Few experiences can compare to holding a human brain.
It was my first year of medical training. I was nineteen years old, and as I stood in the cold, sterile dissection room with a brain in my hands, I wondered how a lifetime of memory, feelings and thoughts could arise from this one-kilogram tofu-like substance.
This fascination with the brain, coupled with my desire to help people live happy and meaningful lives, led me to a career in psychiatry. But as I moved deeper into my career I discovered that while psychiatry helped save people’s lives, it often left the flourishing part of the equation to other health professionals. I realised that this was the part of the journey I was most passionate about. I wanted to support people in thriving, not just surviving.
Truth be told, throughout my training, as I worked twenty-four-hour shifts on the wards, my own health and happiness were being affected. As a highly sensitive person who deeply cared about her fellow human beings, the work I was doing was taking its toll, at times leaving me stressed and overwhelmed.
I wasn’t alone. As I spoke with my colleagues, I discovered a silent epidemic of doctors experiencing vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue and existential crises of their own. One day I turned up to work to find that one colleague had admitted himself to a psychiatric clinic. The pressure had sent him spiralling into a severe depression.
Alarmingly, the World Health Organization now considers depression as the leading cause of ill-health and disability worldwide. And for a great number of the people suffering, there are simple, free and non-pharmaceutical ways of managing their mental health.
Much of the research in the field of mindfulness explores the impact of thirty to forty-five minutes of meditation a day on physical and psychological wellbeing. Excitingly, in my own scientific research I discovered that just ten minutes a day of mindfulness meditation over one month was enough to support more positive emotions, reduce stress, increase self-compassion and strengthen focus in daily life. The study just published in Mindfulness, explored whether 10-minute daily guided meditations was associated with improvements in well-being, and whether these improvements were related to the number of days participants practiced mindfulness meditation. Two hundred and nineteen participants took part in the study. Participants were aged 22–75 (mean age 44.31, SD 12.40), and the majority of participants were female (199, 16.16%). The majority of participants undertook mindfulness practice on 25+ days (126 respondents of 219; 57.53%). Participants completed both baseline and post-intervention assessments of perceived stress, positive and negative affect, mindfulness, flourishing, and self-compassion. Results indicated that all measures improved from baseline to post-intervention and that number of days practiced predicted increased mindfulness, and increased mindfulness predicted improvements in positive affect. These results suggest that online mindfulness interventions may be effective at improving mental health in the general population.
There are plenty of other examples in the scientific literature that explain why mindfulness is not just a fad, but will continue to be further integrated into our home and work life.
Research shows that people who suffer from depression and negative mood states have more electrical brain activity on the right side of the brain, compared with those who have more a positive, resilient attitude in life.
One study by Richie Davidson demonstrated that with regular mindfulness practices, the electrical brain activity shifted from right to “left-sided anterior activation,” indicating a transition to more positive emotional states. Simply put, meditation can support greater happiness.
A groundbreaking study in the field found increased levels of the enzyme that protects DNA from age and stress-related damage among regular meditators, suggesting that meditation can protect cells from age-related damage.
Although genetics undeniably have an influence on our mental health, the new science offers a more empowering perspective, where we can, to some extent, become sculptors of our own brains through regular practices including mindfulness.
When we practice worrying, the worrying circuits of the brain are reinforced. When we practice gratitude, the brain becomes more capable of noticing the good in our lives. When we practice mindfulness meditation, it forms new neural pathways that support focus, calm and emotional balance.
Here are a few mindfulness tips from my book The Happiness Plan, that you can implement to deal with stress and experience greater flourishing and resilience in life.
Your breath is intimately connected to your nervous system. Use it to your advantage when you’re feeling stressed to calm yourself down by slowing your breath and extending your exhalation. This will quiet your entire nervous system, keeping you calm rather than reactive, and help you make more effective decisions about what is needed.
Neuroscientific research demonstrates that when we’re stressed, talking or writing about how we’re feeling helps us calm down. As we become more mindful of difficult emotions, we reinforce neural pathways that help us remember to pause when we’re in the heat of an emotion, and use the more evolved part of the brain, the prefrontal cortex, to calm ourselves down.
Although when we’re stressed it can be hard to stop and meditate, research shows that meditating for just ten minutes can help you be more focussed and effective. Give your mind a ten minute holiday and it will reward you with a powerful return on investment of greater focus, clarity and effectiveness.