How do we treat anxiety?

We use mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a particular way of paying attention. It can be defined as "paying attention to present moment experiences with curiosity openness and a willingness to be with what is" - MARC program UCLA. It is a gentle process whereby you focus your attention on the present moment and bring awareness to one’s experience. Mindfulness can be applied to sensory experience, thoughts, and emotions by using sustained attention and noticing our experience without reacting. Please watch this video which will hopefully give you a sense of what we are trying to do as we use meditation to become more mindful. (Hint: the fly becomes all the thoughts in our mind).

Mindfulness creates space, changing impulsive reactions to thoughtful responses.

We practice taking the energy from our thinking mind and redirecting it to our awareness. In doing so, we help to grow this awareness which in time becomes space between thoughts thus enabling new, wiser responses that improve attention, learning, emotional regulation, empathy, and conflict resolution.

Introduced into medicine thirty years ago by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, mindfulness has become a successful mainstream influence in medicine, psychology, corporate environments, and now education.

Thirty years of research and, more recently, brain science, offer compelling evidence to support the use of mindfulness in education. The application of mindfulness by students and educators has the potential to improve academic achievement, mental health, and inter- and intra-personal relationships.

Benefits of Mindfulness are manifold:

  • Better focus and concentration
  • Increased sense of calm
  • Decreased stress & anxiety
  • Enhanced health
  • Improved impulse control
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Skillful responses to difficult emotions
  • Increased empathy and understanding of others
  • Development of natural conflict resolution skills

Mindfulness Quiz

The more often you answer “ no,” more mindfully you live.

How do you score?

1. I break or spill things because of carelessness, not paying attention, or thinking of something else.

2. I find it difficult to stay focused on what’s happening in the present.

3. I tend to walk quickly to get where I’m going without paying attention to what I experience along the way.

4. I forget a person’s name almost as soon as I’ve been told it for the first time.

5. It seems I am “running on automatic” without much awareness of what I’m doing.

6. I get so focused on the goal I want to achieve that I lose touch with what I am doing right now to get there.

7. I do jobs or tasks automatically, without being aware of what I’m doing.

8. I drive places on “automatic pilot” and then wonder why I went there.

9. I find myself preoccupied with the future or the past.

10. I snack without being aware that I’m eating.

Mindfulness can bring many benefits. It brings clarity and vividness to present experience. It may help people end unhealthy habits and patterns. It can enhance a sense of well-being and calm troubled spirits.

This questionnaire is also useful because its questions suggest specific areas for improvement. I’m going to try to walk more mindfully; eat more mindfully; listen more single-mindedly; and not multi-task.

If you’d like to read more about happiness, check out Gretchen’s daily blog, The Happiness Project, and join the Happiness Project group on Facebook to swap ideas.

Current Research on Mindfulness

For decades, people who’ve completed the MBSR training have reported feeling less stress and more positive emotions; participants suffering from chronic illnesses say they experience less pain afterward.

But in this study, the researchers weren’t just asking the participants how they felt. They were examining their brains, two weeks before and right after the eight-week program. Over the same period, they also scanned the brains of people who didn’t receive the MBSR training.

The MBSR participants, none of whom were experienced meditators, reported spending just under half an hour per day on their meditation “homework.” Yet when their brains were scanned at the end of the program, their gray matter was significantly thicker in several regions than it was before.

Brain scans of the hippocampus, showing the regions the researchers determined were affected by meditation.Image adapted from B. Hölzel, et al., Psychiatry Research: NeuroimagingVol. 191 (1), January 30, 2011, pp. 36-43.

One of those regions was the hippocampus, which prior research has found to be involved in learning, memory, and the regulation of our emotions. The gray matter of the hippocampus is often reduced in people who suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The researchers also found denser gray matter in the temporo-perietal junction and the posterior cingulated cortex of the meditators’ brains—regions involved in empathy and taking the perspective of someone else—and in the cerebellum, which has been linked to emotion regulation.

These brain changes may suggest that meditation improves people’s ability to regulate their emotions, control their stress levels, and feel empathy for others, says Britta Hölzel, the study’s lead author and a research fellow at Massachusetts General Hospital and the University of Geissen in Germany. However, she stresses that these conclusions are still very speculative.

Applications of Mindfulness

Mindfulness gives children access to some of the same techniques that the world’s top athletes, speakers, and musicians use to perform at their best under pressure-filled circumstances like:

  • Test Taking
  • Public speaking
  • Sports
  • Music
  • Peer Interactions
  • Family life