Mindfulness: The Science, Benefits and 5 Starter Steps

CBwcgr2WEAA1kagA few weeks ago I gave brief talk on the causes and importance of anxiety and stress in the digital age at IAPI. Not wanting to ‘rant on’ without offering any solutions… Now I want to talk solutions in practical steps… and that means mindfulness.

What Mindfulness Isn’t:

  • Mindfulness is not the latest buzz word. Believe me, as a strategic planner it’s important to know the difference between buzzwords and social movements. They make or break ad campaigns at the very least, and at the most, redefine society.
  • Mindfulness is also not the reserve or even got anything to do with, religious types or hippies. I find most hippies (or whatever they’re called nowadays) a la carte ideologists and generally obnoxious ill-educated hypocrite. So as a rule, wouldn’t touch anything remotely related to ‘that sort’. Guess I had to have a conservative right wing streak in there somewhere… If you don’t believe me, ask my boyfriend about the fight I started in a Buddhist retreat recently. And lets not even go down the whole ‘religion’ thing. Fact is, you’re more likely to find a high powered executive in a suit practising mindfulness. But it would be a disservice to restrict the practise by attaching any labels. It doesn’t deserve it. Mindfulness, is for everyone.
  • Mindfulness is not a cult. Although it has some serious following within the modern cults that are Google and other tech giants. You can practise mindfulness by yourself, in your own time, with as much time you have… wherever you are. You don’t even ever have to tell anyone else about it.

What Mindfulness Is:

It is a practise to improve the fitness of your mind.

Sorry what? 

OK, your ‘mental health’ then.

However, the phrase ‘mental health’ implies a sick mind in the first place. And this black and white labelling of the most complex organ in the universe is no longer acceptable as a common concept in 2015.

I mean, seriously, how many medicines, potions and natural remedies do you have for the largest organ you own? (your skin) I have around 200 products between my home and my handbag right now. No doubt most people are the same. Yet how many of us invest in looking after our heads?

There are lot of misconceptions of the brain. In today’s society, the way we talk about is much akin to how we considered the human body back in medieval times…
Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 12.09.14
It would be funny really, if it wasn’t so scary.

Because the brain is so much more complex than that. And thers is an urgent need for a better widespread understanding of it.

The brain isn’t something that forms as a child and then your skull sort of merges around it and then that’s it. And while we are on the subject, you don’t just use 10% of it, that’s just ignorant-urban-myth-waffle.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 13.44.39It’s actually better represented as a massive indefinite forest, with lots of little pathways running between, from place to place. And the more we use (or ‘walk’) those pathways – through habit loops, the more those little woodland paths get travelled by your neurons… and trampled and flattened into busy super mega highways. These loops become our default responses, while others wither away. Yes, we are talking in metaphors here, but this is a very real, very physical, measurable change in our brains.
Example habit loops can include: 
  • How we choose to think about ourselves in the eyes of others (e.g. someone you know doesn’t say ‘Hello’ when they walk by… what’s your automatic assumption?)
  • The triggers that cause us to crave a cigarette with our cold, crisp beer. Mmm, smokey beeeeeeer.
  • Whether you make the bed in the morning
  • How you tie your shoelaces
  • How you interact and communicate with others
  • At what point you add milk to your tea.
  • Your presumptions about how things will turn out when faced with a new project or responsibility
  • How you go about your working day and work through tasks
  • How often you feel the urge to check your phone
  • Which bit of your body you wash first in the shower
  • The triggers that cause binge eating
  • More ‘red flag’ issues such as panic attacks, depression triggers and OCD.

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 13.41.13 So yeah, pretty much everything (ah, you’re starting tp see the issue now, yes?!)

The purpose of this, from your poor prehistoric brain’s point of view is to put as much stuff on autopilot, so you can concentrate on other stuff. But more importantly, your brain is a drug addict. By this I mean it is entirely incentivised by chemical rewards. So its subconscious default setting is to repeat any behaviour that results in an obvious chemical reward – no matter how ultimately unrewarding, stupid or even life threatening that may be.

Don’t be angry at it though. It’s the same strategy that stopped you putting your finger in the light bulb socket more than once as a kid and your ancestors not getting eaten by saber tooths.
Thanks brain!
This happens in every single person, every moment of every day.
Otherwise, they simply would cease to function.
So, in this sense we need to start paying attention and talking about our mental fitness, rather than the much stigmatised phrase of ‘mental health’.
The Need for a Change of Mind in Modern Times: 
Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 13.05.19 In the much the same way as we are starting to understand that a far more effective (and economically cost effective) way to look after all our physical health is prevention – a sort movement to ‘forks over surgical knives’ – our mental health needs to be considered the same way.

A healthy modern mind spends 47% of the time thinking of the ‘what if’ – examining the past and the future, inserting hypothetical situations, processing past events and winning imaginary arguments in the shower. A stressed mind or a mind plagued by anxiety, does this even more.  Our modern hyper-connected, hyper-communicating, hyperstimulated multi-faceted society has less compulsorary time to dedicate to the here and now, as there are less immediate threats to our physical person than ever before. (Again with the lack of saber tooth tigers). Therefore we naturally have more time to dedicate to the ‘what if’.

But this isn’t good for us, at all.

In fact it is the root cause of most anxiety, stresses, depressions and many mental illnesses of today. Again, lengthier article on this specifically and the ‘why’ here.

How Mindfulness Helps: 

Mindfulness primarily works by refocusing your mind to the here and now. Specifically, by encouraging increased stimulation of your poor neglected prefrontal cortex. Then, by training the mind to allow thoughts and impulses to pass without ‘latching’ on to them and travelling down those subconscious pathways.
Mindfulness makes you examine how you really feel, taste, smell, see, hear and scrutinise how we examine ourselves, our focuses, our decisions, behaviours and interactions with the world around us. What this essentially results in is enough self-consciousness and self-awareness to break from mental and physical habit loops.
Proven Results and Benefits of Mindfulness:
The Scientifically proven and journal published results are…
  • Increased focus and performance (whether in school, the office or even for soldiers in high-stress war zone environments)
  • Skillful and ultimately more beneficial responses to emotionally distressing situations
  • Increased empathy and understanding of others
  • Natural conflict resolution skills
  • Better learning
  • The treatment of addictions and OCD behaviour
  • Trains you to objectively analyze
  • The treatment of emotional and physical pain (including significant results in cancer patients)
  • Lowers Blood Pressure
  • Increases voluntary control of the heart rate
  • Reduces baseline heart rate. (Ok so the above 2 I was able to personally measure via my Samsung. My average resting heart rate dropped from a 75-82bpm range to a much healthier 68-72bpm. Meanwhile my voluntary control went from 65bpm to 56. This was over a two month ‘pre’ average and a period of first two weeks of practising mindfulness.)
  • Decreases feeling of loneliness
  • Lowers risk of depression (including in pregnant women).
  • Improved sleep
  • Boosts immune system and shortens the recovery period
  • Increased myelin (the protective tissues) around the messaging axons in the anterior cingulate brain region – the region responsible for blood pressure, heart rate, your rational cognitive functions, decision making, empathy, impulse control and emotion.

Yeaah, ‘wow’. That’s what I said – half expecting to see ‘world peace’ listed.

Well in a way it sort of is covered off – as it’s been proven to even make music sound better to those who practise. I imagine, because the benefits ultimately have ‘headline titles’ of four things in many combinations – physical body awareness, self-awareness, regulation of emotion and regulation of attention. The other sorts of activities we could speculate on benefiting from this I will leave erm, entirely to your imagination…

There are plenty of other claims about the benefits of mindfulness. If you have more please let me know in the comments below. However I will be keeping the above list to a list of research tested ones from places like Harvard and medical journals, which can be viewed and referenced. Thanks. If you’d like the reference siting for any of the above just ask – not included because this is turning into a bloomin’ thesis enough as it is…

Sounds good, where do I start?

Delighted you’re with me so far!

OK, so this is just my own personal recommendations but here are the things I have found useful – particularly if like me you’re a sceptic atheist with little patience for fluff or desire to learn as ‘a group’ (eww).

5 Starter Steps to Mindfulness…

1. Download

The Headspace App One 10 minute morning session and a 10 minute evening session is what works for me. But there is no need to figure it out – they’ll guide you along every step of the way. This is the part that I’ve found the most helpful and it requires no major effort or investment. So if you do just this bit and get through the first free ten sessions, serious self-back pats all round. Introductory video below, with same lovely calming voice of Andy as featured in the app.

Major PS – if you use it, find it works and are ready to pay after the trial just DM me on Twitter or get in touch so I can send you a discount code.

2. Read: 

Sane New World (excellent on audiobook via Audible) and The Power of Habit (excellent also on audiobook, but you may be underlining a lot, like me) are the two perfect companions that are heavily focused on neuroscience, not ‘self help’ but offer practical guides. They’re the perfect accompaniment, I think, for sceptics such as myself.  For further reading regarding our modern age and it’s profound psychological effect, read Alone Together – then get back to me so we can have pints and a pub argument about it. None of these reads are about mindfulness specifically but I think they are rather more important, entertaining and practically useful than any books on mindfulness I’ve attempted to read.

3. Watch:

Some other videos for your viewing pleasure:

4. Use:

Screen Shot 2015-04-28 at 13.47.19Get colouring, seriously. There are lots of colouring books designed specifically for mindfulness which I go into detail on in this post here. In fact the whole thing got me back into doodling. If the whole meditation thing is still a bit much for you, I recommend you start here. Applying mindfulness to familoar activities is an easy no-goals, no-new habits to win. It’s where I really started myself.

5. Keep:

Ok so weakness of mine – I love my stationery, books and knickknacks. But having something as a reminder to practise is really useful.  Another creative purchase worth making is the Calm notebook. Available at H&F, Dublin. You can also use their lovely website to meditate. I keep the notebook by my bed to for motivation and a little inspiration sometimes if I don’t have the ‘head’ for a full meditation session.

Mindfulness is a quick fix.

How often do you hear that huh?Many of the above proven studies have shown drastic results in as little as just three weeks.

This all being said, to continue to reap the benefits you have to keep practising.

So give it a go.

What do you have to lose?

Disclaimer:

I’m no medical expert, just an enthusiast. I hope this helps. I have researched every statement and claim as far as I can. If you have any specific queries or corrections (apart from my terrible spelling), please let me know in the comments below or via twitter through a DM or @.

I would also love to hear from people who have tried it. What worked for them, what didn’t. And maybe re. the heart rate test above – if they would be willing to give that a go?

Good luck!

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One Comment Add yours

  1. Great read Miss Ray. I look forward to trying out the steps you mentioned 🙂

    Like

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