Time for a quick mental boot camp!
Our last article in the Circuit Magazine looked at mental resilience and 5 steps your personal mind trainer would recommend to improving this. This time we’re focusing on one simple but effective resilience building exercise that you can easily incorporate into your daily regime.
Remember the analogy of the high powered vehicle, fitted with bullet-proof glass and armoured shields, but nobody has bothered to top up the engine oil for a while? Your body and brain are the equivalent of this vehicle. You can build up your physical armour and strength but if you aren’t topping up the mental engine oil then you’re heading for the breaker’s yard.
When you are in a threatening situation, the sympathetic branch of your nervous system provokes a state of high readiness for responding to danger. This is your “fight or flight” response. Your accelerator is flat out and the needle on your rev counter is in the red. You’re probably very familiar with the physical changes – the heart beats faster, muscles power up and breathing becomes quick and shallow.
When the threat is over, the parasympathetic branch of your nervous system restores your body’s balance bringing heart rate, digestion, blood pressure and breathing back to a relaxed and rested state. Without this “input of engine oil” we would quickly burn out physically and mentally. Importantly the parasympathetic branch restores our higher level thinking such as focus, memory, problem-solving, perspective and reasoning. The bottom line is – we are more rational and logical when we are in a parasympathetic mode.
In your role as a protection specialist, you may be under chronic stress and the danger is that your nervous system gets stuck in a chronic state of sympathetic arousal. There is then a need to regularly use strategies that trigger a parasympathetic state. The more duress you put yourself in, the more frequently the engine oil needs topping up by activating this “rest and digest” state. Mindfulness is one of the best strategies for this.
When it comes to high-stress environments, clinical research has consistently shown that mindfulness improved mental performance₁, focus₂ and the ability to sustain attention when multi-tasking₃. US Marines were found to have improved their working memory capacity (crucial for effective focus and reasoning under pressure) with an 8-week programme of mindful meditation₄. Just 4 days of training for 20 minutes a day yields improvement across a range of mental functions₅ and neuroscientists found structural changes around the part of the brain involved in monitoring our focus and self-control after just 11 hours of meditation₆.
So just what is mindfulness? Mindfulness is simply the ability to remain in the “here and now” with a relaxed awareness of our thoughts and feelings and what’s going on in our bodies. We can be mindful when we are eating, walking, sitting still – just using our senses to the full and not thinking about the past or future. Sounds simple? You may be surprised just how much your attention wanders!
Many people find it easiest to start practising this technique with mindful breathing – described in the box below:
When you’re first practising mindful breathing, it’s best to take around 10 minutes in a place where you can be sure you won’t be interrupted. As you get more confident in the process, you can be mindful anywhere at any time.
Begin by sitting comfortably with your spine upright, feet squarely on the floor and hands on your lap. Take a few breaths using diaphragmatic breathing like this:
- Place one hand on your chest
- And place the other hand on your abdomen just below your navel
- Notice which hand rises and falls the most – if it’s the hand on your chest then your breathing is tending more towards “fight and flight” than “rest and digest.” That’s fine, don’t worry about it, just notice it and see if it changes as you practice this method
- Now shift your attention to the hand on your abdomen and try to imagine you are inflating a balloon under that hand. So every time you breathe in, the balloon inflates and your hand is pushed out; and every time you breathe out, the balloon deflates and your abdomen is pulled back in
- Breathe in and the balloon inflates
- Breathe out and it deflates
- Sometimes it helps to actually push your abdomen out with the inhale and pull it back in with the exhale. Once you have got the hang of this, you can do it anywhere without placing your hands on your body. Practice it regularly and you’ll get better at it.
Take a couple more breaths like this then let your breathing just return to a natural rhythm.
Begin to check in with your body, mentally scanning from the top of your head downwards noticing any areas of tension or relaxation. Don’t judge or try to change anything – simply notice the sensations and move on. It can help to close your eyes when you do this.
Now check in with your physical senses – what can you hear? Are there any smells, tastes that you are aware of? Notice the physical sensation of where your body connects with the chair and the ground, the feel of your clothes.
Check in with any emotions you may have. It doesn’t matter whether they feel negative (frustration, impatience, sadness, agitation) or positive (calm, happiness, optimism). Your job is not to analyse or judge, simply to become aware.
Now just bring your attention back to your breathing for a little while without trying to change it (some people find it helpful to count their in and out breaths, others to notice the sensation).
If your mind wanders, as soon as you notice it, just bring your attention back to your breathing.
When you’re ready to end your mindful practice, let the attention move away from the breath and back into your immediate surroundings, becoming aware of your body and the sounds around you. If you had closed your eyes, open them slowly. Notice what you see in your surroundings – the lighting, colour, shapes and all the visual details of what’s around you. Sit for a moment longer before throwing yourself into the next activity. Notice how you feel physically and mentally, without judging or setting expectations about how you should feel.
Aim to build this exercise into your daily routine. It generally works best first thing in the morning and starting with short sessions – maybe 5 or 10 minutes. As you practice, you will find it easier to maintain awareness on the current moment in time.
Your attention can be thought of as a bit like a chaotic and untrained puppy – it will get distracted by the slightest thing and run off to explore, often getting into all kinds of problems along the way. It’s impulsive with a short attention span and limited focus. If you compare this pup with its future role as a disciplined working dog, then the need to gently teach it how to come to heel and stay where you want it to becomes clear.
With mindfulness, your job is to notice when your thoughts and attention have run away and calmly bring your attention back to where you want it. When you are practising mindfulness, it’s okay and natural for your mind to drift on to other things such as
- Analysing the experience – this isn’t working, I’m not doing it right.
- Thinking about competing demands – I need to be doing x,y,z – and not fully focusing on the activity
- Fidgeting or being distracted by physical sensations – it’s common to notice annoying itches
Aim for a calm, non-judging awareness – letting thoughts come and go, just noticing them. By always bringing your attention back to the task in hand, for example focusing on the breath, you’ll gradually find you are able to maintain the focus more easily and call your attention back.
As you do this exercise you are activating your parasympathetic nervous system leaving you more balanced, calmer and improving your thinking abilities.
During the day, observe how often your thoughts are taking over and occasionally bring some mindfulness into other activities. It can be surprising to notice how often we are “somewhere else.” The more you practice, the better able you are to discipline your mind when you most need it and the more resilient you will be.
by: Dr Liz Royle & Cath Kerr
- Duckworth, A. & Seligman, M. (2005). Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance of adolescents. Psychological Science. 16, 12. 939-944.
- Levy, D., Wobbrock, J., Kaszniak, A. & Ostergren, M. (2012). The Effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment. Proceedings of Graphics Interface. 45-52.
- MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., Saron, C. D. (2010). Intensive Meditation Training Improves Perceptual Discrimination and Sustained Attention. Psychological Science. 21, 6. 829-839.
- Jha, A. P., Stanley, E. A., Kiyonaga, A., Wong, L., & Gelfand, L. (2010). Examining the protective effects of mindfulness training on working memory capacity and affective experience. Emotion. 10, 1. 54-64.
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- Tang, Y., Lu, Q., Geng, X., Stein, E. A., Yang, Y., & Posner, M. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. 107, 35. 15649-15652.