Mindfulness: the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgementally
Mindfulness is the buzzword of the moment and I’m going to give my full support to its popularity. Before you click away and roll your eyes, assuming I’m just another meditating hippy, hear me out.
Does any of this sound like you:
- You’re mostly living in default mode. Not even noticing what you’ve done, wondering where you left your keys, how that mug managed to get into the bathroom, what you’ve actually said in that 10 minute phone call to your mother. Sound familiar?
- You procrastinate.Or worse, let your procrastinating turn into catastrophizing – letting your thoughts spin further and further into the ‘what if’ scenarios you’re afraid of.
- You feel stressed constantly. Your to-do list never seems to go down and you often find you sit in total panic wondering what to turn to next, feeling completely overwhelmed and unable to take action.
If so, mindfulness can help you.
In the last couple of months I completed a Future Learn course offered by Monash University called Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance.
I was so excited by the things I discovered on the course I a) wrote a few of my findings in my monthly Papers from the Pantry (you can sign up to receive them here) and b) worked a lot of the learnings into my workshop at The Reset retreat, where I talk to women about how to handle stress and feel more organised and in control (find out more here).
In this blog post I’m going to share just a few of the real eye-opener discoveries from the course which I think you need to know to understand the power of mindfulness.
Default mode is linked to stress, anxiety and depression
Default mode has been linked with stress, anxiety, depression and later in life is associated with the development of Alzheimer’s.
Living constantly in ‘default mode’ where we are functioning and relying on habits and patterns already ingrained in the brain, is associated with reduced cognitive performance, which means reduced work and study performance.
Default mode can mean that a reoccurring spiral of thought e.g. “What if X happens? Then X? Then X?” is practised over and over again in the mind, making us anxious.
The mind loves finding problems; it actually has a negative bias. Historically that bias has been helpful for us to make sure we’re aware of threats. For example a lion might be jumping out to eat us when we’re out hunting. But strangely in the 21stcentury that bias isn’t so helpful.
When we drift off into default mode and allow our thoughts to run away it’s like we’re rehearsing repeatedly a situation that we never want to find ourselves in. And yet the more we keep letting that script play, the more entrenched it becomes and the more the brain plays it when we switch off into default.
Mindfulness can stop that spiral. By becoming present and living in the moment, we notice when our minds are starting these stories, these ways of thinking.
We don’t judge, we don’t get angry about where our mind has gone. We just notice. And bring ourselves back to what’s happening now. Because that’s the only thing we should be responding to.
Muti-tasking isn’t a thing
In today’s world we’re expected to do more and more with less and less. We’re expected to multi-task.
As a result we’re never really doing one thing. There’s a term for what’s happening when you do more than one thing at a time: ‘attention deficit trail.’ It’s purely environment and happens when you are bombarded with too much information and called upon to be doing multiple activities simultaneously.
Multi-tasking impairs critical thinking. It means we lose perspective and as such we are unable to plan effectively. People trying to do too much are not functioning well at all. Trying to do too much is a lose-lose situation – you don’t do anything well.
The brain actually processes things in serial – one thing after another. We’re like computers! This means we are physically incapable of processing two things at the same time. Men or women. Our brains just don’t work like that. Sorry!
If we are multi-tasking we lose time as we switch attention between tasks. That’s 0.2-0.5 seconds to switch between tasks – and if we’re stressed this becomes longer. That might not sound like a lot, but it really adds up over a longer period of time. And that becomes dead time where you are effectively doing nothing.
Obviously mindfulness and meditation are not going to make all the things on your to-do list go away. But what they will do is remind you to do one thing at a time and help you notice when you’ve got distracted and return to the task in hand. As a result you’re going to do your tasks faster, better and more accurately than if you were trying to do several at once.
Reacting and responding are different
Reacting happens more from a distracted state – like the default mode I mentioned in my first point. Responding is more from a mindful state – with consideration of the situation you find yourself in.
When you find yourself faced with a difficult challenge or situation, do you react or respond? What have you rehearsed most often in your mind?
Practising mindfulness is linked to the thickening the prefrontal cortex which helps us pay attention, to think, to reason and to plan. It’s where the brain houses its ability to control our emotions, improve self-awareness and find impulse control. All of these things mean we are more likely to be able to respond, rather than reactto a situation and have a more measured thought and action process as a result.
I know I can be a massive hot-head about things and have a history of reacting in situations I find myself in. Mindfulness has 100% helped me stop in my tracks and take a necessary pause before reacting inappropriately to something.
Mindfulness reduces the size of the amygdala – the fear centre of the brain
Because we have a ‘use it or lose it’ body, practising mindfulness helps to shrink the part of your brain that makes you scared and anxious. How cool is that?
If you don’t stop and notice stress your amygdala – the fear centre of the brain - is busy firing off cortisol and adrenaline. As we slip into default mode and start worrying about all those situations that might happen, we are causing wear and tear on the body with all that cortisol and adrenaline. Allowing the amygdala to have its own way makes it hard to focus on what we’re trying to do – we’re in ‘fight or flight’ mode constantly. It’s completely exhausting mentally and physically.
I actually love the idea of ‘killing off’ a part of my brain which is holding me back and making me fear things completely illogically. I don’t want to be in ‘fight or flight mode’ all the time and I can control that. Mindfulness is giving me that power.
Lose interest in your worrying. Observe it. Watch it. Don’t react to it.
Mindfulness isn’t about blocking negative feelings or emotions out. It’s about learning to not be interested in them or to understand and accept that they will pass.
I found this last point only slightly conflicting with what I’ve learned through Headspace, in which Andy Puddicombe teaches about being ‘curious’ about your emotions. But I suppose there is only a certain amount of time and energy you want to put into exploring and studying negative emotions or worries.
You can let those feelings be there but prefer to be interested in what you are focused on instead.
The big four cognitive aspects of mindfulness
Here’s mindfulness in a nutshell:
Perception– we are often reacting to things that aren’t there. Learn to see projection or imagination for what it is. The vast majorities of stressors are imagined.
Letting go – attachment can create stress. We have to realise things come and go. Enjoy things without the attachment. We can get attached to thoughts or opinions. Fixating on things, for example wanting a particular emotion or feeling to go away, means we just make our minds worse.
Acceptance – Acceptance helps us to acknowledge, learn from and move on from events. The suffering we experience is much more to do with our attitude to it, than the experience itself.
Presence of mind – learning to be in the present moment. Reliving experiences over and over in our minds turns one stressor into thousands. Some people might argue “What about planning and preparation?” We can be mindful and still plan and prepare for the future. That's an important part of living a life effectively.
So what do you think? Do you practise mindfulness? Do you think it's all a load of nonsense? Do any of these points resonate with you?
I go into lots more detail about mindfulness techniques and ways to overcome stress and procrastination in my workshop on The Reset retreat. Head to The Reset website to find out more and book your place.
To learn more for yourself I highly recommend signing up for the next run of Future Learn’s Mindfulness For Wellbeing and Peak Performance from Monash University. I also wrote about what I learned on another Future Learn / Monash University course Food As Medicine in this blog post, a course that runs quite regularly throughout the year. There’s so much to learn out there and all for free!
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