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What is Mindfulness and Why is it Important?

Describing mindfulness conjures images that range from Zen meditation rooms to staring at constellations in the night sky. But, the usual modern workplace—filled with noisy cubicles—invokes the opposite image for most people. While mindfulness can be considered an alert but calm brain that can assess its surroundings and cope with challenges, there is tremendous evidence that the distracted brain is less able comparatively to multi-task successfully. Both mental and physical health depend upon a brain that is able to function well under the normal stressors of daily life.

The Relationship of Mindfulness to Meditation

The most well-recognized form of mindfulness practice is meditation. While a Zen meditation sitting is the most structured, other types—such as Vipassana, Transcendental Meditation (TM) or even focused attention meditation which is what we, at Muse, help to measure—do not require sitting in a specific position. Kundalini is a form that combines breathing routines with meditation, and Hatha yoga sessions often end with a brief period of meditation.  Meanwhile, technological / psychological methods to achieve mindfulness (e.g., Neurofeedback through Muse) bear similarities to meditation and offer similar health benefits, but are not linked to any spiritual origin.

Distracted Brains – The Consequences

No evidence for the negative impact of a lack of mindfulness is as clear as the data on accidents resulting from texting while driving. According to the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), there were 3,477 fatalities due to distracted driving in 2016 (1). Furthermore, between 2014-2016, analyses have shown a 14 percent increase in distracted driving accidents resulting in fatalities (2).

Mindfulness meditation
Mindfulness meditation

Technological advances have fostered a dependence on online gaming, social media interactions, and fast response to emails and texts that have created greater distraction in public and private environments. Throughout our society, adults are more likely to engage in multi-tasking and spend less time in practicing mindfulness—which requires a time period of quietude and disengagement from Smartphones, tablets, and the Internet.

Research on Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness

Faculty researchers performing medical studies have published findings of the effects of meditation since the 1970s. Numerous studies have compared brain wave function in research subjects who were meditating with a non-meditating control group, and found marked differences.

Neuron pathways
Mindfulness meditation aids in building of neural pathways in the brain.

Results of a 3-month study published in 2016 showed brain waves corresponding to an anxiety state were lessened in comparison to the control group, and revealed scientific evidence that meditation and mindfulness reduce anxiety (3). Findings of another study published in 2017 showed a reduction in PTSD symptoms following four months of TM practice (4). Yet another study in 2017 showed that improved blood pressure readings were observed in hypertensive patients who practiced meditation, and thereby demonstrating a physiological benefit of meditation (5).

Conclusions – The Mind-Body Connection

Depression and anxiety are prevalent, and decades of research have shown the mental health benefits of mindfulness and meditation. Since mental health has been linked to overall health status, practicing mindfulness can aid in maintaining immune function and physical health. Whether choosing to meditate or utilizing a different mindfulness path, taking time on a daily basis to focus on mindfulness is worth it.

What is Muse? 

Muse: the brain sensing headband when accompanied with an app available for both iOS and Android devices is a sensory device that is designed to help with meditation by providing real-time EEG based audio and visual feedback. Learn more at: http://www.choosemuse.com/

 References:

  1. U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Distracted Driving. Webpage: https://www.nhtsa.gov/risky-driving/distracted-driving
  2. Korosec, Kirsen. (February 15, 2017). 2016 Was the Deadliest Year on American Roads in Nearly a Decade. Fortune Magazine Webpage: http://fortune.com/2017/02/15/traffic-deadliest-year/
  3. Tomljenovic H, et al. (2016). Changes in trait brainwave power and coherence, state and trait anxiety after three-month transcendental meditation (TM) practice. Psychiatr Danub 28(1): 63-72. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26938824
  4. Nidich S. (2017). Transcendental Meditation and Reduced Trauma Symptoms in Female Inmates: A Randomized Controlled Study. The Permanente Journal 21: 16-008. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5363900/
  5. Park SH, and Han KS. (April 6, 2017). Blood Pressure Response to Meditation and Yoga: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. J Altern Complement Med [Epub Ahead of Print] Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28384004

 

 

Can Mindfulness Meditation Prevent Heart Disease?

The link between arterial plaques and heart attacks in middle-age is widely recognized. Yet, another common heart disorder affects people across the age spectrum. Irregular heart rhythm (termed arrhythmia) heightens the risk for both stroke and cardiac arrest. The most prevalent arrhythmia is atrial fibrillation (AFib). This affects from 2.7 – 6.1 million people in the U.S. (1).  Mindfulness and meditation have been shown in studies conducted over 30 years to reduce episodes of AFib and other arrhythmias.

Arrhythmia Risk Factors and Mindfulness

High blood pressure and diabetes are both risk factors for the development of an arrhythmia, whether evidenced as a suddenly slow heart beat or the rapid one of AFib. The implantation of a permanent pacemaker is usually recommended by cardiologists once arrhythmia has been diagnosed, along with daily heart medications.

However, mindfulness and meditation have been used to prevent the onset of arrhythmia in high-risk adults. A research article in 2015 in PLoS One revealed that a 12-week mindfulness training program slowed heart rate in research subjects with heart disease as compared to a matched control group (2). Meanwhile, a similar study showed improved blood pressure in hypertensive subjects with heart disease (3).

 Diabetes, Insulin Resistance, and Meditation

Type 1 diabetes is an autoimmune disorder affecting around 1.25 people in the U.S., according to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) (4). Meanwhile, 40 percent of all adults in the U.S. develop Type 2 diabetes over the course of a lifetime (5), and 86 million people in the U.S. have prediabetes (6). Over time, a prediabetic condition (as determined by high glucose and A1C lab values) will evolve into Type 2 diabetes.

Insulin resistance occurs when enzymes normally produced in the pancreas are either nonexistent or unable to process sugar (termed glucose) in the bloodstream for transfer to muscle and tissue cells. Instead, the glucose remains in the bloodstream, and causing symptoms plus a wide variety of health problems. Atherosclerosis and other heart disorders are typical in Type 1 and Type 2 diabetics who have lived with their diabetes for many years—even when treated with insulin or oral medications. Reduced insulin resistance following a meditation practice of a set duration was found by researchers in a study undertaken in diabetic patients suffering from heart disease (7).

Psychological Stress as a Cause of Heart Disease

Findings of an analysis of 23 clinical trials were published in The Oschner Journal, which revealed a benefit from meditation in reducing heart attack risk (8). Specifically, the cortisol levels were lower in patients who engaged in a mindfulness routine (e.g., daily meditation). Meanwhile, medical research has shown that psychological stress increases cortisol levels in the blood. The adrenal glands are responsible for producing cortisol, which is a necessary human hormone. However, the release of too much cortisol into the bloodstream—as occurs during periods of stress—can eventually damage the arteries and heart. People experiencing emotional stress are at far higher risk for the development of both cardiovascular disease and arrhythmia. Therefore, the answer is yes, taking time for a mindfulness practice can be beneficial to maintaining long-term heart health.

References:

  1. Centers for Disease Control. Atrial Fibrillation. Webpage: https://www.cdc.gov/dhdsp/data_statistics/fact_sheets/docs/fs_atrial_fibrillation.pdf
  2. Younge JO, et al. (2015). Web-Based Mindfulness Intervention in Heart Disease: A Randomized Controlled Trial. PloS One 10(12): e0143843. Webpage: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0143843
  3. Parswani MJ, et al. (2013). Mindfulness-based stress reduction program in coronary heart disease: A randomized control trial. International Journal of Yoga 6(2): 112-117. Webpage: http://www.ijoy.org.in/article.asp?issn=0973-6131;year=2013;volume=6;issue=2;spage=111;epage=117;aulast=Parswani
  4. Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF). Type 1 Diabetes Facts. Webpage: http://www.jdrf.org/about/fact-sheets/type-1-diabetes-facts/
  5. Whiteman, Honor. (August 13, 2014). 40% of American adults will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime. Medical News Today Webpage: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/280943.php
  6. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). GAME PLAN for Preventing Type 2 Diabetes – Facts and Statistics. Webpage: https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/health-communication-programs/ndep/health-care-professionals/game-plan/facts-statistics/Pages/index.aspx
  7. Koike MK. (2014). Meditation can produce beneficial effects to prevent cardiovascular disease. Hormone Molecular Biology and Clinical Investigation 18(3). Webpage: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/hmbci.2014.18.issue-3/hmbci-2013-0056/hmbci-2013-0056.xml
  8. Ray IB, et al. (2014). Meditation and Coronary Heart Disease: A Review of the Current Clinical Evidence. The Ochsner Journal 14(4):696-703. Webpage: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/

Calling a timeout through meditation:  Taking Control of Your Life Through Mindfulness

When life starts moving too fast it is hard to call a timeout.  There is no substitute player waiting to replace you in the game.  It’s just you out there.  And you are either going to get the job done or you’re not.  This realization is why we can get overwhelmed so quickly.  We are so busy, so stretched that just one more setback, one more hurdle to leap can send you spinning out of control.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  It is possible to slow the pace down and to carve out some time for yourself to be alone, with your thoughts.  To just be.

Calling a timeout through meditation.
Calling a timeout through meditation.

A Need to Eliminate Anxiety and Stress

Stress kills, according to Mayo Clinic.  It makes your blood pressure skyrocket and your metabolism go off the rails.  So, we need to eliminate stress.  Sounds easy enough.  But what about the anxiety?  That seems to be the real problem.  Sure, diet and exercise will reduce the negative physical impact of chronic stress but will they treat your mind?  Your soul?

That is where the concept of living in the moment comes in.  Mindfulness.  In popular media it seems to be everywhere right now. It’s like a magical potion to cure what ails you.  Of course, when you ask how mindfulness is attained you are met with blank stares and a lot of throat clearing.  Usually someone mentions something about meditation and the conversation shifts to hot yoga or a PBS special on the law of attraction.

Reaching for Mindfulness Through Meditation

The best way to practice mindfulness is through a sustained meditation practice. This study says if you establish a regular meditation practice, you stand a good chance of effectively managing your anxiety and eliminating chronic stress.  Practitioners of meditation have known this for hundreds of years but it is good that Western medicine has embraced this trend.

But isn’t establishing a meditation practice difficult?  Especially if you’re already suffering from anxiety, making everyday activities stressful out and tiring?  At this point we are just looking for a break, not another thing to learn and master; worrying if we are doing it right.  We want fifteen minutes to sit quietly, clear our minds, and put our thoughts in the moment.  That’s it.  Just a timeout.  Like hitting the reset button to give us a chance to muster our courage and face the rest of the day.

Meditation is a Timeout from Life

Guess what?  That break.  That pause button you just hit.  That’s meditation. You don’t take a break to meditate, you take a break by meditating.  It really is that easy.  And if you do it every day, you have a real shot at turning the tables on your anxiety and your worrisome thoughts. Don’t worry about achieving mindfulness without a wandering mind.

Mindfulness
Mindfulness

It’s nearly impossible not that black and white. You don’t have to live entirely in the moment to experience mindfulness.  You just have to know when you are not being mindful.  The benefits come when you start recognizing if you are dwelling on the past, worried about the future, and forgetting to enjoy the present.  That’s it.

So, the next time you start feeling overwhelmed, the next time you can’t remember when you last had a moment entirely to yourself, call a timeout and meditate.  And then the next day, do it again.  Pretty soon it will become habit.  And then you will be on the road to recovery.

Meditation Can Put You to Sleep, Finally

Meditation Can Put You to Sleep, Finally

Not sleeping is rough. Not sleeping well for days on end is even worse. Your mind is foggy, and something simple like walking down a hall feels like wading through quicksand. Some coffee, a sugary donut, and you perk back up again just in time for work. But by the afternoon your lack of rest is making its presence known. Headaches, uncontrollable yawning. You are lucky to make it to the end of the day. Then, that night, your head hits the pillow hard, but your eyes spring open.

Insomnia back again?

Your mind races, replaying the events of the day. You do everything but sleep. And the cycle begins again. If this is you, you have a problem. It might be time to try meditation.

Meditation as a Cure for Insomnia

Sure, there are other cures like prescription drugs that put you out for the night and often part of the next day as well. Then there are natural remedies that may help calm you, but the results are inconsistent. What you need is long-term reliable help with no negative side effects. Something that not only helps you sleep but improves your mental state, overall performance and your general health. What you might need is meditation. Specifically, a focussed attention and mindfulness meditation program.

Establishing Mindfulness to Quiet the Mind

The goal of mindfulness is the acceptance of negative physical and mental states. Once you attach limited importance to these distractions, you are left only with the reality of the present. It is a simple concept but can be challenging to accomplish. But what does this have to do with sleep? Well, if you think about what causes insomnia it all starts to make sense.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stress is a leading cause of insomnia. It is hard to sleep when your mind is preoccupied, worried about family, finances, health or whatever is circulating endlessly through your mind. The same organization lists increased anxiety as a result of lack of sleep, making the problem continue to grow worse with each passing sleepless night. This is why meditation helps, especially focused attention meditation. This type of meditation where one focuses purely on the breath or other bodily sensation helps keep distractions at bay. This can then break what seems like a never ending cycle of restlessness.

Focussed Meditation is Proven to Reduce Stress and More

Recently a group of researchers took a look at the correlation between mindfulness meditation and improved mental and physical health. In this study published in the American Journal of Medicine, the findings confirm a reduction in anxiety, depression, and pain among people who meditate. Furthermore, another study additionally showed meditation’s positive impact in terms of mitigating the effects of insomnia.

Unfocused or Focused Meditation?

Traditional meditation demands the mind be completely cleared of all thoughts. This is hard to do. Focussed meditation calls for an object to be the center of your focus, driving all other thoughts away. This method is easier to learn for beginners, and practice more regularly. Additionally, there are popular tools like Muse that can help make the practice more enjoyable and can provide valuable insights into progress over time. Muse works analyzing the patterns in your brain during meditation and in real-time changing the sounds you hear to help guide you to a stronger focus.

Sleep better. Meditate.
Sleep better. Meditate.

It can teach you block out distractions and focus on the present. The health benefits of meditation go well beyond sleep. People who meditate enjoy lower blood pressure, better metabolism, perform better at work as well as many other benefits. Most importantly however, for our topic, they are sleeping better.

 

Meditation and Sport Performance: The Brain Always Wins

This week our guest writer will be Dr. John Sullivan, an elite level Clinical Sport Psychologist and Sport Scientist with over 20 years of clinical and scholarly experience. He has worked with teams in the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League and Premier League soccer / football coordinating clinical care and sport science. He is also an expert consultant for the military and law enforcement in regards to both welfare and performance. Dr. Sullivan has just recently released a book, website and podcast titled: The Brain Always Wins where he discusses topics related to meditation and athletic performance including the use of Muse to support and improve brain health. Some episodes of his podcast that relate to Muse include: Brain vs. Mind & Cognitive Training  and Emotions Run the Show in Sport and Life


Meditation and Sport Performance:  The Brain Always Wins

The discussion of meditation or mindfulness within sport is not novel, as there has been more written about this ancient practice in the last five years since transcendental meditation become popular in the 1960s and 1970s. What has become popular again brings with it a new in-depth scientific exploration (Cahn & Polich, 2009).  As a sport scientist and clinical sport psychologist, it is important to me that the science behind meditation matters, and I am always looking to protect a performer’s health and performance. Without protecting health and, more specifically, brain health long-term athletic development is significantly incomplete.

Chris Parker and I discuss in the book The Brain Always Wins that meditation has a long history and can easily be thought of as “wisdom of the village.” Modern-day researchers have brought wisdom from centuries ago to a place where we can objectively see the impact on brain health and performance.

 

The Brain Always Wins by Dr. John Sullivan

Muse technology has made the process of meditation practice more scientific, tangible and, in turn, approachable.

 

In The Brain Always Wins we discuss Muse, a meditation technology which uses the validated science of real-time electroencephalogram (EEG) technology which has delivered an opportunity to support and improve the brain health and performance in the following areas:

  • Increased energy management (Azam et al., 2016; Creswell, 2016; Tsai et al., 2014)
  • Cellular growth – brain growth (Esch, 2014; Fox et al., 2014; Kang et al., 2015; Luders et al., 2016; McEwen, 2016; Shaffer, 2016)
  • Brain capacity/function
    • Emotional regulation (Jazaieri et al., 2014; Seppälä et al., 2014; Teper et al., 2013)
    • Attention and decision making (Atchley et al., 2016; Colzato et al., 2015; Esch, 2014; Jo et al., 2016; Larson, 2013;
    • Stress Management/Autonomic Nervous System flexibility (Jerath et al., 2014; Kim et al., 2016; Ravinder et al., 2014; Subramanya & Telles, 2015)
  • Pain management (Azam et al., 2016; Esch et al., 2016)
  • Sport performance (Baltzell et al. 2014; Ford et al., 2016; Röthlin et al., 2016; Scott & Schutte, 2016)
  • Resilience and readiness (Alderman et al., 2016; Carter & Carter, 2016; Creswell & Lindsay, 2014; Esch, 2014)
  • Immune function (Carter & Carter, 2016; Fan et al., 2014)

Muse technology has made the process of meditation practice more scientific, tangible and, in turn, approachable. The information gained and ‘gamified’ allows the end user and sport scientist to guide and measure not only improvement but protection of brain health. Thus, the contemplative traditions of meditation aiming to bring the practitioner closer to self-actualization and enlightenment can do so – and that fits nicely with the goals of the sport environment which are based in health and performance, and which are also contemporary conceptualizations of advancing human potential.

In addition, we elaborate on the latest sciences in The Brain Always Wins – from applied brain sciences related to human performance and a training process, to discussions regarding maintenance of health and optimal performance that puts the brain first.

The brain is the ultimate frontier within sport performance; yet, in sport, change is often met with resistance due to its traditions. The brain sciences (re: psychology, neuroscience, and cognitive science) have for decades now been answering the question of why the brain matters in sport – and this has been done with evidence rather than conjecture. However, most of us are at a disadvantage as we learn very little about the brain and its impact on our health and performance, even though it plays a part in every process in our lives.

Dr. John Sullivan at work

Our mission in writing The Brain Always Wins was to bridge the knowledge gap that most of us have with regard to brain health and performance, and to also highlight a training process and tools like Muse that contribute to health and optimal performance. Additionally, it was to support our military veterans who by their dedicated service often incur reduced aspects of brain health – in particular, we have learned a great deal from these individuals and hope to give back to them through efforts such as this book.

About the author

Dr. John Sullivan is a Sport Scientist and Clinical Sport Psychologist with over twenty years of clinical and scholarly experience.

He currently holds appointments within the National Football League (NFL), the English Premier League (EPL), the NCAA (Providence College, University of Rhode Island, Brown University), and the Military in the U.S.

Dr. Sullivan is also a visiting scholar and applied sport scientist at the Queensland Academy of Sport and Queensland University of Technology in Brisbane, Australia.

He is a frequent contributor writing on sport science and sports medicine and his latest efforts have focused on a series of books which distills the latest performance psychology, cognitive science, and neuroscience, related to optimal brain performance and health entitled The Brain Always Wins.