“Few of us ever live in the present. We are forever anticipating what is to come or remembering what has gone.”
― Louis L'Amour
SCIENTISTS AGREE THAT MUCH OF THE ILLNESS plaguing people in the developed world—conditions like heart disease, cancer, hypertension, diabetes, and many autoimmune disorders—is exacerbated by chronic stress. When we perceive threats, the body’s “fight or flight” system is activated, releasing bursts of cortisol and adrenaline that speed up the heart and breathing, constrict blood vessels and trigger a cascade of other reactions. If this stress response stays stuck in the “on” position, this can lead to heightened inflammation and potentially damage tissues throughout the body.
The act of utilizing mindfulness has been proven to help many people relieve stress and enable them to move out of “fight or flight” mode. If more people worldwide utilized mindfulness—there may be less chronic stress reported—this would have a great impact on many of the health problems currently plaguing the developed world.
NEED TO KNOW
- Numerous research studies have concluded that individuals who practice mindfulness consistently show improved physical health, report an improved mood, and cope with stress more effectively.
- Meditation (a form of mindfulness practice) was found to improve connectivity activity in areas of the brain associated with attention monitoring, working memory, and also our ability to self-monitor. Specifically, the 2012 Emory University study highlighted the increased connectivity of dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and the right insula.
- A study of people who were preparing to take the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) test utilizing mindfulness techniques consistently increased their working memory capacity and demonstrated superior reading comprehension on the GRE versus the control group. Specifically, “the change in GRE accuracy from mindfulness training led to an average improvement analogous to 16 percentile points.”
- Meditation was again the subject of a 2005 Harvard study by neuroscientists Sara Lazar who found that people who were practiced meditators showed a thicker layer of tissue in the prefrontal cortex than those who didn’t meditate or didn’t frequently meditate when their brains were scanned in an MRI. The prefrontal cortex is a part of the brain thought to be responsible for integrating emotional and cognitive activities.
- In 2010, it was Sara Lazar of Harvard who worked together with Britta Hölzel to report that in a study of individuals who had been practicing MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) techniques had more gray matter than before they had practiced MBSR techniques. This research indicated that this gain of grey matter might actually indicate that new neurons were created in the brain.
- A 2012 Ohio State University study exhibited that mature adults who practiced mindfulness more frequently had major increases in connectedness in two of the brains major information managing centers. Interestingly enough, these sites also happened to be where Alzheimer’s disease often makes functional changes to the brain.
- In 2011, researchers from the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that daily meditation-like thought could shift frontal brain activity toward a pattern that is associated with what cognitive scientists call positive, approach-oriented emotional states — states that make us more likely to engage the world rather than to withdraw from it.
- “Mindfulness—steady, nonjudgmental awareness and acceptance of experience—is one of the most powerful tools for brain change known to science. By strengthening the functioning of the prefrontal cortex and related structures, mindfulness leads to the self-awareness and shifts in perspective to triggers and trauma, more easily rewiring itself for resilience” (Graham, p. 67, 2014).
- Participants were instructed to relax with their eyes closed, focus on their breathing, and acknowledge and release any random thoughts that might arise. Then they had the option of receiving nine 30-minute meditation training sessions over the next five weeks. When they were tested a second time, their neural activation patterns had undergone a striking leftward shift in frontal asymmetry — even when their practice and training averaged only 5 to 16 minutes a day.
- While multitasking generally has been known to increase stress levels in people and decrease productivity, a 2012 study conducted on a group of human resources professionals demonstrated that those who had received mindfulness training were the only ones in the study to actual improve in anyway. Not only that, but they improved in number of areas, including: ability to concentrate, increased efficiency on tasks, staying on task longer, fewer negative emotions, less switching between tasks, and they actually remembered what they did better than the other participants.
- In the 1970s Psychologist Ellen Langer, demonstrated through numerous studies that mindful thought could lead to improved measures of cognitive functions and even vital functions in older adults.
- Drawing on his knowledge of, among other things, yoga, as well as his training in Korean Zen meditation, Kabat-Zinn created an eight-week program he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. In 1982, he reported that chronic pain sufferers saw a 50 percent reduction in their self-rated symptoms after undergoing a course in MBSR. Kabat-Zinn hypothesized that as people learn to see their thoughts and symptoms as separate from themselves, there is an “uncoupling” of the pain stimulus from their emotional responses. These effects proved to be durable in the course of a four-year follow-up. MBSR has since been shown in numerous studies to substantially benefit people suffering from conditions as diverse as psoriasis, fibromyalgia, cancer, heart disease, depression, anxiety, and obesity.
- By increasing mindfulness Dr. Langer found that stress decreases, pain diminishes, symptoms of arthritis, ALS and the common cold decrease, among other findings. Most astounding is that when seniors were encouraged to be mindful, they actually lived longer.
- ONE OF THE MOST AMBITIOUS STUDIES of the psychological, physical, and behavioral effects of meditation ever undertaken is The Shamatha Project, a multi-million dollar effort led by neuroscientist Clifford Saron of the University of California, Davis. Although only a fraction of the data has been published so far, the experiment offers powerful evidence that a regular meditation practice can sharpen our perception, promote a greater sense of well being, and encourage a more empathic response to others. And, through alleviating stress, meditation may even play a role in countering the effects of aging.
A STORY TO CONSIDER
Let us examine the study that Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer conducted on 84 hotel maids:
“As any casual observer of the hospitality industry knows, hotel maids spend the majority of their days lugging heavy equipment around endless hallways. Basically, almost every moment of their working lives is spent engaged in some kind of physical activity.
But Langer found that most of these women don't see themselves as physically active. She did a survey and found that 67 percent reported they didn't exercise. More than one-third of those reported they didn't get any exercise at all.
“Given that they are exercising all day long," Langer says, "that seemed to be bizarre.”
What was even more bizarre, she says, was that, despite the fact all of the women in her study far exceeded the U.S. surgeon general's recommendation for daily exercise, the bodies of the women did not seem to benefit from their activity.
Langer and her team measured the maids' body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, blood pressure, weight and body mass index. They found that all of these indicators matched the maids' perceived amount of exercise, rather than their actual amount of exercise.
So Langer set about changing perceptions.
She divided 84 maids into two groups. With one group, researchers carefully went through each of the tasks they did each day, explaining how many calories those tasks burned. They were informed that the activity already met the surgeon general's definition of an active lifestyle.
The other group was given no information at all.
One month later, Langer and her team returned to take physical measurements of the women and were surprised by what they found. In the group that had been educated, there was a decrease in their systolic blood pressure, weight, and waist-to-hip ratio — and a 10 percent drop in blood pressure.
One possible explanation is that the process of learning about the amount of exercise they were already getting somehow changed the maids' behavior. But Langer says that her team surveyed both the women and their managers and found no indication that the maids had altered their routines in any way. She believes that the change can be explained only by the change in the women's mindset.
Essentially, what Langer is talking about is a placebo effect. She says that if you believe you are exercising, your body may respond as if it is. It's the same as if you believe you are getting medication when you are actually getting a sugar pill — your body can sometimes respond as if a placebo is actually working.
The implication is that the "objective reality" of the physical body is not as immovable as we might have assumed. Hence, the theoretical possibility that, if done with genuine conviction, one might be able to sit around eating chocolate and still lose weight.” (NPR—see references for source)
The “hotel maid” study by Ellen Langer has greater implications beyond the placebo effect. Through extrapolation it can be deduced that in their own way, by changing their perceptions, the maids in the experimental group of this study were practicing a form of mindfulness. In that, the maids began to pay attention to their bodily movements throughout their workday and became aware that their normal movements were actually a form of exercise.
Exercise universally agreed upon as a healthy activity. Thus, at the conclusion of the study, the maids who had mindfully recognized their work activities as exercise demonstrated physiological changes, that were measurable, as opposed to the control group of maids (who continued to go about their workday without being mindfully intentional of their activities). It can be inferred that the maids who went about their activities in the usual way did so without a significant mindfulness practice and therefore did not physically benefit from their labors—perhaps they were thinking of a mixture of the past, present, and future.
Perhaps they were anxious about finding time to exercise or how they were going to pay the bills with their low salary. Without further study, it is impossible to know more about the maids in the control group, but it is safe to say that they can represent the vast majority of workers in the United States just by cultural association. We do not live in a in a culture that values mindfulness or contemplation. We live in a culture that values production. Thus, with the economic forces rapidly changing—there is always a need for more production. Mindful behavior and contemplation are not valued—in fact, they viewed as almost counter-cultural or “wasteful” by the vast majority in the United States.
While mindfulness is easy to talk about—it’s difficult for most to practice consistently. As people grow older—a commonly reported sensation is that “time flies.” Many have observed instances throughout history, where new innovations appeared to affect the pace of living in the world. Whether it was the invention of the printing press or the rapidly developing technologies of the twenty-first century that currently allow us to have faster and greater access to store houses of information all over the world and our personal schedules and messages at our fingertips nearly any place we go on the planet.
The time demands of working can cause people a significant amount of stress—not to mention the economic demands of the economy in the United States that has changed since 2008 or even the student loans that most people take out in order to earn their advanced degrees. The feeling of stress is common for people navigating a multitude of complex scenarios both in the workplace and at home. Mindfulness is an excellent tool that can help a clinician move from frazzled and exhausted to calm and revitalized.
To begin cultivating mindfulness, biologist and psychologist Joan Borysenk (author of Minding the Body, Mending the Mind) recommends sitting down, relaxing the belly, and following the breath as it comes and goes; when a through arises, let it go and return to the following breath.
Mindfulness is actually so simple that it may seem counter intuitive to many working in the fast-paced world of healthcare. Mindfulness can take many forms: from intentionally setting aside time to practice a short meditation or breathing exercise, to paying close attention to your surroundings for a period of time, to working on focusing on one task at a time, mindfully. Simply working on paying attention to your breathing and slowing down. One, well known, mindfulness exercise is taking a piece of food, such as a raisin, and focusing upon it while you “check in” with the five senses as you then go through the process of holding, examining, and finally eating the raisin.
A mindfulness practice is available to us at all times—we just to remember to not get carried away by the busyness of life. But if we do, with a reminder—we can intentionally set time aside to be mindful. If one intentionally practices mindfulness—even a little bit each week, the research states that not only will they begin to feel better—the can begin working to improve our overall health and, over time, even growing new connections in our brains. In addition to cultivating a mindfulness practice, one can work on paying attention to what they are doing in that moment and focusing on the situation at hand instead of thinking of the past or future—and this act which is a continual refocusing is way of cultivating mindfulness in our daily life and work.
“Mindfulness isn't difficult, we just need to remember to do it.”
― Sharon Salzberg, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation
BACKGROUND and MORE:
The act of practicing mindfulness is, in part, derived from the ancient meditation practices of the Buddhist religion—but it is not a religious practice. In the 1960s, an MIT graduate student named Jon Kabat-Zin began studying meditation and practicing meditation. He later discovered that mindfulness had many benefits upon a person’s brain and physical body. Jon Kabat-Zin holds a Doctorate in Molecular Biology from MIT.
In 1979, he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Mindfulness was then researched in the clinic and in hospitals as Kabat-Zin developed a Mindfulness protocols to help cancer patients manage their stress. Both doctors and researchers noticed that practicing Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) helped patients suffering from many different conditions. Since then, many studies have proven there to be many benefits of utilizing MBSR in treating depression, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, addictions, and many other conditions.
In fact, “recent studies from Massachusetts General Hospital have shown that eight weeks of MBSR can actually produce thickening in particular regions of the brain important for learning, memory, executive decision-making and perspective-taking: all important functions to have at optimal levels when you are under stress or experiencing pain. Also, certain regions get thinner like the amygdala, which involves threat and fear circuitry.” Similar practices were eventually adopted by Psychotherapists and are known as “Mindfulness Meditation” and also “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy” or just simply as “mindfulness.”
Currently, many people are practicing mindfulness themselves as a way to be fully present with their patients and work to increase their clinical effectiveness in therapy. Some people are opting to teach their patients mindfulness skills as part of psychotherapy and encouraging them to begin a mindfulness practice of their own. Recent studies on mindfulness have proven that practicing it can enhance attention, empathic attunement, and neuroplasticity. As more and more studies emerge confirming the benefits of practicing mindfulness, the more practitioners from various fields are integrating it with psychotherapy and other therapies.
Mindfulness can be defined in many ways, but one practice involves the ability to quiet your mind, focus your attention on the present and dismiss distractions as they come your way. Mindfulness can be done in the context of an intentional meditation or simply by taking a few moments or minutes during ones day to slow down and pay attention.
Mindfulness can be practiced by anyone; it is not complicated or esoteric. In fact, according to one definition it is simply “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally” (Segal, Teasdale, & Williams, 2002, p 77). Mindfulness skills can be utilized across situations and environments. Learning to practice mindfulness has been proven to reduce stress, improve concentration, enhance productivity and effectiveness, improve your ability to more skillfully manage emotions, as well as a multitude of other physical and emotional benefits. It has been proven to be effective in producing positive changes in a variety of common difficulties or disorders such as stress, low mood, chronic sadness, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and a wide variety of other presenting problems relieve-anxiety-and-depression Understanding and Applying Mindfulness to our lives.
Jon Kabat-Zinn stated that all meditation is “about paying attention…that’s what all meditation is, no matter what tradition or particular techniques is used.” Zinn continued to discuss that mindfulness is also a practice of observing things how they are and not how we wish they would be; this includes the environment around us, physical feelings, emotional feelings, and thoughts (Reference). While paying attention, a person practicing mindfulness is not judging their current state, but they are attempting to stay present; once distracted, continuing to breathe and return to the present moment. By not judging their current state, a person who is practicing mindfulness may notice a shift in their emotional and physical feelings.
Jon Kabat-Zinn elaborated on one of the philosophical reasons why this may occur: “In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart are same. So if you’re not hearing mindfulness in some deep way as ‘heartfulness’, you’re not really understanding it. Compassion and kindness towards oneself are intrinsically woven into it. You could think of mindfulness as wise and affectionate attention.”
While a person practicing mindfulness is not deliberately attempting to substitute thoughts and feelings of compassion and kindness toward themselves—the freedom from judgment and paying attention to one’s ‘heart space’ (or the place where most humans feel emotions as sensation—the torso) naturally can bring on a new state of being. In a way, mindfulness is a way of paying attention intentionally and honoring yourself as a human being, which can help you connect to what you are truly feeling from moment to moment.
If you find it difficult to stay mindful in traffic or at your busy job; don't worry this is normal phenomenon of the western world. Considering all the complications and stimuli of the modern existence, it appears quite difficult to maintain mindfulness for a long period of time. However, with practice we can continually reenter a mindful state and stay there longer.
One way to cultivate mindfulness is to take small breaks throughout your workday and tasks as well as time to complete a mindfulness meditation or two. For a challenge, for five days in a row of a typical work week, take five minutes after work to take notes in a journal and reflect on your stress level, how you feel in your body, how connected you felt with your work or patients. Then during the next week, try a mindfulness practice before you start your workday for five days straight. At the end of each workday, complete the same set of journaling exercises and compare your results.
Ideally, people would set time aside to practice mindfulness at least once a day. Yet, we do not live in an ideal world or have ideal lives—we must continually attempt to carve out time from our lives in order to practice mindfulness. If we find that time has gone by without us practicing mindfulness, we can always return to the practice. And the act of mindfulness will welcome us back and help to calm our minds. If you find sitting quietly and breathing difficult, do not be discouraged.
Being mindful does not require you to sit by yourself in silence. There are plenty of guided mindfulness practices and MBSR (mindfulness based stress reduction) tools available to you to read or listen to. You can also learn and practice active mindfulness during your daily tasks. You may be able to practice mindfulness related skills through attending a yoga class, swimming class, or taking walks in your neighborhood. It is possible to bring a mindful state of mind into your daily waking work and home life.
By utilizing mindfulness we can focus on what task at a time and give it our full attention, thus counteracting another popular myth of modern culture: that multitasking is effective. Developing a mindful approach to tasks can enable us to create and complete things through a deliberate practice, with results we can be proud of.
In addition to empowering people in a variety of practical ways, from increased concentration to improved mood, and from a stressful fight-flight state to a more tranquil alertness, Mindfulness can actual have the effect of a paradigm shift in the way one lives their life. For instance, Dr. Ellen Langer has spent years studying and demonstrating that most people do tasks “mindlessly” most of the time. Dr. Langer believes that most suffering in our lives is either the direct or indirect result of mindlessness, including professional, personal, interpersonal, and societal. In fact: She shares, “We suffer from an illusion of certainty and would prosper from realizing that since everything is always changing and everything looks different from different perspectives, this ‘certainty’ is mindless and robs us of control.”
Her research has found that increasing mindfulness results in increases in health, competence and happiness. More specifically, when people become more mindful, they become more charismatic, more innovative, less judgmental. Memory and attention improve, relationships expand, and mindfulness even leaves its imprint on the products we produce.
Dr. Langer continues “Virtually all the world’s ills boil down to mindlessness,” she says. If you can understand someone else’s perspective, then there’s no reason to be angry at them, envy them, steal from them. Mindfulness, she believes, is a tool for the masses that can prop open our minds. “It’s not something you have to strain to do, it’s like those optical illusion brain teasers,” she says. “Once you’ve seen there is another perspective, you can never not see that there’s another point of view.”
Mindfulness can change your life.
Author, Linda Graham has written a book “Bouncing Back: Rewiring your brain for maximum resilience and well-being” (2014) that serves to summarize and utilize the latest research from neurology and neurobiology in practical ways—and mindfulness is one of the empirically proven ways she discusses that enables one to actually rewire their brain.
She writes: “With enough mindfulness practice, we arrive at our own embodied understanding of the wisdom teachings about conditioning and getting stuck in patterns. We perceive the universality of suffering, then natural arising of compassion in the face of suffering, the direct experience of the interconnectedness of all beings and the interrelatedness of all events, and the nothingness of all phenomena—pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral.
To paraphrase my colleague Andy Dreitcter, we learn to ‘take it all seriously and hold it all lightly.’ Because the teachings themselves point to experiences of deep resilience that we can all partake of with though practice, and because focused attention on repeated experiences of resilience does create brain change, mindfulness practice is a cornerstone of any program to rewire our brains toward resilience” (Graham, p.62, 2014).
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