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The Benefits of Mindfulness

I have been talking a lot about mindfulness in this blog and I decided it was time to explain why I am so enthusiastic and determined about developing this skill.  Mindfulness involves  focusing on the present moment, non-judgmentally, with acceptance and compassion. This can be done informally, as we go about our daily activities, and in formal mindfulness meditation practice. So the question is: what are the benefits of becoming more mindful and accepting of our present experience?

iStock_000002128470XSmallAccording to Ron Siegel in The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems, “a wealth of scientific evidence” shows that mindfulness can have a profound effect on our lives. Researchers have demonstrated “changes in both inner experience and outward behavior” and have recently been able to show changes in “brain functioning and brain structure” due to advances in  brain scanning technology.

Richard Davidson, a researcher at the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teamed up with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, to study the impact of mindfulness training on brain activity. They recruited stressed workers in a biotechnology firm and taught half of them mindfulness meditation 3 hours per week over  8 weeks.  The other workers served as a control group who were not taught mindfulness meditation.  At the start of the study, all the participants had significantly more activity in the right prefrontal cortex, a pattern found in people who are anxious, depressed or hypervigilant (frequently scanning the environment for danger). At the end of the study, the group who were taught mindfulness meditation had significantly more left prefrontal cortex activation than the control group, which is the brain activity pattern for people who are generally content, with fewer negative moods. Additionally, the group of meditators had a greater immune response, indicated by more antibodies than the non-meditators after receiving the flu vaccine.

Sara Lazar, a biological researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, studied MRIs of long-term meditators and non-meditators. She discovered that the meditators had thicker cerebral cortexes than non-meditators in the prefrontal cortex, sensory cortex, and anterior insula. Thicker areas of the brain are indicative of enhanced capabilities in those areas. All three areas are involved in paying attention to sensory input and the prefrontal cortex is also involved in working memory–which helps us keep thoughts in our minds long enough for reflection, problem-solving, and decision-making. Research also showed that the degree of thickness was proportional to the amount of meditation experience and the differences were even more pronounced in older participants.  In another study, Lazar found increased density in a part of the brain stem involved in the production of the mood-regulating neurotransmitter serotonin after 8 weeks of mindfulness practice. The most pronounced changes in density occurred in the brains of those who practiced the most. These individuals were also the ones who reported the greatest increase in their sense of well-being.

A school-based program of mindfulness awareness practices (MAPs) for second and third graders, ages 7-9, was studied by Lisa Flook and her colleagues at UCLA. The program was provided to students two times per week, for eight weeks, for a total of sixteen 30- minute practice sessions.  Children with self-control problems who received the mindfulness training showed greater improvement in their regulatory abilities than children who did not receive the mindfulness training.

To summarize, research has shown significant reductions in anxiety and hypervigilance, improvement in mood, attention, emotional regulation, working memory, and immune response, and promising findings with regards to cognitive functioning as we age.  I am most interested in improving my self-discipline, working memory and ability to shift attention from distractions, which will hopefully also help improve my time management skills. What benefits of mindfulness would be most helpful to you? 

 


Shifting Gears from Automatic Pilot to Mindful Attention

iStock_000002128470XSmallI  neglected this blog for the past few months and it is time to get back on track. I had to add one more task to my routine because of the need to prepare for a major presentation and I discovered that it felt very much like trying to rub my belly and pat my head while juggling, all at the same time. I couldn’t keep up the regular discipline of all four activities I had added to my schedule–blogging, meditation practice, exercise, and brain training–with presentation preparation added to the mix.  I was able to keep doing brain training and exercise, although not as frequently, but meditation and blogging fell by the wayside.

 I continued to do informal mindfulness practice, but cut out formal meditation. I was self-aware enough to realize that I was operating on automatic pilot, driven to finish the presentation, and had a vague sense that I was avoiding meditating to avoid facing emotions that felt like obstacles to success. So I didn’t realize that my need to do all the preparation on my own, without the guidance of mentors who had helped me in the past, was due to how unrealistically high I had raised the bar for measuring my success.  I got it into my head that it was time for me to fly solo, that I didn’t need guidance this time, that asking for help would be a step in the wrong direction, away from self-reliance.  Boy was I wrong!

 The night before the presentation, when it still wasn’t flowing, I had to admit to myself that I needed some last minute advice. I called a good friend who talked me through it and helped me to see that I was making it too complicated.  So I cut out some unnecessarily elaborate explanations of concepts and then it all started to flow.  The presentation was a success and I learned some valuable lessons. 

 According to Ronald Siegel, Psy. D., author of The Mindfulness Solution, mindfulness has three main components: focused attention, open monitoring (of any inner thoughts, emotions, body sensations, and urges that come into conscious awareness), and compassionate acceptance of our inner experience.  In this situation, I only had guarded monitoring, limited attention, and compassionate acceptance that I was doing the best I could at that moment. However, I was not open to all emotional experience, because I needed to believe I was more self-sufficient than I really was.  I had climbed way out on a limb and needed to recognize and admit my human limitations in order to get back to solid ground.  Being more realistic about my capabilities and limitations helped me to shine  as a presenter, instead of being handicapped by my unrealistic expectations.

 Did you ever try to go it alone instead of seeking guidance? Did it make it harder to accomplish your goal? Please share your experiences below. 

If you enjoyed this post, you might also be interested in reading: Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness.


A 3-Step Process for Shifting Attention and Regaining Focus

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I am noticing a pattern in my efforts to develop healthy habits.  When I add a new habit to my routine, it causes a temporary setback in the habits that I already established. 

I recently started doing regular brain training exercises to enhance my memory, attention and flexibility through Lumosity. This coincided with an unanticipated change in my work schedule that caused me to have to leave 1/2 hour earlier in the morning, which  affected my meditation and exercise routine.  The first week, I played the brain training games on 6 out of 7 days but did not meditate or exercise at all.  The second week, I did brain training 4 times and also succeeded in meditating several times. Now in the third week I am continuing brain training and meditation and also getting more serious about exercising again. 

I decided to add brain training to my routine because:

  •  I have been watching people I care about struggle with memory loss as they get older and my memory has  never been great to begin with.
  • While I have greatly improved my ability to stay focused over the years, I still have difficulty shifting my focus when I am absorbed in something compelling and need to get other things done.

 After the first two weeks of brain training, I have already seen significant improvement in my working memory and selective attention and more limited improvement in flexibility through the task switching and response inhibition games.  Hopefully, doing both brain training and meditation will have a synergistic effect that helps me improve my mental flexibility since that has been the hardest skill for me to develop.

Mind wandering is an expected part of meditation.  Bringing my attention back to the focus of my meditation, whether it be my breathing, body sensations, sounds in the environment or my emotions, helps me to develop mental flexibility.   Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues at Emory University studied mind wandering and attention during focused concentration meditation and identified a 3-step process for resuming focus: awareness, shifting, and focusing.

  1. AWARENESS:  Becoming aware of mind wandering during meditation helps me to practice monitoring conflicts between my intentions and my actions, my goals and obstacles to achieving them. This is believed to be a function of the salience network of the brain, which helps distinguish between relevant and distracting stimuli, according to Wendy Hasenkamp and her colleagues.
  2. SHIFTING: The most challenging skill for me to apply in my daily life is to be able to shift or reorient my attention as needed.  This skill involves the executive network of the brain, which is thought to activate attentional disengagement and redirection skills for the purpose of following through on tasks deemed relevant to goal achievement.  The flexibility games in Lumosity appear to develop the same skills; the response inhibition games seem to be designed to promote attentional disengagement and the task switching games seem to be excellent practice for redirection of focus.
  3. FOCUSING: The focus phase is what I have been practicing the most, both through meditation and persistent  choosing to prioritize practicing new habits. Hasenkamp and her colleagues believe the focusing phase involves executive system working memory. This involves keeping goals in mind through repetitive selection, or active rehearsal, to achieve sustained attention.    I suspect that the development of my focusing ability is the reason why my working memory and selective attention skills in Lumosity are showing so much improvement and why I have been able to get back on track so quickly when obstacles interfere with my routine.

 Does your mind wander a lot?  Do you have difficulty with awareness, shifting, and focusing skills?  Have you tried anything that has helped you to improve these skills?  Please share your thoughts below.