Mindfulness, The Brain, and Performance

presentmomentbuddha

What is mindfulness? Many of you have likely heard of mindfulness since its relatively recent take-off in the fields of psychotherapy and performance enhancement. However, it’s a word that gets

thrown around a lot these days and can be easily misunderstood. Is it clearing your mind? Is it sitting alone without distraction while exploring the inner most parts of your soul? Is it being present-minded?

Dr. Dan Siegel’s definition of mindfulness is my favorite. He says that being mindful is “being conscientious and intentional with what we do, being open and creative with possibilities, or being aware of the present moment without grasping onto judgment”. The mindful approach, he says, allows us to be “flexible and receptive and to have presence”. Hmm…sounds pretty awesome to me! Who could argue that being “flexible and receptive and to have presence” wouldn’t be helpful to an athlete? If we can increase our focus on the moment-to-moment of a race, game, or competition, we’ll be able to adapt when faced with adversity and be less distracted by the past and the future. Additionally, as mentioned in my post on pain, when faced with things like pain the process of acknowledging its presence through mindful awareness lessens the pain’s ability to hold us down.

Throughout my academic and professional experiences, I’ve learned about, practiced, and taught mindfulness to clients because research shows that it can help you to relax and to be more present-minded. Both benefits, in turn, help us to regulate our actions, thoughts, and emotions more effectively and lead to many improvements in our health and performance. The research on these outcomes was helpful but if I’m being honest, I wasn’t fully invested in the idea. Basically, I wasn’t buying what I was selling. I often found myself wondering why I wasn’t as committed to mindfulness as my colleagues and clients. I now know that I hadn’t exposed myself to enough information that I could sink my teeth into.

2015 was a turning point for me and my perception of mindfulness. I started reading up on studies from the 2000s that provided evidence surrounding this idea of WHY mindfulness is so helpful. In early 2016, I came across a study out of the University of Michigan that had the most profound effect on me. The study was on military veterans who were diagnosed with PTSD after returning from deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq. What these researchers did was nothing short of spectacular! After conducting pre- and post-treatment brain scans, veterans who learned and regularly practiced mindfulness actually changed the structure of their brains! More specifically, it was determined that the veterans who engaged in mindfulness practice significantly decreased the activity in the “fight or flight” area of the brain and increased the brain activity in the areas related to intentionally shifting and directing of our focus/attention.  (Note: This one of many studies outlining the brain changes that occur from regularly practicing mindfulness. If you’re interested in more details, I have included a link to the University of Michigan study is at the bottom of this entry).

Whether we’re recreational athletes, student-athletes, age-groupers, or professional athletes, distraction links us all together and this tendency rarely creates positive results. Distraction can come in so many different forms including, but not limited to, our inner dialogues, “trash talking” from opposing competitors, pain, thinking too much about the past and/or the future, the crowd (e.g., hecklers), the weather, and so many others. You get the idea. If distraction is such a major problem, wouldn’t it be great if we could readily shift our focus onto something positive and productive? No brainer, right? Mindfulness offers us this ability. The more we practice it, the more our brains change in ways that will allow us to recognize negative thought patterns, behaviors, and emotions and quickly shift our focus on something more positive and/or the here-and-now. With this improved ability, we can more effectively decide where we want to be focusing our attention rather than letting our mind run rampant causing our performance to suffer. We can focus on our plans for being in-the-moment (i.e., where are we RIGHT NOW) and engage in our pre-determined strategies that we know will allow us to be better off in the end.

Now that I have a much more complete picture of mindfulness (that it’s helpful and why), I’m all in! During my “preseason” so far, I’ve be doing a daily mindfulness practice. So far, my favorite is when I spend 5-10 minutes doing a body scan (simply noticing the experiences of specific areas of the body without judgment or trying to change) in the hot tub at my local gym. Other examples of mindfulness practice include being aware of your breath, going for a walk and paying close attention to the experiences of your 5 senses, and eating something while focusing on the taste, smell, and texture of your food. I’ll continue to practice mindfulness throughout my training now that I better understand the why behind the fact that it is helpful.

If you’re interested, here is a great link to an audio body scan exercise: https://www.livingwell.org.au/mindfulness-exercises-3/6-body-scan/

If you choose to give it a try, it would be great to hear about your thoughts/reactions!

Until next time…

Cheers!

Online summary of University of Michigan study: http://www.uofmhealth.org/news/archive/201604/brain-changes-seen-veterans-ptsd-after-mindfulness-training


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