How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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