Mindfulness technique improves calmness, clarity and concentrationWith regular practice, a person can gain self-control and objectivity, reduce stress levels, improve concentration and mental clarity and develop a mental fitness that leads to increased productivity. Other benefits include the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.
By: Pamela Knudson, Grand Forks Herald
Crystal Clingenpeel of Grand Forks had a flat tire.
Most people might be annoyed or angry, but they’d pretty much take it in stride, she said.
For her, the situation could have triggered an emotional free-fall.
“I told myself I could handle it,” she said. And she did — until the tire jack she was using fell and lodged under the car.
“I had a panic attack. I thought I was going to die.”
She told herself to slow down, to sit down on the pavement, to feel the concrete under her, to focus on the warmth of the sun on her back.
“I thought: The fact that I’m upset doesn’t have to bother me right now,” she said.
She calmed herself enough to call for help.
It was a victory of sorts and the result of training and practice which has given her power to manage thoughts and emotions that could send her into an emotional tailspin.
Clingenpeel is one of a growing number of Americans who use mindfulness to control their reactions to upsetting situations or images, present or past, or anxiety about the future.
Mindfulness is a mental technique that focuses on breathing, attention to areas of the body and periods of silence to concentrate on the present rather than worries of yesterday and tomorrow.
With regular practice, a person can gain self-control and objectivity, reduce stress levels, improve concentration and mental clarity and develop a mental fitness that leads to increased productivity. Other benefits include the ability to relate to others and one’s self with kindness, acceptance and compassion.
“A lot of things make me upset that probably shouldn’t,” said Clingenpeel, a single mother and full-time college student. “I’m more emotional than most people.”
Through mindfulness, she accepts a stressful situation and gets through it without breaking down or freezing up, she said. “I can stand up and face things now.”
The technique helps her in raising her 6-year-old son, who was diagnosed with autism, by giving her “the patience I need to give him guidance and love instead of losing my temper,” she said.
“Even this tiny detail has helped me have a happier family life.”
‘Fully in the moment’
Through mindfulness training, people are taught to be “fully in the moment,” said Stephen Wonderlich, director of clinical research at the Neuropsychiatric Research Institute in Fargo.
Mindfulness is about tuning into the experience of the moment — the thought, memory or image — and noticing one’s reaction to it without judgment, he said.
“You just let that happen in a way that looks at the memory or feeling of anxiety with a certain amount of detachment, rather than trying to stop it or getting scared by it.”
Detachment allows the person to observe what’s happening without judgment, by thinking, for example, “‘It’s terrible, something bad is going to happen,’ or ‘I’m a terrible person,’” he said. “The key is accepting it.
“In a funny way, though, you’re not detached, you’re just not being dictated by the experience,” he said. “You’re detached in terms of evaluation.”
For years, people tried to fight these negative thoughts or find adaptable ways to deal with them, he said. “Now, we’re saying, ‘let it come, and let’s try to change the way you react to it. There’s no need to panic.’”
There is increasing evidence that mindfulness works in treating symptoms of depression, anxiety disorders and in some eating disorders, Wonderlich said.
Mindfulness is part of a recent clinical trial involving patients with bulimia nervosa, conducted by Wonderlich and his colleagues at NRI.
“Mindfulness is an important aspect of that (bulimia nervosa) treatment,” he said.
Increasingly, people in settings beyond the serene yoga studio or contemplative nature path are engaging in the practice of mindfulness.
The technique is drawing tens of thousands to conferences and learning experiences around the world, and studies have shown it to reduce symptoms of certain diseases and conditions.
Of the $34 billion Americans spent on alternative medicine in 2009, $4.2 billion, or about 12 percent, was spent in sectors that included mindfulness concepts, such as meditation-related classes or relaxation techniques, according to federal data.
Participation in meditation therapy by U.S. adults rose an average 6 percent per year from 2002 to 2007, according to a study by SRI International.
Mindfulness has seen a tremendous surge in popularity in the past decade, according to a report by researchers Daphne Davis and Jeffrey Hayes that appeared in a recent publication of the American Psychological Association.
The practice has moved from a largely obscure Buddhist concept founded about 2,600 years ago to a mainstream approach used in the field of psychotherapy today, the researchers said.
In fact, it was Phil Jackson, the legendary NBA coach, who was among the first to legitimize mind-body techniques in pop culture as he led the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers to 11 titles from 1989 to 2010.
Jackson was named the “Zen Master” for a holistic approach to coaching that drew upon Eastern religious philosophy. Over the same period that Jackson was winning titles, brain science was beginning to validate what practitioners found evident: The brain can be trained to de-stress, and the body will perform better.
Brain’s capacity to change
For many, it was a wacky, or at least unconventional, idea departing from the wisdom of the day that the brain was more or less fully formed by the time a child hit kindergarten.
The growing body of research showing the brain has the capacity to change throughout life is bringing mental fitness onto the same plane as physical fitness, said Georgetown University associate professor Elizabeth Stanley.
Stanley, who conducts research for the Army and Marines, said mindfulness meditation “isn’t touchy-feely at all” in its new uses.
“There’s something very empowering about learning how and why the body and mind respond under stress,” she said.
Stanley said studies involving subjects engaged in repeated mindfulness have shown that it changes the way blood and oxygen flow through the brain, leading over time to structural changes.
The practice can shrink the amygdala, which controls our fear response; enlarge the hippocampus, which controls memory and make the insular cortex that regulates the body’s internal environment more efficient, according to recent peer-reviewed studies by Stanley and others.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are touting several studies that have found the technique can reduce the severity of irritable bowel syndrome symptoms in women and reduce stress and pain in chronic sufferers of fibromyalgia and depression.
The Associated Press contributed to this article. Reach Knudson at (701) 780-1107; (800) 477-6572, ext. 107; or send e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.