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Use Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction To Super Power Your Focus

focus-2.jpgStaying focused on a task you know needs to be completed should be easy, right? It’s on the to-do list and once you are able to cross it off, you will feel a wonderful sense of accomplishment. Well, for most of us it’s not that easy. My phone has a little light that blinks at me when I get a notification. It’s like an eye that stares until I cave into the pressure.

Maybe what you’re doing is important, but something you’d rather not be doing at the moment. In school, this was an everyday reality. Luckily, there are many ways that we can increase our ability to pay attention to the task at hand.

One of these has been heavily studied and is an interesting, round-about way to increase focus that I had never heard of it until I was doing research for another article. What I am referring to is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).

mindfulnessMindfulness-Based Stress Reduction

MBSR pulls tactics from many ancient practices but was largely brought to the Western world by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts. In short, MBSR was developed to help people live happier, healthier and more adaptive lives [1] through helping people live in the present, utilizing exercises such as meditation, yoga, and other practices [2]. The goal is for you to be fully “awake” and in control of your life rather than aimlessly wandering about.

“The consequence of enhanced mindfulness is a shift from non-awareness and automatic, habitual behaviors and stress responses to conscious awareness and effective, deliberate action”

We will go more in-depth on specific practices later, but let’s first explore some of the research. Early studies showed that it did what it was intended for; reducing stress, anxiety, and depression while also improving overall well-being [3]. The benefits that meditation can have on our psyche are very well known (head here for more information on mindfulness meditation), however, further research started producing some more unique results.

MSBR and attentional control

Researchers started to test the effects that the training had on other aspects of our day-to-day life, one of which was focus, otherwise known as attentional control. The results were stunning. Immediately after MBSR training, older adults were found to have made significant improvements in visual attentional control as well as executive control, especially when performing complex tasks[2]. Executive control can be thought of as your brain’s flexibility and processing power.

These results aren’t limited to older adults. Another study showed the same amazing results among young and middle-aged participants as well [4]. Across the board, it seems as if MBSR can significantly help to increase your attentional control and strengthen your mind.

“MBSR improved the ability to orient attention, and direct and focus attention on relevant inputs”

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Let’s put MBSR to the test

We now know that this training can help people of all ages, but if you’re still not convinced, let’s see how MBSR holds up to a bit more of an extreme environment. One of the most stressful activities that I can think of is being in live combat. You have tremendously taxing training and the enemy is actively trying to take your life all while you are separated from your loved ones by thousands of miles.

Researchers showed that without any mindfulness training, active-duty military members had a gradual and significant decrease of working memory capacity throughout their enlistment. However, personnel who actively participated in MBSR actually saw an increase in working memory capacity [5].

“ mindfulness training was associated with an increase in working memory capacity, defined as the capacity to selectively sustain and manipulate task-relevant information without becoming distracted by irrelevant information.”

Working memory capacity can be broadly defined as your ability to focus attention along with your cognitive processing power. This is important for everyone especially military members or really anyone who is looking for peak cognitive performance.

How does MBSR change us?

Besides the common benefits that meditation has on our psyche and wellbeing, how does MBSR specifically help us to increase our focus and brain power? Well, there are two interesting routes we can examine: physical changes to the brain and mentality changes.

Mentality Changes

Let’s start with how MBSR has been studied to change us emotionally. One group of researchers found that in addition to enhanced focus and the ability to control where attention is directed, patients became more mindful and, like the name implies, saw a reduction in their stress [6].

As a result of being more mindful, I would imagine that priorities would become much more clear which might be followed by a realization on how futile it is to check your social media in the middle of an important task. It has also been hypothesized that simply relieving your mind of stress and anxiety allows the brain to function properly, allowing the ability to enhance focus and mind power.

In addition to this, MBSR has been shown to increase activity in regions of the brain associated with positive emotions and general emotional control [2].

happy brainPhysiological Changes

The physiological changes to the brain amazed me when I first read the research. This is where things really get interesting. Scientists found that after just 8 weeks of MBSR, grey matter in the brain increased significantly in the left hippocampus among a few other regions [7].

Grey matter contains neurons located near the surface of the brain and is responsible for processing information from the central nervous system. It also contains glial cells which transport nutrients and energy molecules to neurons. The hippocampus is the emotional processing plant in our brains along with regulating wakefulness, vigilance, muscle response and heart rate.

“The adult nervous system has the capacity for plasticity, and the structure of the brain can change in response to training… [and] such increases represent enduring changes in brain structure that could support improved mental functioning.”

Just practicing MBSR for 8 weeks actually changed the shape and composition of the brain in an extremely significant way.

Start Doing MBSR!

By this point, I am sure you are 100% ready to embark on your mindfulness-based stress reduction journey. Let’s go into the details on how you can participate in the practice and see some of the same results.

First off, it would be disingenuous of me to act like you can significantly enhance your focus and change the physical composition of your brain with an “easy 5-minute MBSR hack” or something of the sort. This practice is fairly intense and will take some of your time every day.

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However, I am hoping that the proven results will serve as motivation to push you through it and hopefully it will become something you enjoy as many do. There are many in-person or online courses that you can participate in to help guide you through, but if that isn’t what you’re looking for or if you don’t have access, I’ll give you some ways to try this at home.

MBSR on your own

Practicing MBSR is very flexible and there are many different methods you can use. Below are some of the most common techniques, though you can find many more through a quick search of the internet. Everyone is different, so choose what works for you and do it. Dedicating 30 minutes to an hour is about the amount of time you should be spending on this if you want to mimic what the methods used in many of the studies.

  1. Mindfulness Meditation: View your thoughts and observe what is happening in your mind. Try to keep a clear mind an not to think about the past or future; the goal is to stay in the present moment as much as possible. Sometimes it is helpful to view your thoughts as an observer, realizing that they are there and what they are rather than analyzing them.
  2. Controlled Diaphragmatic Breathing: Most of us use our upper chest to do most of the work when we breathe. However, breathing with our diaphragm is very beneficial for helping us to be calm. To do this, try to fill the lower part of your lungs with air using inner abdominal/diaphragm muscles. Put one hand on your belly and one on your chest, inhale for a slow count of 5, pause, exhale for a slow count of 5, pause and repeat. Your upper hand shouldn’t move throughout the process. You are sort of filling your “belly” with air. Make sure to focus on every breath and try not to let outside thoughts into your mind.
  3. Body Scan: Lie down and mentally scan different parts of your body, noticing any sensations or feelings that occur. Start at your feet and work your way up, relaxing every muscle on the way. As with the other methods, try to maintain your focus on the body part and banish outside thoughts.
  4. Object Meditation: Hold an object that is special or interesting and focus all of your senses on it. Notice all of the different visual features, how it feels, and how it smells. Do this until you feel that the object is fully examined.
  5. Mindful Eating: Many of us spend our time eating in front of some sort of a screen. While this is entertaining, it is certainly not productive. Practicing mindful eating will help you gain a deeper connection to your food and also will regulate how much you eat. To do this, focus on the feel, look, and taste of the food. If your mind wanders, just bring it back to the food you’re eating. I like doing this with healthy food since I often begin contemplating the effect that it will have on my body.
  6. Walking Meditation: Go for a walk in a safe place at a normal pace, noticing sensations you feel with every step along with viewing all of your surroundings. For example, make note of the colors of the trees and sky, the shape of the path, and the people you see without wondering where the people are going or what they may think of you.
  7. Mindful Stretching: Most people are extremely bound up and tight from a lack of movement and stretching. Mindful stretching fixes this along with helping you maintain your mind in the present. Get your yoga mat and start stretching out your body. Try to balance out your stretching between body parts, feeling your muscles the entire time. Focus on the tension in your muscles and the relief afterward.
  8. Yoga: Yoga is very similar to mindful stretching, but it is more structured. Try to find a yoga routine that incorporates a meditation aspect as well. If it doesn’t, that’s ok, just try to focus on your body and movements, dispelling and outside thoughts.
  9. Exercise: Lifting weights or doing cardio are great ways to keep your body and mind healthy. When you perform either, focus on your movements and how your body feels during them.

This list incorporates just a few of your many options to practice MBSR. My favorites are walking meditation, mindful stretching, and lifting weights. These are easy to incorporate into my day and give the added benefit of staying fit and flexible. Just remember to stay in the present moment within any activity you choose and stay consistent. These are the two biggest factors for success.

In addition to these two important reminders, there are a few other principles that are universally true to make MBSR successful:

  1. Treat the experience as a challenge rather than a chore. This is your journey to becoming more aware, awake, and in the present rather than something you ‘have’ to do. Remember that you are doing this to make yourself better.
  2. Stay disciplined and practice for at least 30 minutes daily. Missing a session out of necessity is fine, but don’t make it a habit if you want to be successful.
  3. Practicing long-term, though not necessarily as consistent as when you first start, has been shown to be necessary to maintain the positive effects on enhanced attentional control [2]. You will likely find that the way these make you feel is something you deeply enjoy and choose to do willingly.
  4. This will probably be difficult at first (at least it was for me), so treat it as an educational experience. You are learning how to be in the present moment which may not come naturally right away.
  5. Try to bring yourself to the present moment throughout the day even outside of your training. Maybe on your commute to work, just focus on the sensation of the road, your current surroundings and the colors of the cars around you, for example.
  6. It’s hard to do this on your own, so find a partner or an online community to interact with if possible.
  7. Stay flexible with your practice. Don’t skip something just because it is hard, but if something really doesn’t work for you, there are many other practices that can be chosen from.

And finally, here are some attitudes for success from Jon Kabat-Zinn himself:

  1. Be free of judgment for yourself and others.
  2. Have patience, give yourself time and space to grow.
  3. You must BELIEVE that your mindset can be changed.
  4. You must be willing to learn. The quickest way to stop learning is to have the belief that you know everything. Learning is integral to the human experience and is how we grow to become better.
  5. Don’t have a set goal to strive for. This isn’t a competition, but rather a continuous bout of personal growth.
  6. Let go of your control and let the mindfulness take over.
  7. Practice self-compassion. It’s easy to be hard on yourself if you aren’t seeing progress, but you need to be kind and love yourself. The whole purpose of this exercise is to be more stress-free, happier, and healthier.

Begin your journey to superpower your focus

With everything that has been said, I hope that you will be willing to at least try MBSR to see what it can do for you. The risk is low, but the potential for a stronger mind and improving well-being is high. So, pick a few practices that sound enjoyable and doable and get after it.

 

[1] https://www.umassmed.edu/cfm/mindfulness-based-programs/mbsr-courses/about-mbsr/mbsr-standards-of-practice/

[2] Moynihan, Jan A., et al. “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction for Older Adults: Effects on Executive Function, Frontal Alpha Asymmetry and Immune Function.” Neuropsychobiology, vol. 68, no. 1, 2013, pp. 34–43., doi:10.1159/000350949.

[3] https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/mindfulness-based-stress-reduction

[4] Jha AP, Krompinger J, Baime MJ. Mindfulness training modifies subsystems of attention. Cogn Affect Behav Neurosci. 2007;7:109–119.

[5] Jha AP, Stanley EA, Kiyonaga A, Wong L, Gelfand L. Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 2010;10:54–64.

[6] Chambers R, Chuen Lee Yo B, Allen NB. The impact of intensive mindfulness training on attentional control, cognitive style, and affect. Cog Ther Res. 2008;32:303–322.

[7] Holzel BK, Carmody J, Vangel M, Congleton C, Yerramsetti SM, Gard T, Lazar SW. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Res. 2011;191:36–

 

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Some Advice From The East: How to Use Meditation to Help With Anxiety

Meditation

Feeling trapped within the grasp of unmanaged stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming if there is no solution to be found. In the East, the practice of meditation has long been a solution to many of the mind’s problems including a feeling of peace when under high stress and anxiety.

This mental health tool has been shown by science to have a positive impact on many aspects of life, but unfortunately, modern society has conjured up a cartoonish depiction of meditation where Buddhist monks sit high in the Himalaya’s with their fingers held high and legs folded in some contorted position. Because of this, many will never be open to try and experience the power that meditation holds. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will see the value of meditation in everyday life and give it a try without having to take a trip to Nepal.Monk meditation

It is fairly well known that practicing meditation consistently will help keep the mind clear, but other than that, many people don’t really know what it is, how it works, or what it can actually do. Although there is a lot of mysticism surrounding the practice, meditation has been scientifically studied to find some surprising mental and physical benefits.

Mindfulness Meditation

One of the most widespread forms of meditation and the form that almost all studies utilize is called mindfulness meditation. This method is very simple. In short, it includes sitting in a stable, comfortable position, keeping a clear mind and focusing on the breath. Once you feel centered, you then may begin to focus on your surroundings, including different sights and sounds.

The goal is to maintain a state of being in the present, or as the name implies, be mindful. Inevitably, your mind will wander but all that is required when this happens is to bring yourself back to the present. At first, it will be difficult, so don’t set your goals too high. Start out with five or ten minutes. Once the practice comes easier, increase the time periods as long as you can, doing it daily. Many find more success with meditation in the morning when there are fewer distractions floating around in our minds.

How Meditation Works

Now that we know how to meditate, it would be useful to know what is going on in our brains throughout the process. The leading theory on what occurs is that we are training our brains to be more self-aware which then allows us to think more objectively about our stress and anxiety. We are able to realize what our worries stem from and that they are not worth the stress and anxiety we attribute to them. In other words, we judge which anxious and distressed thoughts are warranted or unwarranted through self-analysis [4].

Thoughts of “I am worried about X” turn into “I am having thoughts about being worried about X”. After this, we gain the ability to change how we feel about the issue. However, when it comes to the astonishing effects meditation can have on the body, we really only know that lowered stress and anxiety is good for health in general without any more detail.

Bodily Changes From Meditating

water droplet

During meditation, there are actually physiological changes that occur which can act as a way to measure the reduction of stress and anxiety. One interesting finding is that electrical activity in the frontal portion of the brain is altered (increased alpha-wave activity) and is accompanied by an increase in resistance to electrical current on the skin.

Both are correlated to a decrease in anxiety [1]. Furthermore, oxygen consumption and blood lactate levels are lowered during meditation. These are also correlated to a decrease in anxiety [1]. These changes reduce our body’s use of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls a large part of how we handle stress and anxiety.

Meditation has also been correlated with reduction of many other biomarkers of stress and anxiety. One study showed that participants who participated in mindfulness meditation had lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure[6]. Another study showed that, amazingly, portions of the brain that control cognitive and emotional processing actually grew in size [14].

Although it may seem a bit abstract, all of these are phenomenal indicators that meditation is making drastic changes to your body through a reduction of stress and anxiety.

How Meditation Can Help

While the physiological changes are telling, they may not be the best examples to show you that meditation can have a drastic effect on your mental health. However, many studies measure the effect mindfulness meditation has in other ways that provide better examples of the practice being put to use. It isn’t hard to guess what the outcome will be, but I will go through a few of the most significant findings.

Decreasing Anxiety

Let’s start with the most severe of cases to show the true power meditation holds. In patients with diagnosed anxiety disorders, their anxiety was significantly improved following an 8-week mindfulness meditation therapy. Three months later, 91% of the participants still showed a reduction of symptoms and the same benefits held even as long as three years [13].

If people with diagnosed anxiety disorders had their condition improved as far out as three years with just eight weeks of meditation, imagine what it can do for you if practiced daily.

stacked rocks

 

You may be going through a troubling time in life that is causing much of your stress and anxiety. Once again, science has shown that meditation can help us in this area as well. Cancer patients who meditated for 1.5 hours just once a week for seven weeks experienced lowered stress, anxiety, mood disturbance, anger, and confusion when compared to a control [15]. Getting cancer is a terrible experience for anybody, but even in such a dreadful situation, meditation was able to lend a hand to their mental health.

Physical Pain Reduction

Other mindfulness meditation studies have had the goal of reducing pain through controlling stress and anxiety. In two such studies, 51% of fibromyalgia patients showed a reduction in their symptoms [10] as well as 65% of patients with general chronic pain being able to find relief in addition to lowered mood disturbance [11]. Once again, meditation was shown to have a dramatic effect on the lives of very distressed people.

While these studies are important, it may also be helpful to see how it can work in your everyday life even if you aren’t burdened with a serious medical condition. Meditation has been shown to work in these situations as well. In one study, participants were randomly chosen from the general population and put through an 8-week mindfulness meditation routine. Can you guess what the outcome was? Most of the participants had a statistically significant reduction in stress and anxiety which was accompanied by an increase in immune function, which can be harmed by out of control stress and anxiety [12].

The list of studies goes on and on, like another that showed among the general population, meditation decreased stress and anxiety and increased positive mood states [2]. This same study also showed that rates of telomere shortening (slow shortening=slower of aging) slowed. We can all imagine someone where you can tell they are chronically stressed just by looking at the wrinkles on their skin, the bags under their eyes or their lack of luster. This study gives an insight as to why they are this way.

 Other Interesting Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation

beach meditationAside from the amazing impact mindfulness meditation can have on your mental health and possibly rate of aging, there is a plethora of research relating the practice to other possible effects on our bodies and psyche. For example, mindfulness meditation was shown to speed up recovery from alcoholism through a reduction of stress-related drinking as well as a reduction of thought suppression, which allowed patients to bring the true reason behind their alcoholism to light [3].

In the same way, meditation decreased the severity of binge eating disorder [5]. There was also an increase in self-control which greatly aided the result as well. Being able to take command of their habits also led to a large reduction of stress and anxiety among participants.

Another interesting twist in the story of meditation is that it was able to decrease reaction time by an average of 22% after an extended period of practice [6]. It’s easy to imagine how this would not only be helpful to those who perform on stage or athletically, but also how the average Joe could have better control of their own bodies and emotions.

Conclusion

We may not know exactly how meditation works, but one thing is for certain: it does work. It does not matter whether it is practiced in people with extraordinary medical conditions who are begging for a solution or someone who is simply looking for a way to control their stress and anxiety. I truly believe that all can find value in meditation. Even if it does not have the effect you desired, there are enough benefits shown here along with numerous more in the literature so that no matter what, you’re bound to hit at least one of them. It is easy, free, and takes just a few moments of your day. So, all I ask is that you give it a shot so that the profound benefits can become a reality in your life.

 

[1] Wallace, Robert Keith, and Herbert Benson. “The Physiology of Meditation.” Scientific American, vol. 226, no. 2, 1972, pp. 84–90., doi:10.1038/scientificamerican0272-84.
[2] Epel, Elissa, et al. “Can Meditation Slow Rate of Cellular Aging? Cognitive Stress, Mindfulness, and Telomeres.” Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, vol. 1172, no. 1, 2009, pp. 34–53., doi:10.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04414.x.
[3] Garland, Eric L., et al. “Mindfulness Training Modifies Cognitive, Affective, and Physiological Mechanisms Implicated in Alcohol Dependence: Results of a Randomized Controlled Pilot Trial.” Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, vol. 42, no. 2, 2010, pp. 177–192., doi:10.1080/02791072.2010.10400690.
[4] Vago, David R., and David A. Silbersweig. “Self-Awareness, Self-Regulation, and Self-Transcendence (S-ART): a Framework for Understanding the Neurobiological Mechanisms of Mindfulness.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 6, 2012, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2012.00296.
[5] Kristeller, Jean L., and C. Brendan Hallett. “An Exploratory Study of a Meditation-Based Intervention for Binge Eating Disorder.” Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 4, no. 3, 1999, pp. 357–363., doi:10.1177/135910539900400305.
[6] Sudsuang, Ratree, et al. “Effect of Buddhist Meditation on Serum Cortisol and Total Protein Levels, Blood Pressure, Pulse Rate, Lung Volume and Reaction Time.” Physiology & Behavior, vol. 50, no. 3, 1991, pp. 543–548., doi:10.1016/0031-9384(91)90543-w.
[10] Kaplan, Kenneth H., et al. “The Impact of a Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Fibromyalgia.” General Hospital Psychiatry, vol. 15, no. 5, 1993, pp. 284–289., doi:10.1016/0163-8343(93)90020-o.
[11] Kabat-Zinn, Jon. “An Outpatient Program in Behavioral Medicine for Chronic Pain Patients Based on the Practice of Mindfulness Meditation: Theoretical Considerations and Preliminary Results.” General Hospital Psychiatry, vol. 4, no. 1, 1982, pp. 33–47., doi:10.1016/0163-8343(82)90026-3.
[12] Davidson, Richard J., et al. “Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 65, no. 4, 2003, pp. 564–570., doi:10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3.
[13] Miller, John J., et al. “Three-Year Follow-up and Clinical Implications of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Intervention in the Treatment of Anxiety Disorders.” General Hospital Psychiatry, vol. 17, no. 3, 1995, pp. 192–200., doi:10.1016/0163-8343(95)00025-m.
[14] Lazar, Sara W., et al. “Meditation Experience Is Associated with Increased Cortical Thickness.” NeuroReport, vol. 16, no. 17, 2005, pp. 1893–1897., doi:10.1097/01.wnr.0000186598.66243.19.
[15] Speca, Michael, et al. “A Randomized, Wait-List Controlled Clinical Trial: The Effect of a Mindfulness Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program on Mood and Symptoms of Stress in Cancer Outpatients.” Psychosomatic Medicine, vol. 62, no. 5, 2000, pp. 613–622., doi:10.1097/00006842-200009000-00004