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Mindfulness Practice, by a Former Skeptic

My mom and I are close. I’ve always adored her but, when I was younger, I scoffed a bit at (what I used to call) her Zen-Buddha-karma hippie interests. She had a mindfulness practice before people even knew what that was. Like a meditation practice. Deep breaths. All that. She was into yoga before it was cool, so I was exposed to it as a teen in the mid-90s. I didn’t mind yoga as a physical practice, but the meditation piece, though, no thank you. 

In fact, I turned down a trip to Costa Rica with her about 10 or so years ago because of it. She called to tell me about this amazing yoga retreat she was going on. I was in until she shared the schedule, which included an early morning meditation class. That was a hard pass for me.

Keep in mind that when I rolled my eyes at her meditation, I wasn’t some young kid who couldn’t sit still. I was a full-fledged doctoral level licensed psychologist specializing in the treatment of anxiety disorders. I knew a lot about the human mind and how it works, and I. Was. SKEPTICAL.

Make your mind go blank? I called B.S. MINDS DON’T GO BLANK!

Which is true, they don’t. The mind wanders if you don’t focus on the present, but it doesn’t just go blank. The issue was that I didn’t really understand what mindfulness meant. I didn’t get the point of meditation.

And that was a HUGE oversight on my part.

Thankfully though, as a scientist at heart and a clinician who continually strives to learn and stay current, I couldn’t help but delve into this world, and I am now a fully reformed skeptic. I’m 100% on the mindfulness bandwagon and strongly encourage everyone to hop on it with me. It is for your mind what working out is for your body…nothing short of transformative.

Here are some of the factors that made me change my tune.

The Data

Hardcore research studies may not do much for you, but they do for me, and the results are compelling. Scientists and researchers have been studying the effects of mindfulness based stress reduction, and it is nothing short of a miracle. Mindfulness Exercises:

  • Decreases anxiety, depression, anxiety
  • Decreases stress
  • Increases happiness
  • Increases focus and concentration

I’m into all of those effects. Mental health and wellbeing is my business! But here’s where it gets even more crazy cool and convincing. Mindfulness – a mental practice involving awareness of the present moment, simply paying attention to the here and now – affects your body. too. Studies have shown that mindfulness has done amazing things like:

  • Decreases physical pain
  • Turns off 7% of the genes involved in your stress response. Literally switches them off.
  • Boosts your immune response (for example, researchers injected people with something known to cause skin rashes, but the people who had been practicing mindfulness didn’t get one!)
  • Even slows down the aging process on a cellular level

Seeing data like these was enough to convince me that this practice, which has been around in various forms for thousands of years, was legit. My direct experiences, though, keep me believing.

My Own Experiences

The actual details of how I incorporate mindfulness and meditation into my life vary over time, from informal to formal guided practices, and I’m not always consistent. Fortunately, there is always the option to simply begin again when I get off track. For me, personally, the top changes and benefits I’ve seen from this lifestyle practice include:

Self-awareness and understanding

Mindfulness has allowed me to observe my inner workings, gaining a better understanding of myself and my patterns of thinking and reacting. My ability to see these processes unfold in the moment has increased, too, which leads to…

Less emotional reactivity

I seem to be much more even-keel emotionally, less reactive in the moment, which is great because I feel more in charge and in control. I’m also much better able to sit with my emotions (to observe those sunsets, if you caught last week’s email).

Pleasure in small moments

Because mindfulness is essentially an attention training process, there are some, perhaps, surprising side effects. One is that I’m more attune to the small pleasures and joyous moments in life. I noticed that I literally stopped to smell the roses on a walk not too long after starting my practice. Pre-mindfulness and meditation (Pre-M), I most likely would’ve just glanced at those flowers, if I had noticed them at all.

Patience

Another benefit, for me at least, is patience. Pre-M Ashley was ants-in-the-pants restless on a 3 hour road trip. Post-M Ashley handled a 13 hour flight…with an extra 3 hour delay…in stride. Very little misery. A surprising amount of pleasure. I blame mindfulness.

I’ve heard that boredom is an attention issue, that nothing is boring if you pay close enough attention to it. My own experiences echo that. I have rarely found myself feeling bored since starting a mindfulness practice, even when there’s very little apparent stimulation. I can be quiet and still (believe it or not).

Develop Your Own Mindfulness Practice

There are an endless number of ways to start to build your own mindfulness practice, ranging from apps like 10% Happier to Peak Mind programs like Ascend and our Quarterly Workshops (and, of course, you’re welcome to join those), but where I really want to direct you is to this amazing FREE online summit coming up in January. 

Dr. April, Peak Mind co-founder, is teaming up with Fleet Maull of the Heart Mind Institute to host the Best Year of Your Life Summit. It’s 10 days of free content from THE leading psychologists, meditation teachers (including one of my personal favorites, Sharon Salzberg), and visionaries. (Seriously. I flipped when I saw the line up). It’s way more than mindfulness, but what a great place to start (or strengthen) your practice. See you there!

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The Technology Behind Mental Well-Being 

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Have you ever wondered how some of the best mental well-being apps came to be? Apps like Happify, Headspace, and Muse. How did they come to be, and how did they scale to the point that they’ve touched over 100 million people? Technology and mental health may finally be able to work together.

Today we’re getting a little glimpse behind that curtain as we speak with Charlie Hartwell. Charlie is a partner within the influential investor group, Bridge Builders Collaborative. This group was the first to see, understand, and invest in startups within the consumer technological health market. They are now pioneers in the new arena of health and well-being centered around human consciousness. 

Charlie also works alongside his wife in the ShiftIt Institute, an organization aimed at raising the consciousness of the world.  

During our conversation we talk about: 

  • The importance of mental health and well-being and how the science behind it is becoming so much more available, making it an area that people are willing to invest their time and energy in. 
  • Charlie’s own personal story of aligning the work he’s doing to his strengths and value system 
  • What it means to “go deeper” and use his work to make a bigger, global impact 
  • The big reason why he invests in companies in the mental health and well-being space and what he’s trying to accomplish on a global scale 

This is such a valuable conversation as we think about the importance of the work we’re each doing in our own lives. It’s a testament to the importance of building psychological strength and practicing life design.  

Relevant Links: 

It’s important to connect with people where they are. They offer mental health services that can reduce anxiety and depression, depressive symptoms, or even internet addiction, and limiting screen time can lead to fewer mental health disorders. Offering access to mental health care has been a significant advance with users reporting feeling better with fewer mental health problems. When mental health apps are used as daily activities just like physical activity, the effects of mental health conditions can be positive. Ultimately, one of the effects of technology in the case of digital mental health could reduce mental illness in the United States, a laudable and worthy goal.