Expert Q&A on mindfulness with Massey’s Sarah Braun
Tuesday, August 15, 2017 is National Relaxation Day.
In the Q&A below, Sarah Braun, M.S., a research assistant in the Division of Neuro-oncology in the Department of Neurology and a clinical psychology doctoral candidate at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Medicine, explains mindfulness - its benefits, risks and how you can incorporate it into your everyday life.
Sarah’s interest in mindfulness began around six years ago when she was studying the practices of paying attention, compassion and relaxation in training to become a yoga teacher. Around 2014, she and Patricia Kinser, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the VCU School of Nursing, developed a mindfulness-based intervention for healthcare professionals. Recently, she offered several workshops on mindfulness in partnership with Massey’s Integrative Health program.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness. It’s more than paying attention in the present moment, it’s paying attention with kindness and compassion in every moment. Mindfulness can be used to describe a quality of the mind and it can be used to describe specific practices to develop this quality, such as meditation.
Is there a connection between mindfulness and resiliency?
Resiliency is the ability to recover after adversity, and research shows that mindfulness training enhances one’s ability to handle stress and respond effectively even in the face of negative stimuli. Therefore, you might say that mindfulness training is a type of resiliency training. Researchers and academics have also found positive correlations between mindfulness and resiliency scales, suggesting similarity in these constructs. However, it is important to note that mindfulness and resiliency are not the same. Someone may be resilient, but may not be very mindful.
What are the benefits of mindfulness?
Studies indicate mindfulness training can improve one’s ability to regulate emotions, reduce stress and improve cognitive functions such as attention span and memory retention. Many of these factors have been associated with improved health outcomes.
Are there risks involved?
The short answer is no. However, those with a history of trauma, panic attack disorder or psychosis should proceed with direction from a healthcare professional if considering starting certain mindfulness practices. I suggest finding a therapist experienced in teaching mindfulness to provide guidance. So far, the research shows only positive effects from mindfulness-based interventions in clinical and non-clinical populations.
How long do I need to practice before I notice the benefits in my life?
Some of the newer research shows that as little as four days of seated meditation for 20 minutes can lead to measurable improvements in social-emotional responses.
How can I incorporate this into my work and personal life?
Get a teacher! This is the best way to incorporate this practice into your daily life. For those that may not have time to seek professional guidance, there are several apps–Insight Timer, Calm, Buddhify, The Mindfulness App–that provide guided meditations and other mindfulness practices.
One informal practice of mindfulness that we teach in our intervention is “stop, breathe, be.” This takes no more than 10 seconds. It begins with a pause, stopping and letting go of what you are doing. Then, take a breath and rest for a moment, letting go of the task or conversation in which you were engaged. Then, begin again; re-engage with your life. I do it before I go into a patient’s room. It allows me to reset and find micro pauses in my day to improve my attention and reduce stress.
What if I can't sit still for 10 minutes - will I still see benefits?
Start small. Practice for maybe five minutes, six days a week. Then add one to three minutes each week until you get to an amount that is right for you. It’s better to practice for small amounts of time regularly than one long chunk of time irregularly. It needs to become part of your daily routine. If we don’t make practicing mindfulness into a habit, then it is unlikely to have any benefits. It’s like exercise in that way. If we’re out of shape and we go to the gym once a week, we won’t notice any changes, and, in fact, every time we go it will be difficult and uncomfortable. Mindfulness is similar. If we want to incur the benefits of being happier, more emotionally stable and less stressed, then we have to put in the time.