Neuroscience and Mindfulness

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In this extract from her new book, The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook, Sue France explains how Mindfulness is about living your life as if it really matters, moment by moment!

Neuroscientists believe that mindfulness is extremely good for the brain ie being aware of what is happening right now and what you are thinking and doing, rather than acting automatically which is our brain’s natural default system. Neuroscientists have discovered that we spend 90-95% of our time on “automatic pilot!” Simply “being in the moment” gives you the ability to choose and respond rather than react. Exercising your mind and body helps to improve blood flow into the brain, helps decrease blood pressure and it also improves mood and brainpower by raising dopamine and endorphin levels. Importantly, it decreases cortisol levels (linked to stress) which can be extremely harmful if left unchecked.

The “ABC” of mindfulness

Awareness

Becoming aware of what you are thinking and doing

Being

Being in the moment, with your experience, ignoring autopilot and feeding problems by creating your own ‘stories!’

Choice

Taking the choice to respond more wisely, by creating a gap between the experience and response, we make wiser choices

Mindfulness can help with stress, anxiety, creativity, focus and relationships. Research shows that practicing mindfulness develops areas of your brain connected with learning and memory, and can even help you do better in tests. The more you practise mindfulness the more benefits you get. Being mindful helps you understand yourself better and realise the critical time when your performance is dropping off so that you can take action to refresh your brain and regain optimal performance. The earlier you notice and do something about it, the less time is required to regain control and thereby maximising your brain for excellence.

Mindfulness helps you to treat your thoughts as “mental processes” and not reality, allowing you to stop the triggers that set off your automatic responses eg flight, fright, freeze and flock. It reduces your desire to worry about things in the future that may never happen or stop worrying about the past that you can do nothing about. Focusing on the here and now helps you to notice, manage and process emotions in a way that helps you rather than hinders you. We also need to accept and acknowledge the fact that as humans it is normal to feel emotions such as anxiety and anger but we have to learn to move on and not dwell on it by creating our own “stories” in our head. Mindfulness encourages acceptance and being kind to yourself as well as self-compassion.

What separates the conscious mind from the subconscious mind is the analytical mind. Meditation and mindfulness is about getting beyond the analytical mind. Focusing on your breath and body helps anchor us to the present. Mindfulness is a simple and powerful technique to help you centre yourself, cut through the noise of a busy working life and reclaim tranquillity, boosting your thinking processes and positivity.

The mindfulness of forgiveness

All the time you judge others or yourself and are unable to forgive, you are living in the past (whether you need to forgive yourself or someone else). You need to let go of any feelings of anger, frustration, resentment, discomfort and negativity as they can make you feel lonely, isolated and even fearful. If you want to move forward and be free of such thoughts, then mindfulness techniques can help. When you are doing the following mindfulness techniques and these thoughts come into your mind, you must acknowledge them, know they are there, know you are human and then let them go, let them float on by.

You can copy the U-SOFAR technique below and pin it on your desk to remind you to take control of your mind. Use the U-SOFAR technique whenever you feel a threat response, when you start to feel defensive, when you realise your subconscious mind is taking over your decision-making and when you want to be in control of your mind, your success and your life.

The U-SOFAR Technique

You need to:

UNDERSTAND

and acknowledge what is happening in your brain. To help you realise what is happening, notice any negative feelings you are getting. Accept that your brain is “lazy” and works on automatic pilot whenever it can. Accept that your brain is trying to “save” and “protect” you and remember you are no longer cavemen/women and this way of reacting is not helpful. Remember you have neuroplasticity, which means your brain continues to grow and develop, therefore learned behaviour can be unlearned and you are quite capable of changing the way you think and behave. Tell yourself to:

STOP

and slow your thinking down! Saying “STOP” as well as putting your hand up in the stop signal, will break the automatic process and allow your Pre Frontal Cortex to start rationalizing, reasoning and thinking logically. You can say to yourself “okay brain I know what you are up to and I’m not going to allow it from now on.” If you are talking to someone then you may need to be assertive and simply say: “let me think about this before I respond” or “can I come back to you on this?” giving yourself time to think.

OBSERVE

and be mindfully aware what is going on around you and notice what you notice in an open-minded way. Disassociate yourself from the situation or experience and look down on yourself as if you are a separate person taking the emotions out of it and see exactly what is happening objectively.

FOCUS

by calming your mind of chatter by using mindfulness techniques (see below) and meditation, bringing yourself into the present and preventing any distractions.

ASK

yourself questions such as “is this habit/thought process serving me well?” and “what outcome would I like to see?” You may need to reframe the situation and look at it from a different point of view – play devil’s advocate. Think of it as being positive, and an opportunity. Ask yourself what advice would your best friend give you and then make a plan.

Technique to “label and reframe” to be more positive and calm:

To calm yourself down, you need to break the pattern and enable reframing by reflecting on your feelings and giving those feelings a label. Once you have given your thought a label you then re-label the negative label/emotion with a more positive, helpful label/emotion/attitude. This will free up energy and allow your Pre Frontal Cortex to think more clearly. Here are some positive emotions/attitudes to replace the negative emotions/attitudes:

Pressured   becomes    Enthused

Flustered    becomes    Stimulated

Dread         becomes    Cautious

Nervous     becomes    Excited

Fear            becomes    Anticipation

RESPOND

by making the right choices using your intellectual intuition and taking action on building a new pathway that will serve you (and possibly others) better and repeating it until it becomes your new habit or thought process.

I want you to take a moment to acknowledge the intention of these exercises which is to help you to develop the concentration to quiet the internal chatter and limiting beliefs, to enable you to focus on the here and now and free the mind of stress. It will improve your sense of wellbeing and help you rein in your emotions, keep things in perspective and see the bigger picture and make your brain stronger. It teaches you to take control as well as develop your willpower.

You can start with five minutes as I know you will be thinking “but I haven’t got the time.” Neuroscience says we all need five x 5-minute breaks a day plus your lunch hour in order to remain effective and productive, so you must fit this in to your day if you want to take advantage of neuroscience and to help your brain work in the best way it possibly can for you. It’s a good idea to put a timer on for five minutes or finish when you feel calmer and more aware and refreshed. Your brain will feel the boost from the normal chaos of work life we all lead.

You may need to get someone to read these to you or you can dictate it into a device such as smartphone/tablet and play them back to yourself until you get used to it and are able to do it from memory. This may be a new skill for you and you may need to practise it many times in order to be able to do it naturally.

5-minute mindful breathing

To develop a relaxed focussed mind, simply sit up in your chair with your back straight and your arms on your lap, making sure your feet are touching the ground and relax any muscle tension in your face and body.

You can put your hand on your abdomen so you notice it moving up and down as you breathe or on your chest if it is your chest that is moving up and down. Close your eyes and imagine a blue sky, concentrate on your breathing and be in the present moment. Take a deep breath in through your nose counting 6, hold for the count of 4 and breathe out slowly through your mouth for the count of 8 and repeat. Notice the temperature of the air flowing in through your nostrils as you breathe in and the warm temperature as it leaves out through your mouth and notice the slight pause as you start to breathe in again. Notice the rise and fall of your abdomen as you breathe in and out and the movement of your ribcage.

Repeat this breathing exercise around 20 times counting 6 seconds in and 8 seconds out every time. Thoughts will come into your mind so just let them pass by non-judgementally – good and bad. Imagine your thoughts passing by on white fluffy clouds in a clear blue sky. Allow them to simply float by on a cloud as you let them go without judgement. If you have thoughts like “this is stupid, it is not working for me,” then also put those words on the clouds and let them float away.

Alternative to thoughts passing by on a cloud are:

  • Putting our thoughts on leaves as they float down a stream, if they get stuck on a rock – notice it and then let it continue on its journey down the river. Your thoughts will come and go at their own pace – simply acknowledge them and let them go without judgement.
  • See your thoughts tied to helium balloons as they float away high in the sky until you cannot see them anymore.

Mindfulness is a way of being, it’s about living your life as if it really matters, moment by moment! The more time you spend in the ‘present moment’, the less time you spend on automatic pilot and therefore the more control you will have of your life!

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About Author

Sue France

Sue France FCIPD FInstAM INLPTA Trainer, coach and conference Chairperson, Neuroscience enthusiast. Creator of the ‘Workation’ training. Author of award winning “The Definitive Executive Assistant & Managerial Handbook” and “The Definitive Personal Assistant & Secretarial Handbook 3rd edition. Qualified FCIPD Learning & Development Practitioner and coach, Certified Neuro Linguistic Programming Master Practitioner, The UK Times Crème/DHL PA of the Year 2006, Certified TetraMap® Facilitator, Editorial board member of ‘Executive Secretary’ magazine. Contact Sue at [email protected] or call +44 (0) 7747 118914

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