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Your Brain on Depression & How Meditation Can Help

In an era of Instagram highlight reels and ‘Top 30 under 30’ articles exploding over social media, it can often feel like everyone around you is living a happy, fulfilled life. Statistics however, reveal a different story: a staggering 1 in 5 people in North America are suffering with a mental health condition. (1,2) In fact, depression has been labelled as the leading cause of disability worldwide by the World Health Organization. (3)

Some of the most common treatments used to combat depression are antidepressant medications, but for many sufferers, antidepressants are only marginally effective (or not effective at all). Interestingly, some research has shown that meditation can be effective in alleviating some symptoms of depression. (4)

In order to understand how chronic depression affects the brain, it is important to briefly learn about the four areas of the brain that can be affected:

  1. The Anterior Cingulate Cortex:  involved in decision making, emotional regulation, as well as regulation of physiological processes, such as blood pressure and heart rate. It’s also interesting to note that some researchers argue that a part of the anterior cingulate cortex – the supracallosal region – might represent the experience of sadness based on previous imaging studies.
  2. Lateral Prefrontal Cortex: responsible for regulating emotional responses and helping a person be more logical and rational.  
  3. Medial Prefrontal Cortex: self-referencing centre of the brain, that processes personal perspective and experiences, and tends to respond strongly to any personal attacks.
  4. Insula: This monitors bodily sensations and guides how strongly a person will respond to them; it is also involved in feeling empathy.
  5. Amygdala i.e. “the fear centre”. This is where the “fight or flight” response lives, and is responsible for initial emotional reactions such as anger and fear.

meditation for depression, meditation and depression, natural treatment for depression

The Depressed Brain

So, what actually happens on a physical level to a chronically depressed brain?

Inflammation:

A recent study published in February of this year from CAMH showed that people with longer periods of untreated depression, lasting more than a decade, had significantly more brain inflammation compared to those who had less than 10 years of untreated depression. The study involved 25 people with more than 10 years of depression, 25 with less than 10 years of illness, and 30 people with no depression as a comparison group. All were evaluated with positron emission tomography scans (PET scans) to locate a specific type of protein that results from the brain’s inflammatory response to injury or illness. (5)  

According to senior author Dr. Jeff Meyer, who also holds a Canada Research Chair in the Neurochemistry of Major Depression,  this study provides “the first biological evidence for large brain changes in long-lasting depression, suggesting that it is a different stage of illness that needs different therapeutics – the same perspective taken for early and later stages of Alzheimer’s disease.”

In an excerpt from the original article from CAMH, he continues to say that “greater inflammation in the brain is a common response with degenerative brain diseases as they progress, such as with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease.”  While depression is not considered a degenerative brain disease, the change in inflammation shows that, for those in whom depression persists, it may be progressive and not a static condition.

meditation for depression, meditation and depression, natural treatment for depression

White Matter & Structural Change:

In a 2017 study of more than 3000 people – the largest of its type to date – alterations were found in parts of the brain known as white matter.  White matter, which lies beneath the gray matter cortex, is composed of millions of bundles of axons (nerve fibres) that connect neurons in different brain regions into functional circuits.

White matter pathways play an important role in the human brain by connecting spatially separated areas of the CNS and enabling rapid and efficient information exchange between them. Disruption of white matter has been linked to problems with simple motor performance, cognitive abilities, complex linguistic faculties, and emotion processing. (6)

Scientists at the University of Edinburgh used a cutting-edge technique known as diffusion tensor imaging to map the structure of white matter. A quality of the matter  (known as white matter integrity) was reduced in people who reported symptoms indicative of depression.

Furthermore, research suggests that the amygdala (the “fear centre”) becomes even more active in depressive illness and repeated stress can enlarge the amygdala further. This can also lead to the abnormal secretion of other hormones and chemicals, which can, in turn, affect many systems in the body including sleep patterns and physical activity. (7)

Furthermore, the prefrontal cortex – including both the medial and lateral prefrontal cortex – are more likely to shrink with depression. This means depressed people may have a harder time approaching a situation from a logical perspective, and may have a more emotional response.

 meditation for depression, meditation and depression, natural treatment for depression

Meditation for Depression: Your Brain on Meditation


It’s important to note that currently, we don’t have definitive research to show the direct reversal of the above issues with meditation alone.  That being said, we do know that meditation has the potential to create several positive structural and physiological changes that could help combat depression.   

Immune System:  

Knowing that patients that suffer chronic depression have heightened inflammation in their brains, researchers have looked at the biomarkers for the immune system in individuals that practise meditation. They found that increased meditation practice is correlated with reduced stress-related biomarkers for the participants who were engaged in longer-than-median meditation practise times.

Grey Matter:

As described in our previous post  – 6 ways meditation can change the brain – regular meditators have significantly larger volumes of gray matter in the regions of the brain most associated with positive emotions. So, not only can meditation increase your grey matter volume, but it can also improve your ability to remain positive in the process.

White Matter:

Research has seen improvements in white matter and connectivity as well.  A 2010 study found improvements in white matter after four weeks of meditation training specifically in the anterior cingulate cortex – which is known to be involved in controlling cognition, and emotion – potentially specific to sadness. (10)

A large meta-analysis of 123 studies showed consistent positive differences in prefrontal cortex and body awareness regions. After reviewing all results, consistent and medium-sized brain structure differences were suggested.  In another study done in individuals suffering from Parkinson’s Disease, they found that an eight-week mindfulness-based intervention increased grey matter density in several areas of the brain compared to a control group receiving usual care.

Mood & Attitude:

On top of increasing grey matter and a positive mental attitude, Mark Williams, professor of clinical psychology at the University of Oxford and leader of the team that developed MBCT stated in a Psychology today article that “one of the key features of depression is that it hijacks your attention,” says Professor Williams. “We all tend to bring to the forefront of our minds the thoughts and feelings that reflect our current mood. If you are sad, depressed or anxious, then you tend to remember the bad things that have happened to you and not the good. This drives you into a downward spiral that leads from sadness into a deeper depression.”  

Similar to patients suffering from anxiety, individuals suffering from depression can get stuck in the habit of something known as “experiential avoidance” or the want to avoid negative feelings/emotions/situations.  Patients with depression often have a tendency to think negatively about past experiences, one’s self, or the future. A consistent meditation practice may be able to help shift away from the “downward spiral” by bringing more attention to the present moment.

With practice, the ability to become more present and less emotionally reactive can help reduce common symptoms such as constant rumination, distorted thoughts, difficulty concentrating, and negative self-talk.

meditation for depression, meditation and depression, natural treatment for depression

Meditation: A Safe & Natural Treatment For Depression?

In a study conducted by University of Exeter in the UK, the research team recruited 424 adult patients with a history of three or more major depressive episodes who were also on a therapeutic dose of maintenance antidepressants. Half of the patients were kept on antidepressants, and the remainder received meditation training instead. The team found that meditation was just as effective as antidepressant medication in preventing a relapse or recurrence. (4)

It’s not just a case of one isolated study either – a systematic review of 47 trials published in JAMA Internal Medicine revealed that meditation can help manage anxiety, depression, and pain within training periods of just 8 weeks or less. (8)

In comparing the efficacy of antidepressants against meditation, Professor Willem Kuyken, from the Mood Disorders Centre of the University of Exeter in the UK states: “While they’re [antidepressants] very effective in helping reduce the symptoms of depression when people come off them, they are particularly vulnerable to relapse.”

Fortunately, mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – a specific form of meditation – helps prevent this relapse by training the mind not to fall into a deeper depression. (9) Meditation also has the added benefits of zero side-effects.

How To Get Started with Meditation

As the research has shown, meditation isn’t just spiritual fluff – it’s firmly rooted in science and as you’ve read above, has the power to change the physical structure of the brain, even for those suffering from depression.

A great place to start if you’ve never meditated before is with the free Muse App to help get you started with a guided meditation for beginners. Taking things a step further, when you use the combination of the Muse headband and the Muse app you’ll get real-time feedback on what’s happening in your brain while you meditate prompting you to focus while rewarding your moments of calm. While you meditate, you’ll hear gentle ocean waves or rainforest rainfall get progressively louder as your mind drifts, signalling you to bring your attention back to your breath.  This makes building a consistent practice of focused attention meditation faster, easier, and more enjoyable.

Learn more >

 

It’s also important to note that if you have been diagnosed with clinical depression, or think you may have clinical depression and are undiagnosed that it’s important to work with a trained health care professional to make sure you’re getting the proper care you need.

SOURCES

  1. 1. CMHA National. (2018). Fast Facts about Mental Illness – CMHA National. [online] Available at: https://cmha.ca/about-cmha/fast-facts-about-mental-illness [Accessed 23 Feb. 2018].
  2. 2. Nami.org. (2018). Mental Health By the Numbers | NAMI: National Alliance on Mental Illness. [online] Available at: https://www.nami.org/learn-more/mental-health-by-the-numbers [Accessed 23 Feb. 2018].
  3. World Health Organization. (2018). Depression. [online] Available at: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs369/en/ [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].  
  4. Kuyken, W., Hayes, R., Barrett, B., Byng, R., Dalgleish, T., Kessler, D., Lewis, G., Watkins, E., Morant, N., Taylor, R. and Byford, S. (2015). The effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy compared with maintenance antidepressant treatment in the prevention of depressive relapse/recurrence: results of a randomized controlled trial (the PREVENT study). Health Technology Assessment, [online] 19(73), pp.1-124. Available at: http://www.thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736%2814%2962222-4/abstract [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
  5. Association of translocator protein total distribution volume with duration of untreated major depressive disorder: a cross-sectional study. Setiawan E., Attwells S., Wilson A.A., Mizrahi R., Rusjan P.M., Miler L., Xu C.,(…), Meyer J.H. (2018)  The Lancet Psychiatry, 5 (4) , pp. 339-347.
  6. Xueyi Shen, Lianne M. Reus, Simon R. Cox, Mark J. Adams, David C. Liewald, Mark E. Bastin, Daniel J. Smith, Ian J. Deary, Heather C. Whalley, Andrew M. McIntosh. Subcortical volume and white matter integrity abnormalities in major depressive disorder: findings from UK Biobank imaging data. Scientific Reports, 2017; 7 (1) DOI: 10.1038/s41598-017-05507-6
  7. Psychology Today. (2018). Curing Depression with Mindfulness Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/mindfulness-in-frantic-world/201110/curing-depression-mindfulness-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
  8. Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E., Haythornthwaite, J. and Cramer, H. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Deutsche Zeitschrift für Akupunktur, [online] 57(3), pp.26-27. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754.
  9. Psychology Today. (2018). This Is Your Brain on Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
  10. Tang et al. (2010). Short-term meditation induces white matter changes in the anterior cingulate Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 107(35), 15649-52 .
  11. McEwen, B.S. Mood disorders and allostatic load. Biol. Psychiat. 54, 200207 (2003).

Why can’t I sleep? How to sleep better with sleep hygiene & meditation

With dramatic headlines such as “Catastrophic sleep-loss epidemic” emerging more frequently, the need to start taking sleep seriously is quickly becoming a hot topic.

In an interview with the Guardian, Professor Matthew Walker, director of the Centre for Human Sleep Science at the University of California, Berkeley, said that sleep deprivation affected “every aspect of our biology” and was widespread in modern society. And yet the problem was not being taken seriously by politicians and employers, with a desire to get a decent night’s sleep often stigmatized as a sign of laziness, he said.

According to the American Sleep Association, 50-70 million US adults have a sleep disorder with insomnia being recognized as the most prevalent sleep disorder, afflicting approximately 9% to 20% of the adult population (1). On top of that, the CDC has reported that 1 in 3 adults don’t get enough sleep overall.  Fortunately, this exhausting cycle can be broken by implementing some new habits that can help train your mind and body for a more restful sleep.

sleep meditation, meditation for sleep, sleep help

Why Can’t I Sleep?

The answer to better sleep isn’t always as simple as getting in 7-8 hours per night. How many times have you gone to bed at a reasonable hour only to wake up the next morning having to drag yourself out of bed? You could have a full 8 hours of sleep, but still wake up feeling exhausted or not well rested if the quality of your sleep is poor, or if you’ve run into sleep deficit.  

To improve sleep quality, you have to address the two main areas below:

1. Psychological Factors

It is hard to sleep when your head is buzzing and preoccupied. Are ruminating thoughts about family, finances, health, or deadlines circulating endlessly through your mind? Feeling worried or nervous on a consistent basis can interfere with sleep quality.

A few anxiety-related symptoms that can lead to insomnia and sleep disturbance include:

  • Preoccupation with thoughts about past and future events
  • Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities and upcoming events
  • A general feeling of overstimulation

In the overstimulated world we live in, shutting our minds off in the evening is extremely difficult. Psychological factors such as stress, anxiety, and depression can have a large impact on sleep.  While stress and mild anxiety can be usually handled at home if it is more severe or you are struggling to get a handle on things speaking to a healthcare practitioner as your starting point.

2. Poor Sleep Hygiene & Lifestyle Factors

Sleep hygiene refers to a set of best practices that are essential for good quality sleep. In contrast, poor sleep hygiene refers to lifestyle habits that are the opposite, and encourage poor sleep quality and sleep disorders.

For example, how often do you watch Netflix before bed or scroll through Instagram for 30 minutes in the dark? While these activities may seem relaxing and innocent, screens before bed can interfere with the sleep hormone melatonin from being released in sufficient amounts.

sleep meditation, meditation for sleep, sleep help

How To Sleep Better

Sleep Hygiene 101


Before you think about taking a natural sleep aid or indulging in a cup of herbal “sleep” tea, you need to make sure you’ve covered your bases with these best practices:

  1. Sleep in complete darkness: The sleep hormone, melatonin, is produced in the absence of light. So when the brain picks up on light in the evening, it automatically assumes it’s still daytime and therefore slows down production of melatonin. Whoops! Turn off all the lights, or wear an eye mask to bed.
  2. Turn off screens 1 hour before: In addition to the light from a screen, melatonin production also declines if cortisol, the daytime stress hormone, is still elevated due to activities like texting or watching TV. Instead, try to read a book, journal or meditate to wind down.
  3. Have an early dinner: eating late or having a very heavy meal for dinner can lead to acid reflux, indigestion and can upset blood sugar balance – all of which lead to sleep interruptions or disturbances.
  4. Go to bed by 10 pm: the deepest and most restorative sleep happens from 10pm-2am, so try to tuck in before 11 pm at the latest. If you’re not sleepy, aim to get in at least 20-30 minutes of exercise during the daytime to encourage an earlier bedtime.
  5. Check the temperature: Feel too hot or cold at night? Research shows that the ideal temperature is between 15 and 19 degrees Celsius, or 60 and 67 degrees Fahrenheit. (2) (3)
  6. Keep caffeine in check: we all metabolize caffeine at different speeds, but ideally, try not to have this after lunchtime!

sleep meditation, meditation for sleep, sleep help

Meditation for Sleep: The Winning Solution

Let’s say you practice excellent sleep hygiene, but you’re still lying awake at night or feeling tired in the morning. That’s a cue to turn your attention to address underlying psychological factors, such as stress and anxiety.

Of course, simply trying to “stress less” or “be less anxious” doesn’t really work, in fact it can do the opposite! This is where meditation comes in; it provides a far more structured approach for calming the mind in the long run, with no negative side effects. Not only does meditation ease stress, but research confirms it can also reduce anxiety, depression and pain. (4)

Furthermore, another study showed meditation’s positive impact in terms of mitigating the effects of insomnia. In this trial, patients were split into two groups: one received training on a standardized mindfulness awareness program (MAP) and the other received sleep hygiene education (SHE). Interestingly, the MAPs group did significantly better than the SHE group for insomnia, depression symptoms and fatigue. This reveals that while sleep hygiene is important, meditation could be even more effective. (5)

Sleep Meditation: How It Works

Over the years, neuroscientists have discovered that meditation can physically change and rewire the brain. When it comes to sleep in particular, meditation has the ability to thicken and build up the pons region of the brain, which produces melatonin and also serves as the on and off switch to restorative REM sleep.(6) Any weakness in the pons region prevents the brain from getting deep, restful sleep, and building it up does the opposite.

Secondly, meditation has the ability to weaken neural connections linked to fear, emotional stress and anxiety, and strengthen neural connections that promote rational thought. (7)

The most amazing finding? It only took researchers 8 weeks to start seeing positive changes in the brain.  

How To Get Started With Meditation for Sleep

If you are a beginner to meditation, start with focused meditation. This calls for an object to be the centre of your focus (or an anchor) to help drive all other thoughts away.  Gently as your thoughts start to drift your anchor acts as a reminder to slowly bring your attention back.

To get in the habit, try guided meditation sessions with an app like Muse; this will make the process easier and more enjoyable. The Muse app also comes with a brain-sensing headband that will analyze your brainwaves to help you keep track of your progress, and provide valuable insights.

Start with three minutes per day, and then build up to longer sessions if you want. Make it a consistent habit and you should notice an impact on your sleep within just a few weeks!

sleep meditation, meditation for sleep, sleep help

 

Related Articles:

Sources

  1. Prevalence and perceived health associated with insomnia based on DSM-IV-TR; International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems, Tenth Revision; and Research Diagnostic Criteria/International Classification of Sleep Disorders, Second Edition criteria: results from the America Insomnia Survey.
    Roth T, Coulouvrat C, Hajak G, Lakoma MD, Sampson NA, Shahly V, Shillington AC, Stephenson JJ, Walsh JK, Kessler RC Biol Psychiatry. 2011 Mar 15; 69(6):592-600.
  2. Onen SH, Onen F, Bailly D, Parquet P. Prevention and treatment of sleep disorders through regulation of sleeping habits. Presse Med.1994; Mar 12; 23(10): 485-9.
  3. National Sleep Foundation: The Sleep Environment
    http://www.sleepfoundation.org/article/how-sleep-works/the-sleep-environment
  4. Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D., Shihab, H., Ranasinghe, P., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. and Haythornthwaite, J. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 174(3), p.357. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/1809754 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
  5. Black, D., O’Reilly, G., Olmstead, R., Breen, E. and Irwin, M. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances. JAMA Internal Medicine, [online] 175(4), p.494. Available at: https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jamainternalmedicine/fullarticle/2110998  [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
  6. Schulte, B. and Schulte, B. (2018). Harvard neuroscientist: Meditation not only reduces stress, here’s how it changes your brain. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/inspired-life/wp/2015/05/26/harvard-neuroscientist-meditation-not-only-reduces-stress-it-literally-changes-your-brain/?utm_term=.9a451504f541 [Accessed 26 Mar. 2018].
  7. Psychology Today. (2018). This Is Your Brain on Meditation. [online] Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 13 Mar. 2018].
  8. Scientific American. (2018). What is the function of the various brainwaves?. [online] Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/what-is-the-function-of-t-1997-12-22/ [Accessed 26 Feb. 2018].

Mindful Eating 101: 8 signs you’re a mindless eater

At a fundamental level, we all know what foods to eat and not to eat for living a healthy life or to lose weight. Eat more vegetables, avoid sugar and eat smaller portions. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? And yet, there are still millions of overweight people all over the world.

Reality check: the problem is not always information, it’s compliance.

We make the decision to reach for the donut instead of the apple, eat the entire bag of chips, or to go back for thirds at a buffet instead of having just one plate.

The mind is extremely powerful, and when left untrained it can become powerless in the face of temptations, whether it’s eating an entire pizza, overspending and accumulating debt, or entering a recurring cycle of toxic romantic relationships. The root cause behind all of these self-sabotaging behaviours is the same – mindlessness.

mindful eating, meditation

Signs of Mindless Eating

To some degree, we all exhibit signs of mindless behaviour such as mindless eating on a regular basis. However, when occasional mindless eating turns to excessive, it can lead to side-effects such as binge-eating and weight gain.

Below are 8 common signs of mindless eating:

    1. Eating with distraction – Do you find you eat meals while working in front of a laptop, scrolling through social media, watching television etc?
    2. Feeling out of control with food around – Do you often have low self-control at a buffet, all-you-can-eat menu, or other social events, and experiencing shame or guilt afterwards?
    3. Eating fast – How long on average does it take you to finish a meal? Do you gulp down food quickly and always end up being the first person to finish a meal compared to others?
    4. Feeling stuffed vs. satiated – Do you have a hard time differentiating between the feeling of satiety vs physical fullness? Do you often find you struggle to stop eating before you are physically uncomfortable?
    5. Grazing throughout the day – Are you constantly snacking, nibbling and grazing throughout the day? Do you mindlessly wander around the kitchen, peeking inside the fridge or cabinets… just because?
    6. Using food to cope with emotions – Are you frequently reaching for food when there is an emotional shift? Do you eat when you’re stressed, bored, or feeling upset?
    7. Lack of awareness – Are you often unable to remember sensory details about meals you’ve eaten, such as taste, texture and smell?
    8. Binge eating – Do you often start off with a few bites, and eventually end up consuming the entire packet, tub or carton of a food item?

Take a moment to recall how many times you mentally nodded your head to each of the above questions. If you resonated with most or all of the signs above, try not to judge yourself or feel guilt, but use this as fuel to start cultivating more self-awareness and shift from mind-LESS eating to mind-FULL eating.

mindful eating, meditation

What Is Mindful Eating?

To understand what mindful eating is, we must first understand the definition of mindfulness as a foundational concept. Mindfulness at its core is deliberating paying attention and being present in the moment with non-judgment.

Mindful eating refers to being fully present while eating a meal and paying attention to:

  • The taste, texture and smell of food
  • Your current emotional state at the time of eating
  • Your body’s hunger and satiety cues

Unfortunately, the art of mindful eating and enjoying a meal at a dinner table with full presence has become increasingly more difficult as our eating environments have become more and more distracting. As Harvard Nutritionist, Dr. Cheung puts it, “the rhythm of life is becoming faster and faster, so we really don’t have the same awareness and the same ability to check into ourselves”. (1)

mindful eating

The Science Behind Mindful Eating


Cultivating mindfulness – whether through meditation or other mindfulness-based training – has the power to physically alter the brain.

For example, mindfulness has been shown to strengthen the neural connections in the brain related to emotional control and logic, and weaken those related to more impulsive, fear-driven and emotional responses. It also leads to a larger volume of grey matter, a part of the brain that is important for self-awareness and introspection. (2)

Based on this knowledge, scientists have been carrying out research focusing on mindful eating in particular – and the results have been very positive. (3)

For example, a 2018 review conducted at North Carolina State University revealed that mindful eating led to weight loss amongst all five studies that were analyzed, strongly recommends including it as part of weight management programs. It concluded, “increased mindful eating has been shown to help participants gain awareness of their bodies, be more in tune ot hunger and satiety, recognize external cues to eat, gain self-compassion, decrease food cravings, decrease problematic eating, and decreased reward-driven eating.” (4)

Another 2018 report published in the British Medical Journal focused on a specific tool used in mindfulness training – the speed at which you eat. The research team tested what would happen to a 59,000 patients with Type II diabetes if they changed their eating speed. The group that went from fast to slow showed a 42% lower rate of obesity than those who continued to eat at a fast speed. (5)

Given what we know about how long it takes the brain to register fullness, this makes sense.

“It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to catch up with your stomach, so if you’re a quick eater, you may consume more calories,”

explains Cara Schrager, M.P.H, R.D., C.D.E. at Joslin Diabetes Center in Boston. (6)

 

How To Get Started With Mindful Eating

Cultivating a mindful approach to eating takes time – you won’t be able to become 100% mindful after reading this article, or never overeat at Thanksgiving dinner again.
The goal is to start incorporating these practices into your daily life as much as possible until certain habits become second nature.

    1. Sit down at a dinner table – not in front of the TV. Set aside your laptop, phone and any other distraction and eat your meal in silence.
    2. Make your plate look enticing – lay out a beautiful plate and cutlery so that you train your mind to look forward to and focus on the dining experience
    3. Eat at a consistent time or with others – this will prevent you from eating erratically and on-the-go in the car or grazing later on
    4. Slow down – set down your fork in between bites, take breaths between bites and focus on chewing your food
    5. Be grateful – express gratitude (whether verbal or non-verbal) for having a delicious, warm meal in front of you
    6. Check-in midway – stop once or twice during your meal to ask yourself, ‘am I still hungry’? If you’re 75% full, stop eating whether your plate is finished or not.
    7. Meditate – sharpen and train your mind outside of mealtimes, in order to make mindful eating easier. You can begin with our free beginner series in the Muse app. 

Lastly, as a good starting point and eye-opening experience, try this simple exercise that is frequently given to people at meditation and mindfulness retreats. It allows you to truly experience what mindful eating feels like:

mindful eating, meditation

The Raisin Exercise (7)


What you need: five minutes, a raisin  and an open mind

  • Holding – take a raisin and hold it between your finger and your thumb
  • Seeing – take the time to really focus on the raisin and give it your full attention. Examine the unique texture and colour; where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges.
  • Touching – close your eyes and focus on the wrinkled texture of the raisin, and how it feels in your hand.
  • Smelling – hold the raisin up to your nose and smell the raisin; notice any effect that this has on your stomach and mouth.
  • Placing – gently place the raisin in your mouth, and leave it there without chewing. Focus on the sensation of what it feels like in your mouth.
  • Tasting – very slowly and consciously, chew the raisin once or twice. Fully experience the waves of taste emanating from the raisin, how these change over time and changes to the raisin itself in shape.
  • Swallowing – see if you can detect when you first have the intention to swallow, and then consciously swallow the raisin
  • Following – sense how your body is feeling as a whole after eating the raisin

 

RELATED ARTICLES:

SOURCES

 

  1. Gordinier, J. (2018). Mindful Eating as Food for Thought. [online] Nytimes.com. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/08/dining/mindful-eating-as-food-for-thought.html [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
  2. Gladding, R. (2018). This is your brain on meditation. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation [Accessed 24 Apr. 2018].
  3. Burfoot, A. (2018). More and more research points to mindfulness — not certain foods — for weight loss. [online] Washington Post. Available at: https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/wellness/more-and-more-research-points-to-mindfulness–not-certain-foods–for-weight-loss/2018/03/05/2aa25d48-1c00-11e8-b2d9-08e748f892c0_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.7f0f0b7ac53b [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
  4. Dunn, C., Haubenreiser, M., Johnson, M., Nordby, K., Aggarwal, S., Myer, S. and Thomas, C. (2018). Mindfulness Approaches and Weight Loss, Weight Maintenance, and Weight Regain. Current Obesity Reports, 7(1), pp.37-49.
  5. Hurst, Y. and Fukuda, H. (2018). Effects of changes in eating speed on obesity in patients with diabetes: a secondary analysis of longitudinal health check-up data.
  6. Aaptiv. (2018). 9 Signs You’re Unintentionally Overeating – Aaptiv. [online] Available at: https://aaptiv.com/magazine/signs-unintentionally-overeating [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].
  7. Ggia.berkeley.edu. (2018). Raisin Meditation (Greater Good in Action). [online] Available at: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/raisin_meditation [Accessed 30 Apr. 2018].

The Multitasking Myth: Understanding Cognitive Load

We’ve all had this experience: you’re sitting in a meeting, only half-tuned in while simultaneously typing an email and figuring out what to make for dinner… all the while thinking that you’ll be able to multitask effectively. Suddenly, someone asks your opinion on the discussion at hand. Not only do you have no idea how to respond because you weren’t paying attention, but your email gets derailed as well.

Most people overestimate their ability to effectively multi-task, but research repeatedly shows that the brain cannot process multiple tasks at once – or do a good job at it anyway.

Whether it’s flipping between browser tabs (how many do you have open right now?), having a conversation with someone while scrolling social media, or typing emails in a meeting, all of these habits seem like they’ll save us time on the surface, but end up making us more unfocused, inefficient and unproductive, in the long run.

multitasking, multitasking myth, mental load

What is Cognitive Load?

Put simply, a large reason that multitasking doesn’t work is due to information overload, or excessive cognitive load.

Cognitive load refers to the effort being used in working memory. This is the part of short-term memory that is concerned with the immediate conscious perceptual and linguistic processing.

This term was developed out of Cognitive load theory (CLT) in the 1980s, which states that our cognitive capacity is limited at any given time. Learners can get overwhelmed by too many tasks, or too much information at the same time, which leads to the learner being unable to process the information. 


For example, research conducted by Mayer and Moreno concluded that it was difficult, if not impossible to learn new information while multitasking. This is also reflected in research done by Junco and Cotten that found students who engaged in high levels of multitasking had significant issues with their academic work. (1) (2)

multitasking, multitasking myth, mental load

The ‘Multitasking’ Myth  

The problem with multitasking goes beyond excessive cognitive load. Interestingly enough, the term ‘multitasking’ is quite inaccurate.

Multitasking implies that multiple tasks are being processed at the same time by the brain. In fact, this is not the case.

Neuroscience has made it clear that the brain cannot process tasks simultaneously, rather, the brain switches (just like an on and off button) between tasks. As quoted by Dr. Nancy Napier says, it should be called “switch-tasking” instead. (3)

multitasking, multitasking myth, mental load

Switching Costs

Unfortunately, switching between tasks comes with repercussions, known as switching costs. These include a loss of speed, less mental energy, and being more prone to errors. According to the APA, switching can cost as much as 40% of someone’s productive time. (4)

The loss of speed occurs in three areas:

  • Mentally adjusting to the new task

Scientists found that when people were asked to give separate responses to each of two stimuli presented in consecutive order, people had a slower response to the second appearing stimulus. This is known as the ‘psychological refractory period’.

In the 1990s, Rogers and Monsell had similar findings; even when people were asked to switch between tasks as predictable set intervals, they were still slower as compared to trials with repetitive tasks. (5)

  • Mentally competing with the carry-over from the previous task

René Marois, a psychologist at Vanderbilt University, discovered that the brain exhibits a “response selection bottleneck” when asked to perform several tasks at once. Since there are two competing tasks at hand, the brain has to select which activity is more important, which ends up taking time. For example, if you take an important phone call while driving, the brain has to prioritize one over the other. (6)

  • Trying to remember where you were in the previous task

Switching from a work email to a phone call may have low switching costs, but returning to the email and remembering your past train of thought takes far more time. As expected, researchers have found that the greater amount of complexity or retrieval required, the higher the cost of switching from a task. (7)

multitasking, multitasking myth, mental load

 

3 Ways To Get Focused Right Now

If you’re prone to multitasking and distraction, rest assured that our brains are remarkably plastic and can be retrained to be more focused and efficient.

Below are three ways to get started:

1. Focus on the task at hand

The obvious starting point is to become aware of when you’re dividing your attention, and stop.

For example:

  • Be an active listener. Make a habit of closing your laptop screen or putting your phone away in a meeting so that you can actively listen and participate in the discussion.
  • Batch your emails. Instead of stopping a task to respond to an email, set specific time slots in the day for checking and responding to emails.
  • Close all browser tabs. Do not keep anything open that can distract you, whether it’s online shopping, the news headlines or social media. There are plenty of apps that can help you with this as well.
  • Turn on ‘Do Not Disturb’. Reducing notifications will significantly help with your ability to stay on task – you can use this function on both your phone and computer.

2. Remove clutter

Ever felt the need to clean your desk or the entire house before starting work?

Similar to multitasking, excessive visual stimuli increases mental load, as the brain is forced to process and identify multiple individual pieces of information simultaneously.

When it comes to work, try to:

  • Keep a clean desk at all times
  • Avoid shortcuts e.g. don’t leave documents on the counter, file them away
  • Create a system for staying organized
  • Dedicate time to working through administrative tasks e.g. invoices, bills

Lastly, try to view clutter as a red flag to slow down. When clutter starts to pile up around the house, ask yourself if your schedule is too hectic if you’re overcommitted yourself that week or are trying to do too much all at once

3. Meditate

Meditation is the perfect antidote to an overwhelmed, multitasking mind, as it can physically change and retrain the mind to become more focused. It does this by increasing the volume of grey matter in the brain, which is related to both memory and attention.

For example, in a 2012 study conducted at Liverpool John Moores University, meditation was shown to improve self-regulation of attention – in other words, focus – for participants who were requested to meditate daily for just ten minutes. (8)  In fact, meditation is such as a powerful tool for focus that it is increasingly being administered in clinical settings for ADHD patients as well.

Getting started:

If you’re new to meditation, guided meditation is recommended so that you’re more efficient with your practice. You can find plenty of free sessions online or with an app like Muse.

If you want to achieve laser focus at a faster rate, consider neurofeedback training. Apps such as Muse and Smith glasses come with a brain-sensing tool to track your brainwaves, measure your progress and provide real-time feedback in the form of guiding sounds. To learn more, go here.

Related Articles:

SOURCES

  1. Mayer, R. E., & Moreno, R. (2003). Nine ways to reduce cognitive load in multimedia learning. Educational Psychologist, 38(1), 43-52.
  2. Junco R.; Cotten S. (2010). “Perceived academic effects of instant messaging use” (PDF). Computers & Education. 56 (2): 370–378. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2010.08.020.
  3. Napier, N. (2018). The Myth of Multitasking. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/creativity-without-borders/201405/the-myth-multitasking [Accessed 7 May 2018].
  4. http://www.apa.org. (2018). Multitasking: Switching costs. [online] Available at: http://www.apa.org/research/action/multitask.aspx [Accessed 7 May 2018].
  5. Pashler Harold (1994). “Dual-task interference in simple tasks: Data and theory”. Psychological Bulletin. 116 (2): 220–244. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.116.2.220. PMID 7972591.
  6. Vanderbilt University. (2018). Neural bottleneck found that thwarts multi-tasking. [online] Available at:https://news.vanderbilt.edu/2007/01/18/neural-bottleneck-found-that-thwarts-multi-tasking-58764/ [Accessed 7 May 2018].
  7. Mayr, U. & Kliegl, R. (2000). Task-set switching and long-term memory retrieval. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 26, 1124-1140.
  8. Moore, A., Gruber, T., Derose, J. and Malinowski, P. (2012). Regular, brief mindfulness meditation practice improves electrophysiological markers of attentional control. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6.
  9. Mitchell, J., Zylowska, L. and Kollins, S. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation Training for Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder in Adulthood: Current Empirical Support, Treatment Overview, and Future Directions. Cognitive and Behavioral Practice, 22(2), pp.172-191.

Mindful Communication: How to communicate better using meditation

Have you ever had an experience while talking to someone that they’re not really listening to you? Whether it’s on a first date or even with a long-term partner, you find them nodding, asking you to repeat yourself, watching a TV screen in the background, or consumed with their own thoughts.

Unfortunately, it’s quite likely that you’ve unintentionally done this to someone else as well. While it may seem benign at first, not being present in the moment can be viewed as, “I’m not interested” or “I don’t care” to the person at the receiving end. On an ongoing basis, this leads to misunderstandings, miscommunication, and the potential end of a relationship.

If you want to have a long-lasting, successful relationship, it is essential to move beyond the standard definition of communication – i.e. back and forth conversation – and learn the art of mindful communication.

Meditation, mindful communication, meditation tips

What Is Mindful Communication?

Mindfulness is defined as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” (1)

Mindful communication, therefore, refers to the process of being present during your interactions with other people. When you are undistracted and present in the moment, you will be better able to empathize with others, pick up on verbal and nonverbal cues, and be more sensitive to a different point of view, or situational context i.e. has this person had a bad day? (1)  

The Benefits of Mindful Communication


While cultivating mindfulness has most often associated with reduced stress and anxiety, practitioners have also started using it as a tool to resolve and prevent conflict amongst couples, and to improve their overall relationships. (2)

For example, Dr. James Carson and his colleagues at the University of North Carolina found that an 8-week mindfulness training program led to higher relationship satisfaction for all participating couples. (2)

Another study by Wachs and Cordova also found a strong positive correlation between mindfulness and global marital adjustment. The research states that, “more mindful partners literally see each other more clearly, regard each other more nonjudgmentally, behave more responsively toward each other, and navigate challenging waters of intimacy more gracefully.” (3)

 

Meditation, mindful communication, meditation tips

How To Communicate Better Using Mindful Meditation


Fortunately, mindfulness can be cultivated in a structured and practical manner on a daily basis with the aid of meditation. This is because meditation drives behavioural changes at a physiological level – it has the ability to physically alter the brain, by strengthening neural connections that encourage more rational behaviour, while weakening others that drive fear and irrational, emotional responses.

More specifically, meditation develops and nurtures mindful communication in the following ways: (4) (5)

1. Increased emotional intelligence and resilience

Quite simply put, meditation helps you let things go, and bounce back from negative emotions at a much faster rate. How so? Meditation strengthens the lateral prefrontal cortex, also known as the ‘assessment centre’. This is the portion of the brain that allows you to look at a situation from a more rational and logical perspective, and it decreases the tendency to take things personally.

In a relationship, this helps view a situation from a more rational perspective, and create space between immediate judgments and responses. You may find yourself snapping less at your partner, or not taking every comment as a personal attack.

mindful communication

 

2. Reduced reactivity

MRI scans have shown that an 8-week mindfulness meditation program can shrink the amygdala, the primal portion of the brain that governs initial emotional reactions to stress, such as anger and fear. Meditation was also able to weaken the connection between the amygdala and other areas of the brain so that it was activated less often.

Meditation essentially creates an emotional circuit breaker, lessening feels of fear and insecurity i.e. “is he or she going to leave me?”

3. Greater empathy

Research shows that the connection between the dorsomedial prefrontal cortex – the ‘me centre’ of the brain that references back to your perspective and also infers other people’s state of mind – and the insula – involved in ‘gut-level’ feelings – becomes stronger after meditation. This strengthened connection enhances your capacity to understand where another person is coming from, and put yourself in their shoes.

4. Improved self-awareness

Have you ever been in a relationship that made you forget who you were or made you lose sight of your values? Relationships do require vulnerability, however that doesn’t mean letting emotions and thoughts carry you away. As noted in the research above, since meditation helps strengthen the rational parts and intuitive parts of the brain on a daily basis, you will be more in tune with what feels right, what feels wrong, and whether a particular relationship is right for you.

This self-awareness also extends to greater ‘gut level’ intuition, which is governed by the insula region of the brain. The role of the insula is to monitor bodily sensations and assesses whether they are benign or harmful, and a strengthened insula will be better able to pick up on bodily cues from the muscles, skin, ears and eyes if something doesn’t feel right.

Meditation, mindful communication, meditation tips

Tips On How To Communicate Better

If you would like to incorporate meditation into your daily routine, you can view this beginner’s meditation guide here.

You can also reap the benefits of mindful communication by incorporating some of the strategies below into your communication with a current or new partner:

  1. Clear your head before beginning a conversation
  2. Listen to your partner without interrupting
  3. Make direct eye contact
  4. Allow your partner to share negative emotions without needing to fix it
  5. Put yourself in your partner’s shoes, do not look at a situation from your perspective
  6. Do not make assumptions, ask for clarification
  7. Choose your words carefully. Before you say something, ask yourself if you would like it if this was said to you

Communication can make or break a relationship, but it is important to remember that the first step towards being a better communicator has to begin with you being more mindful in your daily interactions, and cultivating greater self-awareness.

Interested in learning more about mindful communication and connecting with our Muse team in person?

Bumble Canada will be hosting three days of empowering connections and programming, centred around fostering and finding connection.

Learn more HERE: http://thebeehive.bumble.com/bumbleblog/bumble-hive-toronto 

 

Sources:

  1. Hall, E. (2017). Communicating Mindfully in Relationships. [online] Psychology Today. Available at:https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/conscious-communication/201709/communicating-mindfully-in-relationships [Accessed 24 Apr. 2018].
  2. CARSON, J., CARSON, K., GIL, K. and BAUCOM, D. (2006). MINDFULNESS-BASED RELATIONSHIP ENHANCEMENT (MBRE) IN COUPLES. Mindfulness-Based Treatment Approaches, pp.309-331.
  3. Wachs, K. and Cordova, J. (2007). Mindful Relating: Exploring Mindfulness and Emotion Repertoires in Intimate Relationships. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 33(4), pp.464-481.
  4. Lucas, M. (2009). Nine ways a meditating brain creates better relationships. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/rewire-your-brain-love/200911/nine-ways-meditating-brain-creates-better-relationships  [Access 24 Apr. 2018]
  5. Gladding, R. (2013). This is your brain on meditation. [online] Psychology Today. Available at: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/use-your-mind-change-your-brain/201305/is-your-brain-meditation  [Accessed 24 Apr. 2018].