Spending 10 Minutes a Day on Mindfulness Subtly Changes the Way You React to Everything
by Rasmus Hougaard & Jacqueline Carter & Gitte DybkjaerJanuary 18, 2017 Harvard Business Review
Leaders across the globe feel that the unprecedented busyness of modern-day leadership makes them more reactive and less proactive. There is a solution to this hardwired, reactionary leadership approach: mindfulness.
Having trained thousands of leaders in the techniques of this ancient practice, we’ve seen over and over again that a diligent approach to mindfulness can help people create a one-second mental space between an event or stimulus and their response to it. One second may not sound like a lot, but it can be the difference between making a rushed decision that leads to failure and reaching a thoughtful conclusion that leads to increased performance. It’s the difference between acting out of anger and applying due patience. It’s a one-second lead over your mind, your emotions, your world.
Research has found that mindfulness training alters our brains and how we engage with ourselves, others, and our work. When practiced and applied, mindfulness fundamentally alters the operating system of the mind. Through repeated mindfulness practice, brain activity is redirected from ancient, reactionary parts of the brain, including the limbic system, to the newest, rational part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex.
In this way, mindfulness practice decreases activity in the parts of the brain responsible for fight-or-flight and knee-jerk reactions while increasing activity in the part of the brain responsible for what’s termed our executive functioning. This part of the brain and the executive functioning skills it supports is the control center for our thoughts, words, and actions. It’s the center of logical thought and impulse control. Simply put, relying more on our executive functioning puts us firmly in the driver’s seat of our minds, and by extension our lives.
One second can be the difference between achieving the desired results or not. One second is all it takes to become less reactive and more in tune with the moment. In that one second lies the opportunity to improve the way you decide and direct, the way you engage and lead. That’s an enormous advantage for leaders in fast-paced, high-pressure jobs.
Rasmus Hougaard is the founder and managing director of The Potential Project, a leading global provider of corporate-based mindfulness solutions operating in twenty countries. He is the author of One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness and is currently writing The Mind of the Leader (HBR Press, 2018)
Jacqueline Carter is a partner with The Potential Project and has worked with leaders from around the globe, including executives from Sony, American Express, RBC, and KPMG. She is a co-author of the book One Second Ahead: Enhancing Performance at Work with Mindfulness and is currently co-writing The Mind of the Leader (HBR Press, 2018)
Gitte Dybkjaer is a director with Potential Project and delivers mindful leadership training to Accenture, Microsoft, and Nordea.
Kuyken, W., et al. (2013). Effectiveness of the Mindfulness in Schools Programme: Non-randomised controlled feasibility study. British Journal of Psychiatry.
[A student participating in the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Program (MiSP).] A student participating in the UK-based Mindfulness in Schools Program (MiSP).© Mindfulness in Schools Programme
What did they study?
The acceptability and effectiveness of a British program for students ages 12 to 16 called the Mindfulness in Schools Program (MiSP). The MiSP curriculum consists of nine scripted mindfulness lessons, delivered weekly by trained classroom teachers. In this study, involving over 500 kids total, six schools receiving the MiSP program—and whose teachers had already been trained in the program—were matched with six similar schools where teachers had expressed interest in mindfulness but had not been trained in MiSP.
What did they find?
Compared to students in the non-MiSP schools, MiSP students reported significantly decreased depression symptoms immediately after the end of the program. In follow-up surveys conducted three months after the program ended, during the stressful summer exam period, MiSP students reported significantly less stress and symptoms of depression and significantly greater well-being compared to their non-MiSP counterparts. Also, the more frequently students reported using mindfulness practices, the better their scores were. These results indicate that the MiSP, and mindfulness in general, shows promise as a tool to bolster adolescent mental health, and possibly their academic achievement as well.
Although much of this research is in its early stages and the conclusions we can draw from it so far are limited, these four studies, conducted in different locations and with diverse types of students, suggest the great potential of mindfulness programs to improve the well-being of children and adolescents. Ideally, these and other researchers will next develop even more rigorous studies, comparing groups of students who are randomly assigned to participate in a mindfulness program with those randomly assigned to a group that doesn’t receive the training. In the meantime, educators who are interested in mindfulness have many programs to choose from and an increasing amount of research to support their enthusiasm.ere.
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Planting seeds of mindfulness to nurture mindful adults of tomorrow
9 Benefits Research has Shown
Results of the research indicate that mindfulness can help you in more ways than you think, especially in the workplace.
Christopher Liddy, an organizational behavior doctoral candidate at Case Western Reserve’s Weatherhead School of Management conducted research with Darren Good, an assistant professor at Pepperdine University.
The research examined over 4,000 scientific papers on varying degrees of mindfulness. The researchers looked at the impact of mindfulness in terms of how people think, feel and perform at work as well as how they relate.
The results of the study, Contemplating Mindfulness at Work, were then published in the Journal of Management.
The study suggests that:
Mindfulness positively impacts human functioning.
Mindfulness can help improve the quality of attention.
Mindfulness, even though it is an internal quality, can impact interpersonal behavior.
Mindfulness can help provide greater empathy and compassion.
In the research it was discovered that mindfulness cannot only positively impact attention, it can also help improve cognition, emotions, physiology and even behavior.
The researchers also found that mindfulness can help keep attention stable and help one remain focused on the present. Those who completed mindfulness training were better able to remain vigilant and focused, especially on visual and listening tasks.
Mindfulness has also been shown to help improve 3 unique qualities of attention, stability, control, and efficacy.
In terms of relationships, mindfulness can also give us a boost, helping to provide us with greater empathy and compassion.
According to Sara Davin, PsyD, MPH, mindfulness is not only a powerful tool for patients but also for doctors and medical care providers.
According to the Cleveland Clinic, there is ample evidence in support of the many benefits of mindfulness.
Some of these benefits include:
Optimization of mental health.
Positive impact on the brain and immune system.
Help with chronic pain.
Help overcome insomnia.
Help with caregiver burnout healthcare providers may face.
In a review of more than 20 randomized controlled trials in 2011, it was shown that mindfulness can help improve overall mental health.
Mindfulness can also help reduce the risk of relapse from depression, while also helping with anxiety disorders like PTSD.
Mindfulness not only helps boost the immune system, but it can also help improve our neural processing in as little as a 10 to 15-minute session.
Mindfulness can also help with chronic pain. With chronic pain being an epidemic, it’s important to find alternative tools that are drug-free.
Mindfulness is one of those tools. In the study, those who meditated showed a decrease in pain and pain-related limitations. The benefits were comparable with cognitive behavioral therapy.
Insomnia and poor sleeping patterns can also lead to many other health problems. In randomized controlled trials, it was shown that mindfulness could help reduce insomnia, according to the Insomnia Severity Index.
Mindfulness can also be very beneficial to healthcare providers as well. Burnout is a big problem in the healthcare industry, and trials indicate that mindfulness can help boost resilience and create positive changes while reducing stress, anxiety, and burnout amongst healthcare workers.
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness: A Look Inside
We have seen that mindfulness can be very beneficial. It not only helps us cope better it also helps our brain function better.
Neuroplasticity allows the brain to reorganize itself. It does this by forming new neural connections throughout our life.
Evidence shows us that mindfulness can help increase our resilience, which allows us to cope better and roll with the punches.
By applying neuroplasticity, you can essentially “re-wire” and “hardwire” the brain helping you achieve greater levels of peace, health, happiness, and joy.
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School, actually uses MRI technology to look at the brain. In her research, she looks at the detailed structures of the brain to see what might be going on during certain tasks like meditation or yoga.
Lazar herself used to be a skeptic until she attended some yoga classes.
After attending a few classes, she literally felt the difference. She felt calmer, happier, and much more compassionate. As a result of this experience, she decided to refocus her research on the particular changes that occur in the brain’s physical structure as a result of meditation practice.
In Lazar’s first study she looked at individuals with extensive meditation experience. The study involved focused attention on those internal experiences.
The data showed that meditation might serve to slow down or even prevent age-related thinning of the frontal cortex. This area of the brain otherwise contributes to the formation of memories.
We assume that we become forgetful as we age. However, Lazar and her team discovered that those who meditated in their 40’s and 50’s had the same amount of grey matter as those in their 20’s and 30’s.
They also participated in various mindfulness exercises, including sitting meditation, mindful yoga and a body scan practice. Sessions lasted for 30 -40 minutes every day.
In this study, Lazar tested the recipients for the positive effects that mindfulness meditation would have on psychological well-being.
Lazar was also interested in helping people alleviate symptoms of chronic pain, insomnia, depression, and anxiety, amongst other things.
After 8 weeks, brain volume had increased in 4 regions of the brain. The most relevant of these regions included:
The Temporoparietal junction
Areas of the brain that decreased from the study included the amygdala.
The hippocampus is a structure of the brain shaped like a seahorse. It is responsible for the regulation of emotions, spatial orientation, learning and the storage of memories.
The temporoparietal junction is the area of the brain where the parietal lobes meet the temporal area. This area of the brain is responsible for empathy and compassion.
The study results also showed that the amygdala decreased, which meant the fight-or-flight response, the reaction to threats, also decreased.
The smaller the amygdala becomes, the better people react to stress. The decrease in the brain’s grey matter correlates with the changes in the levels of stress as well, according to the study.
All of this research is promising because it means that the change in people’s reactions occurs within themselves, and not in the environment itself.
In the end, mindfulness can help you change how you react to stressful situations, helping you feel calmer and much more in control.
How Mindfulness Affects and Changes The Brain
Over the past 10 years, studies in neuroimaging have investigated certain changes in brain morphology as it pertains to mindfulness meditation.
One meta-analysis taken from 21 neuroimaging studies examining the brains of 300 experienced practitioners of meditation. The study revealed that 8 unique regions of the brain were consistently changed in those who were experienced in meditation.
These 8 regions of the brain included:
Rostrolateral prefrontal cortex
Anterior cingulate cortex
Superior longitudinal fasciculus
The exact ways in which these different brain regions changed did vary from study to study since different studies use different neuroimaging measurements. However, consistent changes were seen across the board including:
Changes in brain density
Changes in thickness of brain tissue
An increase in the number of neurons, fibers, and glia in a given region
Changes in cortical surface area
Changes in white matter fiber density
In looking at this research, we can certainly see a positive trend, with those who meditate and practice mindfulness.
What do all of these unique regions of the brain really do?
The rostrolateral prefrontal cortex is a region of the brain that is linked with a greater awareness of the thinking process (meta-awareness), the processing of complex, abstract information and introspection.
The sensory cortices and insular cortex are the parts of the brain that are the main cortical hubs when it comes to tactile information, like touch, pain, body awareness, and conscious proprioception.
The hippocampus is a pair of subcortical structures that are involved with the formation of memory as well as facilitating emotional responses.
The anterior cingulate cortex and mid-cingulate cortex are those areas in the brain connected with self-control, the regulation of emotions, as well as attention.
The superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callosum are what is called white matter tracts. These areas communicate between and within the hemispheres of the brain.
Researchers suggest that the effect of meditation on these brain structures appears to be medium in magnitude. This outcome is comparable to the effects of other interventions such as psychological interventions, education, and behavioral interventions.
Because this study involved so many different regions of the brain, researchers suggest that the effects of meditation might involve multiple aspects of brain functioning on a large scale, which is very promising.
As a result of this work, Tang, Holzel, and Posner suggest that engaging in mindfulness practice is indeed promising in terms of the treatment of clinical disorders, helping to encourage a healthy mind and enhanced well-being.
Research with mindfulness and meditation is really still in its infancy. Even with that, a number of studies have investigated changes in brain activation both at rest and during very specific tasks that are associated with the practice of mindfulness meditation.
The Research On Autism and Mindfulness
The use of mindfulness interventions for those with autism is a fairly new thing. Research has shown that mindfulness is a beneficial practice that can lead to less parenting stress, less anxiety, lower levels of depression and improvements in sleep and life-satisfaction. (Conner & White 2014)
There has been some research done with something called Mindful Parenting that proves to be hopeful.
Mindful parenting involves applying the skills of mindfulness into the child-parent interaction. This includes listening with full attention, having a non-judgmental acceptance of the self and the child as well as self-regulation in the parenting relationship.
One reason mindfulness may be effective for those with autism has to do with the part of the brain known as the amygdala.
From the perspective of the brain the stress response invokes two unique systems:
A “hot” system, which is largely automatic involving sensory and emotional processing (the amygdala).
And a “cold” system that involves cognitive processing (the prefrontal cortex and anterior cingulate cortex).
During acute or chronic stress, the hot system tends to be overly responsive when compared to the cold system. To lower levels of stress, it’s important to find a balance between these systems.
This can be done by increasing cognitive control and regulation and lowering sensory and emotional processing.
Mindfulness meditation appears to help some people strike that precious balance. Focusing on and observing what one is sensing and feeling, in terms of the hot system, allows them to respond in a much calmer manner.
According to Singh et al. (2011), mindfulness may also be helpful for those with Asperger syndrome.
Those with Asperger syndrome, which is on the autism spectrum, tend to exhibit aggressive behavior on occasion.
In one study, with a multiple baseline design across subjects, three adolescents with Asperger syndrome utilized a mindfulness-based process known as Meditation on the Soles of the Feet.
This meditation practice helped control their physical aggression in the home and in the community.
Subjects were taught to shift the focus of their attention away from negative things that may have previously triggered aggressive behavior to something neutral, like the soles of their feet.
Prior to mindfulness instruction, adolescents displayed moderate rates of aggression.
During the mindfulness practice, the mean rate of aggression on a weekly basis decreased. The study lasted between 17-24 weeks. The aggression levels decreased from 2.7, 2.5 and 3.2 to 0.9, 1.1, and 0.9, respectively.
No aggressive instances were observed during the last 3 weeks of the mindfulness practice.
No episodes of physical aggression occurred during a 4-year follow up, which is even more promising.
This study suggests that those young adults with Asperger syndrome may be able to successfully use a mindfulness-based procedure to help control their aggressive tendencies.
Can Mindfulness Help ADHD?
According to a National Institute of Health study, meditation or medication, mindfulness might also be useful in the treatment of ADHD.
In one randomized controlled trial researchers compared the affectedness of mindfulness instruction to the effectiveness of methylphenidate amongst children with ADHD. The study is currently focused on measures of attention and hyperactivity as well as impulsivity.
While medication is typically the first sought after treatment for ADHD, its effects are often short-term. Medication also has side effects and the adherence is often low.
Training in mindfulness is emerging as a good choice for young people with ADHD.
The outcomes of the study will be presented at conferences and in scientific and peer-reviewed journals. The results will help not only families of those with ADHD but also general practitioners and mental health providers.
This study will also help inform health insurance companies as to which treatment is more cost-effective in the long term. Data collection for this study is ongoing, but it offers hope to those who are seeking alternative treatments for ADHD.
Take Home Message
The brain is made up of billions of neurons. These neurons need to communicate with one another and with other parts of the body. All of these systems work together in a cohesive fashion.
The brain is plastic, meaning it has plasticity, the ability to learn and grow and change over time. Meditation affects the brain’s functionality, its structure, and its thought patterns.
The more you meditate and practice mindfulness, the more the brain’s synapses strengthen, which can help improve your life.
Every time you indulge in those negative thoughts and feelings, you are strengthening their effect on you.
However, every time you engage in positive thoughts and behaviors and let go of the negative ones, you are retraining your brain to think a little differently.
As Aristotle once said:
“We are what we repeatedly do.”
We think what we repeatedly think as well. Thanks to the study of neuroscience, the scientific community has become much more aware of how the brain works.
Joining together neuroscience and mindfulness, you can begin to bridge the gap and connect all of the dots between how the brain really works and how those daily practices can impact your life.
By practicing mindfulness and meditation, you can then begin to more fully understand how your emotions, thoughts, and feelings impact your life.
If you want to to take one small step in support of a happier, healthier, and calmer way of life, mindfulness and meditation is a great place to start.