In the last post, we talked about the placebo effect and the surprising ways that it may create the very brain changes that drugs like painkillers or antidepressants are meant to mimic. In this post, I’d like to focus on a way to more consciously harness that brain-power.
We’ve talked before about mindfulness meditation and how it can improve the experience of sex by enhancing your ability to pay attention to the present moment and reduce mental distractions. Studies have shown that when you practice mindfulness over a period of time, it actually creates observable, measurable change in the brain.
By the same token, observable, measurable change to a different part of the brain also accompanies prolonged periods of stress and depression.
Here’s how the process works:
The amygdala is a specific part of your brain is programmed to respond to stress. It’s a nut-shaped structure deep in the primal area of your brain, which is intended to quickly mobilize your body’s resources to respond to an emergency. You breathe faster to pump more oxygen into your blood; your heart beats faster; adrenaline floods your system; vision narrows and attention focuses.
All good stuff for an emergency.
Unfortunately, the amygdala is activated, and your body responds in the exact same way to stress, whether it’s trouble at work or difficulty at home or ongoing financial problems—you know, modern life. Chronic stress keeps your body on “high alert,” in emergency mode. Neither the body nor the mind is equipped to handle chronic stress.
Beyond the physical toxicity of chronic stress, it trains the brain in specific ways in a kind of biofeedback loop. By continually reinforcing certain neural pathways, the amygdala actually grows measurably larger. The neural pathways that you reinforce tend to become the default, habitual way that you respond to life’s challenges. And you lose the ability to more easily respond with higher-brain functions, like cultivating a sense of well-being or contentment. It’s just not the default.
Conversely, meditation, prayer, positive thinking, activate the prefrontal cortex and hippocampus areas in the brain. Over time, for people who do those things regularly, those neural pathways become stronger and those parts of the brain become larger. “You shape [your brain] by your thoughts and behaviors,” says Jo Marchant, author of Cure: a Journey Into the Science of Mind Over Body, in an interview on NPR.
“Studies show that if a group of people meditates, the amygdala then becomes smaller and the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex become larger,” says Marchant, “and that's probably not anything specific to meditation, but it's just that reducing stress and changing patterns of thinking over a period of time then is reflected in the structure of the brain.”
The critical point is that we have the capacity to actually shape our brain, but that it happens with regular practice, like an athlete training for a race. Developing either the stress-related amygdala or the higher-thinking prefrontal cortex takes time and conscious effort.
The implication for your sex life, not to mention your overall quality of life, is significant, to say the least. Not only does the practice of mindfulness work to lessen stress, but a 2014 study found that “mindfulness-based group therapy significantly improved sexual desire and other indices of sexual response, and should be considered in the treatment of women's sexual dysfunction.”
Mindfulness works especially well for sex because it involves simply experiencing each moment with complete presence and lack of judgment or anticipation. (Not so easy to achieve; that’s why it take practice.) Mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn, calls it “presence of heart,” and what better place for a heartful presence than the bedroom? Especially, considering the tsunami of distractions that you probably bring to that sanctum—yesterday’s tepid performance review, the extra pounds around your waist, the sharp comment from your grown daughter, and whether you’ll orgasm this time. And on and on… you know, monkey mind.
With the truly significant benefits of developing a habit of mindfulness, why continue to trudge down that neural pathway of stress and unhappiness? (Because it’s so darned familiar, that’s why.)
Now that you know there’s a better way, why not start a new brain-training regimen? We’re so convinced of the merits that we offer Thich Nhat Hanh’s wonderful book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, and Kabat-Zinn’s CD set, Mindfulness for Beginners.
Dr. Barb DePree, M.D., has been a gynecologist and women’s health provider for almost 30 years and a menopause care specialist for the past ten.