An external event occurs, and then a person’s internal monologue begins, helping the person process the external event. Using this theory, a person’s identity is constantly changing based on what’s happening in his/her life.
Where does this internal monologue come from? It originates in a region of the brain called the default mode network. The default mode network is a person’s constantly active inner voice. This is the part of the brain responsible for daydreaming, overanalyzing, and other uncontrollable thoughts. Studies have shown that long-time meditators have a less active default mode network, ultimately meaning they have more control over their thoughts.
It is believed that individuals who practice mindfulness over an extended period of time develop a detached perspective of their default mode network. Instead of letting their inner voice automatically control their emotions and actions, individuals with this detached perspective can evaluate these thoughts from an outside viewpoint to determine their source and validity. Practicing mindfulness and creating this detached perspective can be valuable agents in warding off negative thoughts and creating a healthier mindset so next time you feel down or if you have a bit of free time, consider sitting down and engaging in a mindful activity like meditation or yoga.