What Neuroscience Tells us about the Awesome Benefits of Mindfulness | by Delaney Tosh

Executive meditating, sat on desk surrounded by distractions

And why mindfulness is the 'go-to' tool for achieving balance

Here's an emotional balance definition:

  1. A sense of general well-being, resilience, connection and the ability to maintain one's equanimity.
  2. Having optimal neurochemical activity to promote enhanced cognition and mood stability and sustain the ability to be responsive and thoughtful.

Can you feel it? Can you sense the growing undercurrent of fear, overwhelm and disconnection in the world?

The bottom line is that the past few years have been very difficult, and what initially connected us during the pandemic ("we're all in this together") soon devolved into disconnection and uncertainty. It's not surprising that many of us are feeling off-balance and perhaps more than a little over-reactive.

But how to regain that sense of connection?

The starting place is to reconnect with yourself. To do this, you can draw on a well-researched tool called mindfulness meditation. In a nutshell, this is the practice of connecting with self.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of building awareness of thoughts and sensations without trying to modify or act on them.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered the clinical research on mindfulness meditation in healthcare, defined mindfulness as "paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally." 1

The benefits of practicing mindfulness


  • Powers down (and even shrinks) the amygdala,* resulting in reduced reactivity to stressors.
  • Powers up your prefrontal cortex* for a calmer, more organized and focused you.
  • Increases your ability to be at choice—to be responsive versus reactive.
  • Allows you to hear your inner sage and shush your inner critic so you feel greater self-compassion and more connection to your inner self.
  • Supports you in being in the present moment, reducing feelings such as worry or regret.

This is the stuff of balance.

* These brain regions are described below.

What the research says:

Research reported in the Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience indicates that mindfulness-based stress reduction (as developed by Kabat-Zinn) "decreases depression and anxiety in people with chronic somatic diseases and that it reduces stress, ruminative thinking and trait anxiety in healthy people." 2

Mindfulness changes your neurochemistry

With mindfulness meditation, you achieve a sense of balance by influencing the balance of neurochemicals in your body.

Here's how it works:

Mindfulness influences the brain's activity predominantly along the hypothalamus–pituitary–adrenal (HPA) axis in ways that positively influence the body's response to stress.

  1. Mindfulness inhibits the sympathetic nervous system (the neural network that signals your body's fight-or-flight response). It inhibits activity in the hypothalamus. This in turn signals the pituitary gland to inhibit release of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH), which controls the production of cortisol (your stress hormone).In other words, mindfulness reduces stress hormone activity and therefore your stress. This allows the parasympathetic nervous system (the "rest and digest" neural network) to activate, giving your body and brain the chance to relax.
  1. Mindfulness also stimulates the release of the body's feel-good hormones and neurotransmitters, such as endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Again, this happens through activity in the hypothalamus.
  2. Furthermore, mindfulness stimulates the synthesis of melatonin in the pineal gland. People who practise mindfulness regularly have been found to have increased diurnal (24-hour) melatonin levels. 3

Balanced melatonin levels are linked with serotonin and dopamine activity in the brain and enhanced sleep quality. These effects play an important role in enhancing positive affect, mood stability and motivation. 3

Other neurochemicals are also mediated by mindfulness (as demonstrated in scientific studies):

  • Gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which lowers blood pressure and pain responses, is increased by mindfulness practice.
  • Norepinephrine, which increases arousal of heart rate and tension, is lowered by mindfulness.
  • Acetylcholine (ACh), which positively influences the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest, digest and relax system), is stimulated by mindfulness.

Mindfulness also changes the shape of your brain!

Most surprisingly, after just eight weeks of daily practice, mindfulness increases the size of various brain regions, including your:

  • Hippocampus, which plays a key role in memory processing and retrieval.
  • Posterior cingulate cortex, which lets you switch mental states in response to unexpected changes.
  • Temporoparietal junction, which is involved in social cognition, self-awareness and connection.
  • Prefrontal cortex, which is associated with planning, focus, decision making, problem solving and emotional regulation.

Mindfulness also decreases the size of your amygdala (the brain region associated with fear, flight-or-fight reactivity and stress). 4, 5, 6

Thus, mindfulness meditation promotes balanced neurochemicals in our bodies and brains. And this balance creates our felt sense of balance—the ability to meet challenges with responsiveness and resilience, and our capacity for compassion and connection with self and others.

Mindfulness practice is simple, do-able and time-efficient!

Really! From three of the world's authorities on the science of mindfulness and how it creates balance, connection and compassion, here are two short, guided mindfulness practices and one intriguing discussion.

  1. Jon Kabat-Zinn: 10-minute guided mindfulness meditation video
  2. Kristen Neff: 20-minute guided mindfulness meditation for developing self-compassion and compassion for others
  3. Sharon Salzberg: A discussion on how to feel balanced—evolving and enriching your understanding of what balance means

Top tip:

  • Practicing mindfulness for 12 minutes a day, 5 days a week, for just 8 weeks has been shown to have the most positive, long-lasting benefits promoting your sense of balance—calm, compassion, focus and connection. 7


The feelings and emotional states we associate with the concept of balance are mediated by the release, or inhibition, of neurohormones and neurotransmitters.

Since the 1970s, clinical studies have shown that mindfulness meditation changes the concentrations of these neurochemicals in the blood serum and changes activity in key brain regions. And the result is balance—both neurochemical and emotional.

This is great news, because mindfulness practice is easy to begin, and you can find many resources online to support a daily practice.


  1. Kabat-Zinn J. Wherever you go, there you are: mindfulness meditation in everyday life. New York (NY): Hyperion; 1994. [Google Scholar]
  2. Young SN. Biologic effects of mindfulness meditation: growing insights into neurobiologic aspects of the prevention of depression. J Psychiatry Neurosci. 2011 Mar;36(2):75–77.
  3. Solberg E., Ekeberg, O., Holen, A., Osterud, B., Halvorsen, R., Vikman, A., 2000a. Melatonin and serotonin during meditation. J Psychosom Res. 48(3):268–269.
  4. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, et al. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191:36–43. [PMC free article]
  5. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010;5(1):11–17. [PMC free article]
  6. Lazar S. et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28;16(17):1893–1897. [NIH Library of Medicine]
  7. Jha A, Peak mind: find your focus, own your attention, invest 12 minutes a day; Hachette, UK; 2021.

If you liked this article on mindfulness as a practice for balance to share with clients, try:

Delaney Tosh Headshot

Contributing Author:

Delaney Tosh, CPCC, PCC, coaches women who want to radiate with confidence and thrive as leaders. She helps her clients navigate the hurdles unique to women in leadership and also delivers the Resilience at Work® Toolkit and Resilience at Work® Leader Scale, helping leaders and teams create optimal performance through resilience. She is co-creator of the Phoenix-Hearted Woman retreats and webinars, designed to help women build resilience and strengthen their foundation for being heard and making a difference in the world. Connect with Delaney at SquarePeg Leadership or on LinkedIn.

Learn more about Delaney & see all their articles here >>

Image of Executive using Mindfulness for Balance while meditating on desk with distractions all around by Pixel-Shot via Shutterstock

One Comment

  1. sue landsberg

    Really great article on the benefits of Mindfulness. I alway find when people understand why they are doing it and whats going on in their mind and body the buy in to practice is there.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.