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SWITCHING OFF THE OVERACTIVE MIND WITH MINDFULNESS
What is going on in the world when bus passengers are so impatient they didn’t want to wait for an ambulance to arrive and help an unconscious man in the road, as was the story in The Times recently?
A study, conducted by researchers at the University of California-San Diego, believes that people are inundated with the equivalent amount of 34 Gb (gigabytes) of information a day, a sufficient quantity to overload a laptop within a week.
With all this going in in one day, it’s no wonder that we become stressed, forget things, become impatient and why our mind jumps from A to B to Y to Z. All this activity exhausts the mind and body and is quietly sabotaging productivity at home and in work. Our physical body is clearly affected too as symptoms of stress among children and adults is at an all time high with dependency on medication reaching unprecedented levels.
Our brain on autopilot
The mind does it’s best to cope with this overload by reverting to ‘autopilot’. This is the brain’s ability to carve out a new neuropathway, making it easier to access information, much like an app works on your phone. We call this action, ‘neuroplasticity of the brain’. You will recognise you’re on autopilot in the morning when getting dressed or washed; brushing your teeth; driving your car or using your phone without putting too much thought into any of it.
These neuropathways however can’t differentiate between what’s good or not so good for you. Bad habits, behaviours or thoughts can include impatience; phobias; smoking; eating when you don’t intend to. Overthinking and negative thoughts that go round in a loop are also a product of the overactive mind where too much can lead to anxiety related disorders such as Obsessive Compulsive Disorder or Generalised Anxiety Disorder.
The amygdala in the brain, responds to a threat (real or perceived) and signals the body to prepare for fight, flight or freeze. The prefrontal cortex can decide whether this threat is real or not. Unfortunately, if the anxiety is overwhelming, information bypasses the prefrontal cortex and cannot do its duty so the information goes straight to the amygdala. This sets off a chain of events through a complex interplay of sensory input—sights and sounds—as well as the brain and nervous system, hormones, and the body’s cells and organs. Hence the heart racing, sweating and panic that ensues.
Emotions play an important role in how we experience stress because the brain is the conductor of this system. The way we think about stress and what we choose to do about it can affect the impact of a stressful event.
So how our brain responds, depends on whether we have calmed down the amygdala or not. Think of that the next time someone cuts in front of you in traffic!
How Mindfulness can Help
Apart from taking medication to help with the overload, what else can be done? Well relaxation techniques help of course but the one that’s caught the attention of scientists worldwide is a technique called Mindfulness.
Well you wouldn’t be on your own if your first thoughts of Mindfulness were of people sitting cross-legged on the floor and humming with their eyes closed. All a bit ‘off the wall’ probably, but it’s actually been taken very seriously by medics, mental health experts and neuroscientists to name but a few professionals. It’s practiced by all, including Political Ministers, School Teachers, Church Clergy, Prisoners and Prison Staff. It’s been introduced extensively into schools and the workplace to combat stress.
Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, helped to bring the practice of Mindfulness into mainstream medicine in the 1970’s where it was used as a pain reduction technique.
The therapeutic practice of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (known as MBCT) was later developed as an intervention that has been scientifically proven to work for symptoms of recurring depression, stress, anxiety and pain. It has also been proven to bring about positive changes in physical and psychological symptoms resulting in overall improvements in our levels of happiness.
Modern day MBCT is taught in a secular fashion meaning in a non religious way and although the key elements are based on Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, it’s actually more about being observant of our thoughts, feelings, surroundings, attitudes and behaviours. It is the practice of purposely focusing our attention on the present moment—and accepting it without judgment. The techniques sound simple enough: sitting in a quiet place, deep-belly breathing, paying attention to your body, training the mind to observe, focus and filter. For some people, even setting 10 minutes aside each day can be difficult and stopping the mind wandering can be even more difficult, but it does get easier.
Benefits for children
A headline in the Times of Malta in 2016 quoted: “The World Health Organisation study, entitled Health Behaviour in School-aged Children, found that of all nationalities, Maltese 11-15 year-olds were the most stressed by the amount of academic work they had to do every day…..”
In a 2007 study, students who had been taught meditation techniques revealed a decrease in test anxiety, nervousness, and self-doubt. Further studies have shown reduced absenteeism and suspensions in schools where mindfulness programs have been implemented. Other benefits for children who practice mindfulness regularly include longer attention span; greater ability to regulate emotions; increased ability to plan and judge; increase in memory function as well as improved sense of self and empathy.
Films like Kung Fu Panda; Avatar: The Last Airbender; The Last Samurai; feature characters that gain power—as well as peace of mind—through meditation. The Jedi Knights of Star Wars consistently preach mindfulness to each other, specifically as a way to foster compassion and restraint.
Please note that Mindfulness is not a panacea or suitable for everyone so please contact a qualified trainer if you wish to know more.
Helena Fone is a UK qualified psychotherapist and an accredited Trainer of MBCT. Live classroom and online courses are available. You can learn about the MBCT for Adults and Mindfulness in Education programmes and access free downloads plus research papers from these websites.