I never cease to be amazed at how we can physically change our brains with the thoughts and behaviors we choose.
This week I read about a study focused on determining how different mental exercises affect our brains and our responses to social stressors. The study found that each of three mental training programs changed the structure of the brain networks supporting the skills the programs focused on. Everyone in the study felt less stressed after dealing with an uncomfortable social situations, and some of the participants — depending on which type of mental training they did — produced significantly less stress hormone in these situations.
It’s exciting — if you feel like social situations stress you out, you can change that.
The first type of training in the study was mindfulness meditation. Six days a week for three months, participants engaged in sessions where they focused on their breath, on sensations in their body, and on visual and audio cues in their environment. At the end of the three months, their brain structures had changed in areas known to be associated with executive function and attention.
The second type of training was “socio-affective.” That means it centered around developing positive feelings in interactions with others—feelings like gratitude and empathy— as well as developing skills for dealing with difficult emotions. At the end of three months, the brains of subjects who received socio-affective training had changed in areas related to these emotions and behaviors. These subjects also showed lower levels of stress hormone following a stressful situation.
The final type of training was “socio-cognitive.” It helped participants to both understand their inner workings and perceive experiences from the perspective of those they interacted with. Along with changes in the perspective-related areas of the brain, these subjects also showed a reduction in stress hormone release after a stressful social situation.
If you feel like you could benefit from some changes in the social areas of your brain, seek out counseling. A mental health professional can help you develop new thought patterns and reduce the amount of stress you feel in difficult social situations.