Embracing mindfulness to combat life’s stressors and optimize cognitive performance

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Understanding the neuroscience and physiological basis of the brain and training its networks to combat anxiety and life's stressors

Professor Andra Smith, from the School of Psychology at the Faculty of Social Sciences, has combined her research and her personal experience with mindfulness to teach the course Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Neurons to Wellness. Her interest in neuroscience explores how to optimize cognitive processes behind decision-making, organizing behaviour, setting goals while taking the necessary steps to accomplish them without distractions. Mindfulness has allowed her students to achieve these skills while keeping stress at bay.

Professor Smith recently published WHO KNEW! Neuroscience and Mindfulness take on Stress in the Real World, and WIN! documenting her work, and we asked her about her embracing of mindfulness and how it impacted her students.

Question: What inspired you to explore the use of mindfulness to attack the stress you saw in your students?

Andra Smith: "During Covid, I didn't have the usual hands-on connection with students and noticed they were battling high stress levels and anxiety was impacting their performance. I wanted to give them tools to handle some of these stressors and their fear of the future. I had gained so much from my own mindfulness training that I knew they would benefit from learning why and how it works."

Q: Scientifically speaking, what kind of research did you lead to find evidence behind the effectiveness of mindfulness?

AS: "I performed two fMRI studies with mindfulness as an intervention, studying breast cancer patients with neuropathic pain and musicians suffering from performance anxiety. In both studies, we found significant changes in brain structure and function. Currently, we are working on an imaging study with pediatric concussion, and we hypothesize that mindfulness can help with emotion regulation and quality of life issues post-injury."

Q: Mindfulness comes with skepticism for many; how did you view it as you moved forward in using it?

AS: "This required understanding the brain and how mindfulness worked from a neuroscience lens. I was skeptical until I learned why and how mindfulness worked in the brain: the stress response; the evolution of our brains; the attention networks; the nervous systems and their interactions; the way in which stress hijacks our prefrontal cortex and how to counter that. Those were the academic and scientific features, but personal life experiences also solidified my passion for mindfulness training. I used my mindfulness training during my mother's illness and final passing, being with it despite how sad it was. It was a lightbulb moment that brought the science and experience together, confirming its power. I wanted to give this to my students. They embraced it, used it, and loved how it changed their day-to-day lives."

Q: How did your students respond and what was ultimately achieved by introducing mindfulness to their curriculum/routine?

AS: "I provided mindfulness practices at the start and end of class plus suggested homework exercises. They did the homework and enjoyed it! One exercise was to have a mindful conversation, listening to listen, not to respond. This was eye-opening for students because they realized that they don't really listen in a conversation without thinking about what their answer will be. It is a gift to give someone your full attention, and they felt it with this exercise and appreciated their relationships more afterwards. The consensus from the course was that the students had tools to deal with stress and learned that the stress did not have to control them; they could be in the driver's seat and this made them more productive. For a professor it doesn't get any better than hearing a student say that they implemented what they learned in class and that it enriched their lives."

Q: How do you suggest people take a first step towards engaging in the practice of mindfulness for their benefit?

AS: "Gradually putting together several short practices that feel good is a good way to start. Mindfulness is a variety of practices so you can pick and choose what you like. It is really about attention and training those networks in the brain that allow us to stay focused and out of the pre-living and re-living narratives that we run so often. My book walks the reader through the whole course we did so that is a great place to start. I would be happy to help anyone who wants to try it. I would add that I do not recommend learning on your own if you have had trauma or suffer with significant mental health issues. It is not a replacement for treatment or therapy. It is a supplement."

"Being aware of how stress impacts our physiology can give us a jump start on countering its potential negative effects. If we can be in tune with our physiology, it gives us all kinds of information and cues that we then have control over. Knowledge is power. We need to know our brain, as it controls everything we do, good and bad. Mindfulness can help us with this."

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