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Stress, wellbeing and cognitive practices

In this video, Craig explores some of the ways stress impairs the functioning of the brain and reduces performance.
CRAIG HASSED: One of the most important applications of mindfulness is in managing stress. Now, it’s worthwhile going into these stress responses in a little bit of detail so we understand how mindfulness might help, and also to get a bit of a sense of how the mind-body relationship works. Now, if we’re in a situation where maybe a– I don’t know– a lion comes out of the bushes, and it’s got us lined up, then we’re going to activate the fight or flight response. There are a lot of changes that happen when we do that.
Our circulation becomes hyperdynamic, the blood gets thick and sticky and ready to clot fast, and metabolic rate goes up to help us to burn fuel faster than normal as a rapid release of sugars and fats into the bloodstream. We start to sweat because we’re– our metabolic rate’s gone up and we’re starting to feel hot, and the blood is diverted away from the skin and from the gut, so the gut shuts down, and all of that blood is being sent off to the muscles because they’re going to be doing a lot of work while we’re trying to get away from the lion.
And from an attention point of view, from a mindfulness point of view, we’re very much in the present moment. We’re not thinking about whether or not we’re going to top up our superannuation before the end of the financial year. We’re just very much focused on what’s happening in the moment because we need to see where the threat is. We need to see where the escape route is. And so in a sense, this is the– because we’re mindful, we’re activating the response every so often because we really need it because it’s a present moment threat. Now it’s not an anxiety response, it’s an activation response.
We will be faster and stronger and have more endurance than we normally have for a short period of time. And that response is designed to be switched on only every so often and then to be switched off as soon as it’s no longer required. And if we do that, from time to time it’s going to be the difference between life and death. Now, unfortunately in modern life, we get so anxious and preoccupied about what might or might not happen in the future or we keep reliving past events so much. But it doesn’t matter that these events are in our imaginations. If we’re not mindful, we take the imaginary threat to be real.
So we’re anticipating will I or won’t I get to a deadline, will I or won’t I pass the test, will I or won’t I perform well in some particular episode coming up. And so it could be 3 o’clock in the morning, and there’s no actual threat in the present moment but we’re activating this response because of what we are catastrophising about. Now that’s not experienced as a turbo charge of energy or activation, that is experienced as anxiety because all these chemicals are pumping out with nowhere to go and nothing to do. And that inappropriate activation of that response is not going to save our life. It’s the kind of stuff that makes us sick.
So we would experience it as anxiety but it could be grinding away in a low level in pretty much throughout much of our day, and sometimes, we get really big spikes in this kind of reaction or response but it’s based on being unmindful, not being present, not discerning between imagination and reality. And if we do this a lot, then it produces a wear and tear on our system that it was not designed to take. It’s called allostatic load. But we get impaired immunity so we are more likely to get infections, or if we’ve got an inflammatory illness, it’ll be worse. We accelerate the hardening of the arteries
so it leads to heart attacks and strokes, metabolic effects, high blood pressure, high blood glucose, high blood lipids, and so on. It also affects the ageing of the bones. It affects the ageing of the brain as well because these stress chemicals are neurotoxic so they damage brain cells over the long term, and actually lead to, a thinning of the grey matter. So we don’t just feel bad in the short term, it affects our health in the long term. And the areas that are most affected are the memory centre, hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex, our working memory, executive functioning areas of the brain.
So we actually perform poorly in the acute moment that we’re actually anxious and stressed but actually, in the long term, it affects our ability to function well. So it comes with a cost. The only bit of the brain that’s going to grow if we’re activating it all the time is the stress centre. So it gets bigger and it gets more reactive. In a kind of way, we wire our brain for more stress. That’s the bad news. There is no good doing the course without good news as well. So the good news from a mindfulness front is that if we learn to recognise and switch off the inappropriate activation of that response, everything heads back to healthy levels.
And if we do that consistently, day in, day out, over weeks and months, and years, we get more and more added benefits from doing that. So the body will start to repair itself, to balance itself. So hence, it has a whole lot of good long-term effects in our health as far as immunity in the cardiovascular system is concerned but also as far as the brain is concerned as well. And even affects right down to our DNA. Rapid ageing of the DNA with a lot of stress, mindfulness seems to slow down the rate of ageing of our DNA. So the appropriate and the inappropriate activation of the stress response.
One is based on being mindful of the present moment threat, the other one is based on being unmindful. And it’s far more common that we do it unmindfully. The next aspect of practicing mindfulness relates to the cognitive practises. Now these are implicit when we’re practicing mindfulness meditation or being informally mindful in our day to day life. But when we’re thinking about managing stress, or depression, understanding our own minds better, then we make them explicit. The first one relates to perception. That when we’re unmindful, we often lose the ability to discern between imagination and reality. We’re catastrophising about something in the future that’s not happening.
We could be sitting in a very comfortable chair at the time at home and we’re getting anxious. The whole fight or flight response is activated because we’re taking our imagination to be real. And just like watching a movie when we’re totally lost in the movie, we’re getting all stressed and somebody touches us on the hand and says it’s all right, it’s just a movie, then the stress response reduces. Well the same thing happens, in a sense, when we learn to be mindful, we like tap ourselves on the hand internally and say it’s all right, it’s just a mental projection, it’s just the imagination. Maybe it’s replaying the past event.
So that capacity to discern between imagination and reality is a very important one, and if we don’t do that well, we’re very vulnerable to a lot of stress. The next one relates to letting go or another term for that, I guess we could use is, non-attachment. There’s a thought, like an opinion, but we talk about holding an opinion. So we get attached to the thought. Now of course, if we get attached to a thought, like an opinion, and somebody challenges that opinion, we feel personally affronted, we feel stressed, we feel angry, we feel hurt, we feel withdrawn because the attachment, the threat to the thought is taken as a personal threat. We talk about being in the grips of fear.
There’s an emotion, like fear, and we’re very attached to it, and so we start to be governed by the fear, dominated by the fear. So whether it’s thoughts, or emotions, or even physical sensations including pain, we can learn to stand back from them and observe them with less attachment to them. It’s not a denial that they’re there, but we can learn to just observe them with less attachment to them. We can learn, in a sense, to let go. So we might be having a conversation, and there’s an opinion that’s expressed, and somebody challenges it, we just view the opinion without particular attachment to it.
And it makes it much more possible for us, for example, to just look at the merits of that opinion. To let it go if it’s not useful, or maybe to actually get more clarity if it is a useful thought, to actually say well, no. I really understand what I think now and I’m actually more convinced than I was before. So it could be a desire. We get an attachment to a desire. Can we let that attachment to that desire go and does that give us more freedom to not be dominated by that desire? So non-attachment. The third one relates to acceptance. We might be experiencing something that’s very pleasant. We find it very easy to accept that.
But very often, we’re experiencing things that we don’t like, and we might notice the effect of non-acceptance, or reactivity to it, or hating the fact that it’s there actually leads to an increasing sort of level of intrusiveness of that experience, that thought, that feeling. So for example, we might be experiencing a depressive thought or emotion, and we hate it, and we try to get rid of it, it starts to dominate. But if we can actually soften the attitude to it, a little bit of self compassion goes a long way here to notice that thought or that feeling but just to be accepting of the fact that at that moment, that thought or the feeling is there.
Then it doesn’t tend to dominate quite so much. It makes it a lot easier to experience a lot less suffering in the presence of that thought or feeling, but it also makes it a whole lot easier to unhook from it. So acceptance is a very important part of what it means to be mindful. And indeed, there are whole approaches to psychotherapy that are based on, or really headline this issue of acceptance, like Acceptance Commitment Therapy, or ACT. The fourth of the big four is presence of mind, being in the present moment. The mind is often living a future that hasn’t happened, reliving a past that’s already come and gone, and we often totally miss the present moment.
Missing the present moment means we don’t enjoy what we’re doing because we are not tasting the food, we are not just enjoying the simple pleasure of having a shower or just enjoying the sound of the birds as we walk through the park or down the street. So we don’t enjoy things in the same way. But also, we don’t function as well if we’re not present to what we’re doing. We don’t communicate as well, we don’t remember as well, we don’t learn as well. So not being present not only leaves us vulnerable to stress but it also affects our ability to function.
So to get better and better at noticing when we’re in a future that hasn’t happened or a past that’s already come and gone, if we learn to notice that more often, we can actually make a conscious choice to just come back to the present moment. Maybe there’s a tight deadline for an assignment or some other piece of work. We’re getting anxious about will we or won’t we get there. We might just remember, wait a sec, just be present, just come back to the step that’s in front of me now. And we might notice we start to get back on track but we also might notice that we start to feel a lot less pressure.
So these are the big four, and you’ll have the opportunity to explore each of these week by week and the mindfulness meditation practise will really help to reinforce our ability to notice and to learn more and explore in more depth what these four, big four cognitive aspects of mindfulness really mean.

Watch Craig extend the exploration of default mode to examine how it leads to stress and reduced performance and then discuss the ‘Big 4’ cognitive practices – perception, non-attachment, acceptance and presence of mind.

Talking point

Within the Comments, consider sharing with other learners what you have learned about the relationship between default mode and stress, and its impacts on performance. You can also share your thoughts on the following questions:

  • When you are in default mode, have you noticed how it leads to getting stressed?
  • In what ways does the fight/flight response change your breathing and create other changes in your body?
  • What kind of things such as worrying, dwelling, judging, reacting does your attention get hooked up in that drives this reaction?
  • What effect does this have on your cognitive (and therefore academic/work) performance?

Remember to only share things that you’re happy for others to read in an open forum.

You might like to take some time to read comments made by other learners, and if you find these comments interesting, respond to them. Remember you can also ‘like’ comments or follow other learners throughout the course.

Would you like to learn more about mindfulness-based stress reduction?

If you’d like to learn more about mindfulness-based stress reduction, go to See also for a link to a scientific review paper on the impact of mindfulness for stress reduction.

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Mindfulness for Wellbeing and Peak Performance

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