Relaxation and Mindfulness

Relaxation and mindfulness have become common topics of conversation in recent decades and are regularly provided as recommendations for a variety of complaints, such as anxiety, chronic pain, and traumatic stress, but why? 

Executive Functions (EFs) choose and monitor behavior in an effort to attain specific goals. Goals, in this sense, can be momentary and perception-based (e.g., stopping at a red light) or complex and extended in time (e.g., conducting a writing sample) (Denkova et al., 2020). Humans ubiquitously endure ever-changing circumstances that may contribute to cognitive, emotional, and social challenges; EFs are critical in the successful adaptation to such changes (Diamond, 2013; Jurado & Rosselli, 2007). Some EFs include attention; perspective-taking, decision-making, and problem-solving (Collins & Koechlin, 2012; Diamond & Ling, 2016); social skills (Long et al., 2018; Wardlow, 2013); academic achievement (Alloway & Copello, 2013; Cowan, 2014); and job performance (Almatrooshi et al., 2016; Van Iddekigne et al., 2018). A growth in research has revealed EFs are instrumental in emotion processing and successful emotion regulation (Hendricks & Buchanan, 2016; Hofmann et al., 2012; Schmeichel et al., 2008; Tang & Schmeichel, 2014). Stronger EF has been labeled as a “protective factor” against negative mood in individuals with ruminative, worrisome thoughts (Madian et al., 2019, p. 475). The role of attention, an EF, is an evolutionary solution to the very human problem of receiving too much information and having too little computational power (Denkova et al., 2020). Attentional mechanisms function to permit only a subset of information to the brain’s computational process (Denkova et al., 2020). Attention and other EFs are limited in capacity and vulnerable to degradation, particularly when they are heavily and repeatedly taxed, such as during high-stress/high-demand intervals (Blasiman & Was, 2018; Lupien et al., 2007; Jha et al., 2016). Mindfulness training is proposed to be an effective method for improving EFs and promoting cognitive resilience (Denkova et al., 2020). In as much, repeated engagement of attention during mindfulness exercises can strengthen attentional processes. 

Fun fact: The mind wanders on average 47% of the time (Re: Harvard; Shapiro, 2020).

This is the thing: Humans are not intended to be perfect! PERFECTION IS UNATTAINABLE. However, transformation IS attainable and mindfulness is an “active vehicle” for transformation (Shapiro, 2020, p. 46).  

Mindfulness, which means “to see clearly,” is merely the practice of facilitating a non-judgmental awareness of what is going on in the present moment (Shapiro, 2020, p. 46). We want to see clearly the nature of reality and the truth of who we really are. Internal judgment and commentary cloud our ability to see things, moments, people, etc. clearly. Chris Germer says, “An unstable mind is like an unstable camera: we get a fuzzy picture.” Learning to gather our attention in the present moment better facilitates clarity and can foster mobility more effectively when necessary (Shapiro, 2020). 

A clouded mindset might sound like this: “I shouldn’t feel this cranky!”
A clear mindset might sound like this: “I notice I am feeling irritable.”
A clouded mindset might sound like this: “Why am I feeling so cold right now? It’s 70 degrees! I should be grateful for the sun now that winter is over.”
A clear mindset might sound like this: “I notice I am cold right now.”
A clouded mindset might sound like this: “I can’t focus. What’s wrong with me? I’m always all over the place. It’s going to take me forever to get this done!”
A clear mindset might sound like this: “I am distracted.”

Many problems people who seek therapy experience are influenced by the human, evolutionarily-developed, stress response (Lavertsky, 2020). We are built to withstand and respond to stress; however, our stress response can be influenced by so many things other than evolution, including genetics, trauma and abuse, our current environment, upbringing, lifestyle choices (e.g., exercise, substance use, diet), and more. When stress becomes severe or chronic, we may develop an abnormal or maladaptive response (e.g., obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, increased cortisol; Lavertsky, 2020).

Mindfulness has been researched to affect sympathetic nervous system output (such as in the traumatic stress response), somatic symptoms of psychiatric problems, recovery from mediated diseases, inflammation, immune function and vaccine response, stress hormones of the HPA axis, oxygen peak, overall psychological well-being, hypertension, insulin resistance, impulsivity of movement disorders (e.g., Parkinson’s Disease), experiences and prevention of and cardiovascular disease, attention, stress, mood, self-esteem, sleep disturbances, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, cognitive functioning, and relapse of mood disorders (Lavertsky, 2020; Note, some of this research is still being conducted).

There are three basic principles of mindfulness: posture, breath, and thought. Posture: Make sure you are comfortable, but not so relaxed that you’ll fall asleep during deeper practices. You can lay down or sit upright with your head slightly tilted down. If sitting up, help yourself ground to the present by planting your feet on the floor. Breathing: Focus on your breathing and allow your breath to be your anchor in any practice. It is consistent, patterned, and effortless. When you become distracted, bring attention to your thoughts and refocus on your breath. Thoughts: Allow your thoughts to come and go, without judgment and without exploring the narrative. Acknowledge your thoughts and let them pass naturally. E.g., “I notice I’m lost in thought.”

Mind-body interventions can intervene on the chemical process of modulating immune pathways and endocrine/immune pathways that balance the stress response (Lavertsky, 2020). Mind-body interventions include a non-competitive and non-judgmental meditative component, mental focus on muscular alignment, movement awareness combined with low-to-moderate activity level, and centered, conscious breathing. Breathing exercises to try may include diaphragmatic breathing, 4-7-8 breathing, and box breathing. Grounding exercises to try might include the 5-4-3-2-1 exercise and mindful eating. Yoga has been researched to enhances judgment & self-control on deliberate actions, rebalance the function of autonomic nervous system, and help individuals in the criminal justice system, at-risk youth, with substance abuse problems, with mood disorders, with neurological illness, with cognitive decline, and with caregiver stress (Lavertsky, 2020). Other practices include meditation, loving kindness; self-compassion; progressive muscle relaxation; autogenic training; mindful coloring; Meridian tapping; Qigong; and Tai chi (Lavertsky, 2020).



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