Mindfulness – What Does That Even Mean?

Gillian White – MSc, PhD (Candidate), University of Toronto

Mindfulness Part I. What does that even mean??

Clearing the mist around what mindfulness means and why it’s not just a trend.

If you have a hard time reading this sentence without thinking about your to-do list or reaching for your phone – this one’s for you. Mindfulness has blown up as of late. You can’t get through the day without encountering it somewhere. Until very recently, mindfulness was considered a “hippie” thing or froo-froo pseudoscience. Interestingly, it is now being embraced by the medical fieldhigh-levelel executives. Furthermore,the health community at large is embracing the trend. So I thought I would take this opportunity to break down the nuts and bolts of mindfulness and get into some of the science that underlies the movement.

The catch 22 of mindfulness is that many of the people that need it most. People like me who are constantly jamming small to-do’s (texts, emails) into breaks of larger to-do’s (..work) are the first to dismiss it. In part, this is because our society seems to imply that success means being really, really, REALLY busy. More is more and “having it all” means going 100mph in every facet of your life.

But much like effective physical training for athletes, if deliberate rest and recovery isn’t built into the plan, you’re actually setting yourself up for burnout. This is why mindfulness has been embraced by medical, wellness, and corporate communities – it reduces burnout which reduces likelihood of a wide variety of illnesses (both mental and physical), while also improving productivity, problem solving, and creativity (and keeps you happier and less stressed).

Related Article: The Trick Stress Plays On Your Metabolism

Mindfulness

Mindfulness in a nutshell:

Mindfulness is a sort of brain training that helps reduce stress and focus better, allowing you to think deeper. It includes deliberate breathing practice and meditation but also the less deliberate practice of being aware of and in control of one’s thoughts. At its most basic, it is an enhanced awareness of the thoughts and feelings in your brain that tend to be ignored when your brain is humming along, thinking about how to get your work done, get to the grocery store, go for a run, help the kids with their homework, make a healthy dinner, reply to your emails, and catch up on your pleasure reading.

The constant bombardment of stimuli from our environment makes it feel like our brain is the equivalent of the talent show act keeping 10 plates spinning on sticks. Even if we’re pretty good at keeping those plates spinning most of the time, eventually one of them is going to break.

You don’t have to buy hemp genie pants and grow dreadlocks to be mindful. You don’t even have to meditate (although, meditation and breathing exercises are both great strategies toward becoming more mindful – see Mindfulness Part II). Simply taking time to be aware of the simple thoughts and feelings that your brain and body are experiencing in the present. Without ascribing any special meaning to them is a form of mindfulness. From a neuroscience point of view, it’s about training your ability to control your brain’s thoughts (read: ability to pay attention) and giving your brain the rest it needs to function properly. From a more basic point of view, it allows you to be the lead character in your own life! Live a little while you send those texts…

Related Article: What is Conscious Breathing?

So how does mindfulness work? 3 ways:

  1. Better mastery over your thought processes
  2. A chance for recovery/rest
  3. A more conscious experience of your day to day life.

Mastering your musings:

One of the functions of our brain that separates us from animals is an executive function. The ability to plan, strategize, tune out distractions, pay deep attention, and problem solve. The parts of the brain that are largely responsible for executive function are the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex. These regions are also involved in stress inhibition and emotional regulation. Importantly, these parts of the brain are one of the few that remain quite plastic (“changeable”) during adulthood. Furthermore, they can be tapped into through bottom-up approaches such as exercise, or top-down approaches like mindfulness and meditation.

Mindfulness improves executive function by increasing the connections in the hippocampus and prefrontal cortex. However, it also shrinks connections in the amygdala, our brain’s worry and emotion centre. This combination makes us more rationale, better at reflectively making plans and problem solving, and less likely to ruminate or dwell on stresses we’ve encountered.

By becoming distinctly aware of the thoughts and feelings in your brain, you are able to have better control over them. Case in point – it’s hard to refocus when you don’t actually realize you’re distracted in the first place. By paying close, non-judgemental attention to what your senses are experiencing, noticing yourself drifting away to thinking about a news article you read or some other random thought, but then bringing yourself back to your tangible, present experience trains your executive function.

Essentially, it’s flexing the brain pathways that govern attention. And by flexing these pathways you make them stronger, improving your executive function and the wide array of benefits that comes with it: increased problem solving, better attention/focus, deeper thought, improved emotional regulation, and more effective stress responses (and subsequent health effects of lower stress).

Related Article: Think Positive Thoughts For A Better Workout

Rest for success:

The other major benefit of mindfulness is the much needed rest that it gives your brain. Your brain is 2% of your body’s mass but uses 25% of your body’s total daily energy! To continue at this pace without a) running out of steam b) feeling overwhelmed c) losing productivity d) body/mind breaking down due to stress is virtually impossible. Your brain needs a recharge to keep functioning optimally! And while some people are probably reading this thinking “well I don’t practice mindfulness and I don’t feel overwhelmed/sick/stressed/unproductive” – think again!

A stressed and energy depleted brain can manifest in very sneaky ways. Migraines, poor sleep, frequent illness, depression, anxiety/worry, lack of creativity or motivation, sore muscles and/or physical injuries are some that you may have noticed. Further, stress can result in things that you can’t see like cancer progression, heart disease, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses.

For example, take a break that actually lets your brain to take a deep breath. As a result, this allows your body to switch from a sympathetic state to a parasympathetic state. A sympathetic activation is responsible for a very active or vigilant state. It also drives the body’s fight or flight response. While this is great when we need to be switched on, constant activation of our body results in wear and tear over time. Conversely, parasympathetic activation is responsible for restoration and repair of our body’s tissues. It is necessary for a truly restful state that allows our body and brain to feel recharged.

Parasympathetic activation also turns off the fight or flight stress response. Consequently, this reduces damaging processes associated with stress. Ultimately, this makes you more resilient to illness (and all of those nasty side-effects listed in the previous paragraph). Essentially, when we let our brain get into this state, it’s like being in slow-wave (deep) sleep that is critical to our physical and mental health and function.

Related Article: Keys to Effectively Pacing Your Fitness

Don’t be a stand-in; live your life!

Beyond its “what have you done for me lately” functional outcomes, mindfulness also allows you to experience your life (how novel!) more deeply by paring away the distractions of a multitasking brain and ever-moving body. You can take in the view without wondering how many likes the picture will get, appreciate the words you’re reading without re-reading the passage again, feel the wind on your face as you run without worrying about calories or pace, and live your life in the driver’s seat.

To this end, mindfulness is for everyone, not just fast paced type A’rs. Furthermore, it allows you to live fully in the present and experience your life more deeply. This happens instead of the superficial “going through the motions” that can happen when we’re thinking about 100 things at once. Imagine reading a book with 3 radios on. How much of it are you really going to take in? Turn those radios off, and you will find yourself immersed in the words.

Forget SoulCycle!

Overall, finding a way to fit mindfulness into your life is probably the best bang for your buck you’ll get out of any health habit that you pursue. Find 5 minutes in the morning or evening. Work your way up to more if you can, and just unplug from the distraction of our current society and tune into your present state of mind. It will cost you nothing and the benefits you see will blow your mind (and your body)!

For tips on how to become more mindful – see Mindfulness Part II

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