Mindfulness – writing before exams

I’ve mentioned mindfulness a bit in this blog. I don’t practice mindfulness every day in terms of meditation, breathing, body scans etc. But I do try and practice it as a lifestyle. I try and be aware of what I’m experiencing moment to moment, not be too futuristic nor live in the past and to be aware of what’s happening inside me – my thoughts and feelings.

I try and allow my feelings to be and my thoughts to come and go without fusing with them. I try and allow my thoughts and feelings to be the actors on stage while staying in the audience. I experience the drama, but try and refrain from jumping up on stage and being part of the drama. I suppose of verge more toward the ACT (acceptance and commitment therapy) strain of mindfulness than the Buddhist/yoga strain which emphasizes practice (thirty to sixty minutes a day of breathing, sitting etc.) I guess I would really like to do yoga and meditation, but I’m not disciplined enough (I wish I was because there’s no denying the evidence around the changes to the brain that takes place).

Some really interesting research recently came out of Chicago University around the affect of anxiety on performance. Researchers found that students who were prone to test anxiety improved their high–stakes test scores by nearly one grade point after they were given 10 minutes to write about what was causing them fear. Interestingly, researchers showed that it wasn’t just the act of writing that inoculated students against choking; rather, specifically writing about test–related thoughts and feelings had helped.

What they found was that anxiety and stress took up “working memory” – something like RAM in a computer or CPU firepower and decreased performance. Basically this was an exercise in mindfulness. It turns an experience of stress and anxiety, into one of observing the stress and anxiety. Of noticing it, and acknowledging it (by writing it down). How does this work? It re-engages the cognitive left cerebral hemisphere which has been deactivated as brain function has descended into the more primal limbic system where flight, freeze, fight mechanisms have taken over due to the fear, anxiety and stress.

Actions of mindfulness (such as writing) are powerful and practiced consistently can produce a more peaceful, lower stress, richer life experience and the body of evidence continues to grow.

The Happiness Trap

I’ve just finished reading The Happiness Trap by Dr Russ Harris. He featured recently on a TV series called Making Australia Happy and was working with participants who lived in the “unhappiest” suburb of Sydney to try and lift their well-being. One little mindfulness exercise he had them do was very cool. He got them to take five minutes (or thereabouts) to experience a single sultana.

He asked them to pretend they’d never seen one before. So they were to study it. Look at it’s shape, color, texture. Smell it. Feel it. Squish it. Nibble on it. Savor the taste, the feel in the mouth. Closing their eyes, heightened the sense of smell and taste. He even had them listen to it! When the time was up, the effect was really powerful. People were so relaxed and anchored in the “now”. The experience of mindfulness had pushed away the other pressures and anxiety’s and made them “present”. It’s very similar to meditation but not connected to any “spirituality” per se.

Harris argues in his book, that the “now” is really all we have. We spend too much time ruminating over the past, and worry over the future, that we’re missing the stuff that’s happening around us right NOW.

I took my kids for a 16km hike a fortnight ago up a mountain. I tried this little exercise on them because kids always want to know “Are we there yet?” and “How far to go?” and I wanted to see if I could get them to have a richer experience. I asked them to focus on five things they could see. This was fairly easy obviously, but I really wanted them to “see” so I got them to explain what they could see in more detail…. fine moss on rocks that looked like a beard, textures in rocks and colors.

Then I had them name five things they could hear. They could hear their feet crunching on gravel. They could hear birds, water, and the sound of their own breathing. I asked them for five smells and tried to get them to be as specific as possible. Then finally, five things they could feel. The sun on their skin, their pants touching their legs, air passing through their nose and lips. It’s such a grounding experience and made the bushwalk not just the means to the end (standing on top of a 1233m mountain) but a holistic experience from start to finish.

Interestingly, Acceptance Commitment Therapy (which is what mindfulness is based on) has been proven in evidenced based studies to deal effectively with depression, anxiety, chronic pain, addictions and has even been used to ameliorate schizophrenia. Most therapies don’t have a great evidence base. Watch this space, because I think mindfulness is a real winner.