Mindfulness saved my bacon..... more then once
Three years ago I was facing one of my biggest leadership challenges ever. I was a new Expedition Leader in Antarctica, we were in the final stages of resupply. This is the annual restocking of the chocolate and everything else that you would basically buy on a once a year shopping trip for a household and business. Imagine a once a year trip to Office Works, Coles and Bunnings…. That is a lot of stuff to unload. It is all hands on deck. It is also the once a year change over of staff, so people who have been in Antarctica for over 12 months are leaving to go home for the first time and those of us who are arriving are settling in for the coming 12 months of isolation.
About halfway through the resupply a huge blizzard was forecast, we knew it was coming and by late afternoon, the sky was starting to darken and the wind pick up. We did the last lift for the day and then retired to the big red shed (the living quarters) for some adult beverages, conversation and dinner.
Through out the night the wind howled, visibility was zero, the snow was so thick. It was a true Antarctica blizzard. It is an odd feeling being in a blizzard. You know that there is a world outside but you can’t see anything, looking out a window is like looking into a ocean, there is nothing to see except bottomless color and the occasional indistinct shape.
At 9am the next morning while I was making my coffee, the blizzard still howling around the building, everyone else enjoying a sleep in. The radio crackled in the silence of a sleepy morning. The resupply vessel had broken her moorings and run aground on the rocks opposite the station. As I hit the search and rescue button to summon everyone from their sleep, my mind was starting to spiral into panic.
My thinking mind was racing – “there are over 80 people on that ship, and we can’t get to them.” “I know people on that ship, are they OK” “what are you going to do, your in charge” “Holy SHIT, holy SHIT, holy SHIT”
My fight or flight response was fully activated – adrenaline was making my voice and hands shake, I was in charge, I did not have the luxury of loosing my shit, I was standing in my pajamas in front of 40 amazing people who had responded to my search and rescue horn without a single clue what to do.
Fortunately I had learnt many years earlier the power of mindfulness and most importantly mindfulness of breath. The ability to quite your panicked self talk and focus your mind on the task at hand, all by taking a slow grounding breath.
Mindfulness is a skill that I have drawn on many times in my life, as a critical care nurse facing literal life and death situations in the intensive care unit, as a remote area nurse in the middle of a indigenous community hours from colleagues as a baby is born and as a farmer when bush fires are closing in. These are all stressful events that need instant calm mind and thinking space. It is easy to tap into skills like mindfulness in these instances.
Sometime I forget that we can also tap into skills like mindfulness at any time, just having one of those hell busy days were everything is falling apart? I had one yesterday, I am running a week long professional development event next week, one day out and the venue cancels the last day arrgggggggg and then a speaker also taps out OMG. Instead of reaching for the bottle of wine to relax, imagine if you had a secret skill that you could use to bring everything into perspective? Then you could actually enjoy a glass of wine with your partner instead of drinking a whole bottle so you can sleep.
But what is mindfulness? Is their any evidence supporting its use in managing stress?
Mindfulness is the ability to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not be overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. It is a way of approaching thinking and emotions so that they don’t run you, you run them, not to say that you will never feel emotion again, rather you will feel emotion and be able to identify and manage your response to them. We all have the capacity to be present with our emotions, being mindful doesn’t require us to change who we are. But we can cultivate the innate abilities of being present with simple practices that are scientifically demonstrated to benefit ourselves, our loved ones, our friends and neighbours, the people we work with, and the institutions and organisations we take part in.
Instead of judging thoughts and sensations that come into our minds while performing a given task, mindfulness asks that we simply notice these thoughts and sensations – and then let them go. Judgment, assessment, and prioritization can all wait. This allows you time to reflect and enjoy being in the moment, rather then stressing about the future or past.
The science of Mindfulness
A Harvard study in 2018 demonstrated, for the first time, that mindfulness can even positively affect genetic expression. Thirteen out of twenty-four participants “who meditated over an eight-week period had a striking change in the expression of 172 genes that regulate inflammation, circadian rhythms and glucose metabolism. And that, in turn, was linked to a meaningful decrease in their blood pressure.” The study was only a small one, and didn't involve a control group, so larger, more vigorous research is still needed.
A 2010 meta-analysis of 39 studies found that practicing mindfulness reduces stress. How? The American Psychology Association explains, the study's findings “suggest that mindfulness meditation shifts people's ability to use emotion regulation strategies in a way that enables them to experience emotion selectively.” This, in real world terms, translates into mindfulness practitioners being able to experience positive emotions more often and negative ones less often by consciously employing mindfulness to direct their emotional states. The same APA article also notes that mindfulness practice may have at least two beneficial side-effects: it seems to increase both working memory, and the ability to focus.
A 2010 study by Jha, Stanley, Wong & Gelfand compared three groups: two groups of military personnel, one that practiced mindfulness meditation and one that did not, and a third group of civilians that did not meditate. They found that the only group whose memory capacity increased over time was the meditating military group. This suggests that even those who are experiencing high stress (both military groups were awaiting deployment) stand to benefit cognitively from mindfulness practice. (As a side note, the meditators also self-reported higher positive affect and lower negative affect than the non-meditators.)
Do you practice mindfulness? What have your experiences been?
Do you want to learn more about mindfulness?