In modern times and through millennia traditionally, mindfulness has been utilized for many purposes. Perhaps the most important use is the reduction of stress and anxiety, partly because these factors are well-known to inhibit our ability to perform and grow through our daily lives, as well as pose risks for our health and overall well-being. As a holder of a doctorate in Mindfulness and founder of The Mindful Project, I’m always keen to share insights as to what this technique really has to offer, especially so during these difficult times. In this blog I’ll cover the basics of mindfulness, why it’s the ideal modern medicine for stress, and also explain why athletes and students in particular can benefit from practice.

The Basics

Defined as a conscious directing of awareness, mindfulness is essentially the mastery of your attention to focus on the moment and be aware of your place in the present. As I like to explain, mindfulness is being fully present in the moment, aware of our thoughts and feelings, but not judging them or allowing them to distract us. This allows us to have a measured, appropriate response to the things happening around us, instead of reacting based on our stress or anxiety.

Research suggests that people tend to spend around 30% of their time thinking about the past, 60% about the future, and only 10% on the present. The ability to consciously focus more on the present is where the primary benefits of mindfulness are found, which include empowering individuals through feeling more in control of their life, and increasing adaptability to one’s own life.

Rooted in Buddhist psychology and Buddhist Vipassana meditation, it’s practice dates back almost 2000 years. A biomedical scientist from the University of Massachusetts Medical School is credited with bringing the non-religious version of mindfulness to western society in the 1970’s. In recent decades growing scientific research has given credence to the applied value of this method. And in recent years, the internet and technological innovations such as biofeedback, neurofeedback and a slew of apps have helped fuel a much more widespread acceptance.

‘‘Medicine of the Future’’

A 2016 Harvard Health article reported an exponential growth in the acceptance of mindfulness by doctors as a form of treatment for patients with pain and disease. A staggering 80% of medical schools are now teaching courses in mindfulness.

My own secondary research findings from 25 studies with over 7,000 participants show that mindfulness can be highly effective for managing excessive or chronic stress and anxiety, along with the associated negative effects on both the body and mind.

Health is an area of life that affects all human beings. Life altering disease in one’s own life or in the life of loved ones can greatly increase personal stress and anxiety. Studies focused on the biological effects of practice have discovered the ability of mindfulness to activate a relaxation response in the body, lowering epinephrine and cortisol production, blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption.

Research utilizing mindfulness with patients in the medical field has shown its ability to reduce stress and anxiety in:-

• Cancer patients and survivors

• Employees suffering mental distress from career burnout

• Cardiovascular patients

• Mental health patients

• Burn patients

• Patients suffering from Multiple Sclerosis

Other experts in the medical field tout the effectiveness of mindfulness to reduce patients’ anxiety to actively improve their ability to heal from injury and disease. I am sure there is much more to learn with further research, which is why Dr. Ronald Siegal of Harvard Medical School dubbed this form of mental training as ‘‘Medicine of the Future’’.

Mindfulness for Athletic Performance

As well as mindfulness, my academic background includes degrees in exercise science and athletic training. Bringing these fields together I’ve spent over two decades coaching collegiate women’s soccer at the NCAA and NAIA levels. From first-hand insights I can tell you that many athletes experience a significant amount of stress and or anxiety associated with the constant pressures of their sport. These pressures are often confounded by the fact that they typically go under-recognized, and that many athletes are also students, and vice versa.

Elite athletes are increasingly using mindfulness for sport performance enhancement and injury rehabilitation. Dr. Colleen Hacker is a icon for this approach. Serving as Mental Skills Coach for the US Women’s National Soccer team and the US Women’s Olympic Hockey team, she has helped the teams achieve great success. In an interview she explained that at the professional level, the difference between good and great professional athletes is the ability to win the mental game.

A more familiar icon is LeBron James, who even uses mindfulness during his game, and as shown in this video clip, is an open advocate.

Aside from mental focus, research-based results of mindfulness interventions with athletes have demonstrated these specific benefits.

• Reduced incidence of injury

• Reduced stress

• Improved athletic performance

• Improved flow in sport performance

• Increased athletic coping skills

• Decreased anxiety and pessimism

• Reduced likelihood of burnout

Mindfulness for Educational Performance

Although everyone is aware that stress can negatively affect our health, it’s less well known that it can hinder our ability to learn. Stress and anxiety for students and academics has been found to lead to test anxiety and reduced cognitive ability. This can decrease a students’ ability to learn effectively. Poor performance in school can lead to even more stress or anxiety, creating a cycle of negative physical and emotional outcomes.

Education takes up a large chunk of most people’s lives, and most importantly, this happens during years when the brain’s biological and psychological development is going through it’s most formative stages of development. If you think about how influential this cyclical relationship between stress and academic performance can be, then it’s easy to imagine how it can greatly affect years of learning development and long term educational outcomes.

Accordingly stress and anxiety has become an increasing concern in the area of academics, leading to many studies seeking an effective intervention for this challenge. Research in mindfulness interventions has been central, with studies showing the effectiveness in the reduction of stress and anxiety in medical students, college students, high school, middle school, and elementary students. Specific benefits from these studies show,

• A reduction in test anxiety

• The ability to think more clearly and focus on school-related tasks

• Improved sleep quality

Again, more research is needed and is ongoing, particularly on the long-term benefits. One of the key advantages of learning to be mindful is that it becomes an acquired skill. The younger a student masters the technique, the more likely they will be to reap the rewards throughout their educational journey.

Student's in training at The Mindful Project
Student's in training at The Mindful Project

Takeaways

If you’re new to mindfulness then I hope this blog has opened your mind to the benefits anyone can achieve through this form of mental training, particularly for facing the challenges of prolonged COVID lockdowns. Here are some key points we covered.

• Mindfulness has a long tradition of practice

• Evidence shows it is especially effective at helping people manage stress and anxiety

• Mindfulness can play a direct role in promoting physical and mental wellbeing

• Athletes and students can benefit in ways that have positive real-world outcomes

Overall, an improvement in the feeling of control one has over their life, whether it be through improved health, athletic, or academic performance, can increase feelings of empowerment in individuals.

If you’d like to learn more, you can listen to this free podcast.

Dr. Rachel Lindvall & Erin McLeod | LIR on Mindfulness

If you’re interested in taking a training course in mindfulness, check out the services we offer at The Mindful Project, or if you'd like to explore mindfulness research here is a review article I wrote with references to all the study findings I've covered in this blog.

Mindfulness, Stress, & Anxiety Magazine Article

Lastly, for a deep-dive into the practical side of mindfulness training, look out for a follow-up to this blog by co-founder of The Mindful Project and Canadian sports hall of fame soccer player, Erin McLeod.

Witness the benefits of NeuroTrackerX. Start Today!