By Barbara Heffernan
Today’s work world is a swirling, fast-paced environment of interactions, discussions, decisions, projects, dreams, and disappointments. We somehow believe that the faster we think and move, the more we will get done, the more money we will produce and the more money we will earn.
Bring mindfulness into that environment? We fear the whole thing may come crashing down!
Mindfulness, the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment, does entail a slowing of movement and thought. Yet, rather than losing our edge, mindfulness enables us to think and act more effectively.
The human brain developed the ability to plan, imagine a different future, assess risk and implement complicated projects. The development of our frontal lobe has clearly benefited us as a species and it benefits us as individuals. In fact, we can’t live fully functioning lives without these abilities.
Yet it is almost as if our frontal lobe is on hyper-drive, all the time. I work with many people, senior executives, service industry workers, and stay-at-home parents. Almost all suffer from a feeling that their thoughts race, non-stop, with this “to-do” item and then that, this worry and then another. Most have become disconnected from their feelings and have lost the ability to integrate what they feel with what they think and do.
The worry also convinces them that they must worry. “I can’t NOT worry about this,” they will tell me.
So how do we differentiate between planning and worry? And what does mindful planning look like?
Once we develop a mindfulness practice, we find that we can sit and plan, and be mindful about sitting and planning. We become aware of how certain topics and thoughts create stress and how that stress feels in our body. We can breathe into that stress, calm it as we would calm a puppy, and then rethink about the problem.
Mindfulness enables our whole brain to work in an integrated fashion. In fact, there is considerable research showing how a regular mindful meditation practice physically increases the grey matter in the areas of the brain that impact memory, perspective, learning, concentration and emotional regulation. Mindfulness meditation improves our brain’s ability to function as a whole, integrating information from various regions.
Research also demonstrates that mindfulness meditation reduces activity in the amygdala, the fear center of our brain that controls our fight, flight, and freeze response.
Have you ever had a problem that you have worried over and over about, thought through, tried to plan and the answer escapes you? Then, you finally take a break, and while relaxing in the shower, or maybe first thing in the morning after a good night’s sleep, the answer pops into your brain? That is your relaxation response enabling your brain to work as a whole, to integrate complicated and perhaps somewhat contradictory information.
We function best when in an alert, relaxed state. If you have no idea what that means, and many of my clients initially do not, try mindfulness meditation!
Barbara Heffernan, LCSW, LADC, has a private psychotherapy practice in Norwalk, CT, which focuses on trauma, anxiety, and life transitions. Barbara has practiced meditation for over twenty years. In her first career, Barbara spent twenty years in investment banking, primarily in mergers & acquisitions for Salomon Brothers and Merrill Lynch.