Have you ever found yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of behavior that took you nowhere? Have been stressed out to the point of exhaustion, helplessly repeating what you knew was pointless and useless, and yet couldn’t find a way out? If you answered in the affirmative, then you’d benefit from giving your brain a vacation at the Mind Spa. And, here’s why.
New research in neuroscience has revealed that our brain may work with or against us depending on our state of mind. And it is purely neurological. The brain’s neural circuitry changes in response to our mental state and behavior. Specifically, brain regions associated with mindful and goal-oriented behavior (i.e., prefrontal cortex) bloom or shrivel over time, and so can the brain regions linked to compulsive and repetitive behavior (i.e., sensorimotor striatum). Interestingly, these brain sectors appear to listen to one another and operate in balance, with the mindful part of the brain counterbalancing the compulsive one. That is, the more mindful you are, the less likely you are to engage in compulsive behavior, and vice versa.
The notion that the brain loses its capacity for mindfulness under stress is well supported by recent animal studies. In one experiment conducted at the University of Minho in Portugal and reported in the Journal of Science, for instance, the researchers observed that, when lab rats are stressed out they lose their “elastic” thinking and engage instead in repetitive behavior (e.g., compulsively pressing a bar for food they don’t intend to eat). In other words, they lose their mind –the freedom to choose and ability to do what makes sense. Associated neurological findings are telling in this regard. Under stress, the brain suffers from shrinkage in the mindful region of the brain and a simultaneous growth in the compulsive sector occurs. One implication is that a stressed brain becomes over time increasingly predisposed to compulsive behavior (and less mindful behavior) and, therefore, more deprived of its capacity for freedom and choice. Due to this change in neural circuitry and density, a stressed brain becomes at some point more prone to stress, and an ever-shrinking capacity for mindfulness develops.
The good news is that the brain enjoys a certain degree of plasticity by virtue of which stress-induced changes may be reversible. In the animal study reported above, for example, taking a “vacation” from stress was enough for the lab rats to recover. Neurological examination of their brains showed an interesting development. The neural connections in the mindful region of brain (prefrontal cortex) grew back whereas the ones in the compulsive part of the brain (sensorimotor striatum) weakened and withered. In other words, taking a “vacation” enabled the mindful sector of the brain to regrow and develop. One cognitive (and behavioral) implication is that vacation time allows the brain to reestablish its executive and planning powers, and break free from the shackles of compulsion, as it regains its capacity for mindfulness.
Now, how can you give yourself a vacation on campus? Come to the Mind Spa at CAPS and release your stress before you start spinning in circles: eating mindlessly, binging on power drinks, writing and rewriting your paper, reading the same sentence over and over and not getting it … For the sake of your brain, STOP! And give yourself what you deserve: a Mind Spa vacation.
This article is featured in the Fall newsletter for the Mind Spa. For more articles, download the newsletter at