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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? 

 


Harnessing Radical Acceptance & “I Want” Power to Enhance Self-Control

APA-BlogDayBadge-2014The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that persuades you to get up to meditate and exercise when you feel like staying in bed, helps you to resist the extra helping of dessert, and motivates you to start working on the project that you feel like putting off until tomorrow.  According to Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University,  the main purpose of the prefrontal cortex is to bias the brain towards choosing to do “the harder thing.” 

Kelly McGonigal describes the three regions of the prefrontal cortex involved in motivating us to make the harder choices as specializing in “I will” power, “I won’t” power and “I want” power. The region near the upper left side of the prefrontal cortex handles “I will” power. It helps you start and stick to boring, difficult or stressful tasks. The right side of the prefrontal cortex specializes in “I won’t” power, helping you resist urges.  The third region, in the middle of the prefrontal cortex, focuses on your desires, goals and priorities and helps you decide what you really want in life, then set the intention to pursue it.  

I am getting much better at “I won’t” power.  I am much more able to resist unhealthy food choices than I used to be and I am successfully losing weight. I have made a lot of progress with “I will” power, as demonstrated by my efforts to add daily meditation and exercise to my routine.  When I do concentration meditation focusing on lengthening the breath in the morning I am much more likely to choose to exercise that day.  I did it 5 days in a row one week and then 3 times the following week. However, it is still very easy for me to fall out of the habit. 

The good news is that I am motivating myself to get back on the horse much sooner than ever before.  Partly this is because I am not judging my lapses in discipline as failures.  I am practicing what Sharon Salzberg refers to as “stealth meditation,” incorporating mindfulness into my day, not just during formal meditation practice. One form of stealth meditation is practicing radical acceptance and self-compassion over and over again when I have setbacks in my efforts towards achieving my goals. That helps me get back on track faster.  The other thing that is helping me get back on track is that I am investing a lot of “I want” power into this endeavor.  I have made a commitment to keep working on developing healthy self-care habits and I am quite persistent when I am determined to accomplish a particular goal. 

In what ways do you use “I will” power, “I won’t” power, and “I want” power? Which of these forms of willpower are challenging for you? What do you do to try to overcome these challenges? Please share your thoughts  in the comments section below.

For information about Mental Health Blog Day and to read other contributor’s posts, follow this link:  http://ow.ly/wSKlZ 

 

If you are interested in reading more about Kelly McGonigal and “The Willpower Instinct,” you can read the following posts:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

For more information about Sharon Salzberg’s meditation strategies, you can read:

Seeking the Middle Way

Balancing Mindfulness of Emotions with Lovingkindness


Can Simple Breathing Exercises Enhance Self-Discipline?

iStock_000002128470XSmallBalance continues to elude me.  My private practice became busier than usual in the weeks before Passover, when my personal life also requires more of my time, so there was no time for writing and this blog was neglected.  Not only that, but it also complicated my attempts to get back on track with my efforts to add exercise to my balancing act.  I had successfully moved past the obstacles I wrote about last month and was back to meditating every day and exercising 4 times per week. That lasted two weeks and then I got so preoccupied with work and family obligations that it fell apart again.  I am back on track with the meditation but the exercise is still a challenge.

I returned to Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct, for additional inspiration. She mentions that daily breath focus meditation can teach the mind how to handle inner distractions, such as cravings, worries and desires, as well as outer distractions, such as sights, sounds and smells.

I realized that I had gotten away from basics in my meditation practice. I have been focusing more on guided compassion and reflection meditations,  and wasn’t taking time to focus on the breath.  So I am getting back to basics. 

Kelly McGonigal also describes the benefits of slowing down our breathing to 4-6 breaths per minute, 10-15 seconds per breath.  Slower breathing improves heart rate variability (the moment-to-moment and beat-to-beat variations in heart rate) and  activates the pre-frontal cortex (the part of the brain involved in self-regulation). This helps shift the brain from stress mode to self-control mode. According to McGonigal, a few minutes of slowed breathing can give the willpower reserve a boost, helping us to feel “calm, in control and capable of handling cravings or challenges.” 

Here are the steps Kelly McGonigal describes in her book:

  1. Time yourself to see how many breaths you normally take  in a minute.
  2. Begin to slow down your breathing, without holding your breath.
  3. Focus on exhaling slowly by pursing your lips and blowing out gently and completely.  Exhaling in this way will also enable you to breathe in more  deeply.
  4. After a few minutes of breathing this way, time yourself  again to see how many breaths you are now taking in a minute.  Heart rate variability starts to increase once you get below 12 breaths per minute and continues to improve steadily as your breathing gets slower.
  5. Daily practice will help you to slow down your breathing even more, which will maximize heart rate variability, pre-frontal cortex activation and the ability to handle self-control challenges. 

My plan is to start my mornings with a form of breath meditation that focuses on lengthening the breath, to help me choose to exercise.  The initial results are promising.  On the first morning I did the breath meditation I not only went to the gym, but I also chose a healthier breakfast than I felt like eating and resisted the urge to procrastinate. The next day I exercised again and had other similar improvements.I will keep you posted and let you know how it works out.  :-)

Please add your comments below and share this post on twitter, facebook, and other social networking sites. 

You also might be interested in reading:

A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self for more about “The Willpower Instinct.”

 What is an Interoceptive Body Scan Meditation? for more about heart rate variability.

 

 


A Willpower Tug-of-War Between Different Parts of Self

iStock_000002128470XSmallI spent the first two months of 2014 developing a solid daily meditation practice, and the next step towards my goal of achieving greater life balance was to add exercise to my daily routine. The first week went well.  I exercised every morning and continued to meditate regularly at night. Then we switched to daylight savings time and it all fell apart.  I was tired and not feeling well, so I gave myself permission to take a day off, then another and another.

I started reading the book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of it, by Stanford University psychologist Kelly McGonigal, to help me get back on track.

  In the first chapter she wrote, “every willpower challenge is a conflict between two parts of oneself.” She recommends identifying, naming and being mindful of these different parts.  Since I am a great believer in the existence of multiple parts of self that unconsciously impact our actions,  this resonated strongly for me. Thinking of it in these terms helped me to gain some needed perspective.

I realized that the self-indulgent child part of me that craves instant gratification was saying “I don’t wanna” and “please don’t make me” about getting up and moving in the morning and winding down at night, and my overindulgent parent part was saying “ok, you don’t have to.” I also noticed that instead of remaining mindful and pausing to give myself a chance to reflect on what I really want, my wise woman part seemed to be on vacation or missing-in-action.  

Identifying the parts of self that were working against my long-term goals helped me to realize that I wasn’t doing myself any favors by giving in to my indulgent impulses.  So I started an internal dialogue to give voice to all three of these parts and to start meeting my needs first before satisfying my desires.  This has helped me to start to get back on the road towards greater self-discipline and balance.

For more information about Kelly McGonigal’s approach to willpower, you can view a talk she gave about her book: http://kellymcgonigal.com/2012/06/12/willpowerbooktalk/.  Topics addressed include addiction, cravings, procrastination, motivation, mindfulness, sleep, exercise, goal-setting, habits,  guilt, shame, and self-compassion.

Do you have internal conflicts about willpower? Which of your parts are in conflict over this? Does this parts-of-self approach to willpower conflicts sound helpful to you? Please share your thoughts about this topic below.

 


One Good Habit Leads to Another

Last week I wrote about my intention to take my meditation practice to the next level and make it a daily practice.  I have now successfully finished my second week of daily meditation and I’ve noticed something. Even though I planned to wait to work on being more consistent about exercise so I could dedicate myself to developing one habit at a time, I ended up going to the gym twice this week anyway.  I just felt like doing it.

iStock_000002128470XSmallIn last week’s post, I mentioned research that showed that self-control was like a muscle that can get tired and needs rest.  However,  according to research by Megan Oaten and Ken Cheng, participants who exercised self-discipline on a regular basis in regards to one habit,  also  showed  improved willpower with other habits.  So self-control also resembles a muscle in that it strengthens with exercise.

There is another way that I had more practice this week.  I was more distractible a few mornings this week, so I had much more practice bringing my attention back to my meditation over and over again, which gave me a lot more practice in self-discipline.

Even though I successfully exercised twice this week, I am still not committing to exercising regularly yet.  I am going to continue my plan to work on one habit at a time to maximize my success. This raises the question, how long do I need to continue my daily meditation practice before it becomes an automatic habit? 

According to success coach and best-selling author Jack Canfield, it takes 30 days for a new neural pathway to be established. He recommends 30 day experiments to try out new behaviors, and an additional 2-3 months to reinforce them. According to Loretta Breuning, PhD of MeetYourHappyChemicals.com, our brains need 45 days of repetition for a new habit to start feeling normal.  And according to a University College London study, it takes an average of 66 days for a new behavior to become an automatic habit, depending on the complexity of the behavior, among other factors.  Given the above, I decided to give myself two months to develop my meditation habit before I move on to focusing on other goals.

Since the literature does not yet have a consensus about how long it takes to establish a new positive habit, I am curious to know what your experience has been. How long has it taken you to develop a new habit? Has it taken different lengths of time for different types of habits? 


A New Blog for the New Year

iStock_000002128470XSmallThe New Year is a time of reflection and rededication to striving to overcome  bad habits.  In reflecting on my own personal growth journey and the areas that continue to challenge me, I decided it was time to work on it in a more disciplined and structured way.  My old way of approaching things has helped me only so far.  Now I have decided that I need to shift the balance.  Up until now, I emphasized acceptance over change, when it came to personal habits.  I accepted my own difficulty maintaining structure and the need to keep starting over and over again.

This new blog is part of the new plan.

Setting my intentions and committing to them publicly is a way of holding myself accountable and receiving support for my efforts.  I also plan to be more systematic in my approach.  Instead of trying to change several things at once, I am learning from my experience.  What I noticed is that when I focused on being more disciplined about one thing, it became harder to be more disciplined about another thing. Recently, I was going to the gym twice a week and exercising at home other mornings.  When I tried to be more structured in my meditation practice, my exercise routine suffered.  So I intend to focus on one goal at a time and to stick with that goal until it is a more automatic part of my routine before trying to change something else.

There is some research to back up this approach.  In a review by Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in the 2000 edition of the Psychological Bulletin (Vol. 126, No. 2) entitled, “Self-Regulation and Depletion of Limited Resources: Does Self-Control Resemble a Muscle?”, the authors concluded that the inhibition component of executive functioning relies on a limited, consumable resource, that needs replenishment.  Resisting temptation to indulge in extra sleep or go on the computer instead of meditating in the morning, for example, would make it harder to exert self-control to follow through on exercising.

So once meditating is more of an automatic habit, then it won’t be using up my self-control reserve and I can apply it to become more consistent about exercise.  So far, I have meditated every morning for the past week.  I am off to a good start!

Now the question remains, how long do I need to work on meditation before I can move on to focus on exercise? More on that in next week’s post.

 What intentions are you setting for the new year?  What strategies are you using to try to achieve your goals?