Solo & Small Firm
EVERYDAY MINDFULNESS AND ACTIVITIES FOR MENTAL WELLBEING
This article originally appeared in the Solo and Small Firm Section’s The Practitioner publication, Fall 2019, Vol. 25, Issue 4.
By Gayani Weerasinghe
As a busy professional, the last thing we want to hear is to add another thing to our growing “to-do-list.” When you hear someone talk about the benefits of mindfulness, you may think, “I simply don’t have the time.” Maybe you envision one day when you are retired, having the luxury of practicing mindfulness or taking up yoga or meditating while sitting on a beach somewhere remote.
However, I am here to share with you that you don’t have to set aside extra time to practice mindfulness, you can and you already are doing things that are part of mindfulness practice and all you need is to fine-tune a little to change or adjust your habits to obtain the benefits. Mindfulness is not just setting time aside for meditating, although, if you can, it will offer excellent health benefits. Mindfulness can be a part of your self-care routine, as I will share some tips at the end to incorporate both mindfulness and activities to add as part of your total mental wellbeing. In this article, I will discuss the science behind mindfulness, why it matters to attorneys and other professionals, and provide quick tips to bring this practice into your daily activities.
What is mindfulness? For this article, I will adopt the definition provided by Cleveland Clinic’s Center For Functional Medicine, “mindfulness is the practice of bringing one’s complete attention to the present experience on a moment-to-moment basis.”1 It can something as easy as taking a minute to take three deep breaths to reset yourself between tasks or being intentional with what you are doing and actively engaging in your thoughts and being aware of the present moment with compassion and non-judgment. Mindfulness can take many shapes and forms. To cultivate mindfulness, you most often require training your mind to be aware of your thought patterns, stop ruminating on past events, stop creating its own narrative, and become more conscious about your own feelings. Mindfulness is a practice and even small changes to our daily routine and habits can bring positive outcomes and benefits far greater for our long-term wellbeing.
BRIEF OVERVIEW OF SCIENCE BEHIND MINDFULNESS
Mindfulness is often discussed in relation to meditation and a myriad of studies in recent years have come to reveal evidence of how this practice can be beneficial to us. These benefits include both physical and mental conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, chronic pain, and post-traumatic stress disorder.2 The Cleveland Clinic’s “Functioning for Life Mindfulness” program is offered in conjunction with other clinical inventions to help patients in their long-term objectives, including help gain focus, enhance self motivation, boost working memory, improve energy levels, develop good habits, lower emotional reactivity, improve cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, provide better relationship satisfaction, and manage emotions that interfere with progress towards healthy habits.3
Although, a lot more expansive research studies on the benefits of mindfulness are in the beginning stages and further studies are needed to confirm results, leading research institutions such as National Institutes of Health, Harvard University, Stanford University, Cleveland Clinic, and others have expanded their ongoing research studies to dig deeper into the subject and have incorporated it into treatment modules of certain diseases as discussed below.4
For example, in one study that examined the brain scans of eighteen participants enrolled in an 8 week mindfulness-based stress reduction program, seventeen participants in the control group demonstrated statistically significant increases in gray matter concentration in the left hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in learning, memory, and emotional control, compared to the control group with no significant changes.5 Both the mindfulness participant group and the control group (a group that did not perform the mindfulness exercises) were comprised of ages 25 to 55-year-olds, with a mean age of 38/39 respectively, almost an even split of males and females, and composition of similar ethnicities.6 The mindfulness group participated in eight weekly group meetings lasting 2.5 hours each and additional full day (6.5 hours) on the sixth week that included mindfulness training exercises for training to develop mindfulness skills as these participants were new to the practice.7
While this article by no means is intended to be an extensive survey of biomedical research in stress-related loss of brain volume in hippocampus or any other related parts of the brain, it is worth noting that numerous studies have linked loss of hippocampal brain cells and lowering of functionality to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, and more. The above mentioned same study found that the gray matter also increased in other brain regions, including the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), the temporoparietal junction (TPJ), the cerebellum, and areas of the brain stem of the test group who performed daily mindfulness practice compared to the control group that did not perform any mindfulness training exercises.8 Additionally, while the specific functions of each of these areas are still being investigated by scientists, the study discussed how these areas along with prefrontal cortex are important for our emotional processing, learning and memory, our defensive mechanisms for stress management, and other cognitive and behavioral functions.9 Some of these cognitive functions include PCC, TPJ, cerebellum and other parts of the brain that activate or deactivate during our recalling past events, planning future events, worrying, problem-solving based on emotional stimuli that we are receiving at the moment.
Another scientific study examining the therapeutic intervention of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for ninety-three individuals diagnosed with a generalized anxiety disorder were randomized to an eight-week group invention found that MBSR provided significant anxiety reduction compared to Stress Management Education (SME) as a therapeutic intervention.10 This study included individuals who are over the age of 18 and given a psychiatric diagnosis of generalized anxiety disorder and opt into participating in the MBSR or an SME program as an active control group for the study.11 MBSR intervention comprised of weekly group classes (2 to 2.5 hours) for eight weeks with a single weekend retreat day (4 hours), daily home practice guided by audio recordings, in-class training including breath-awareness, a body-scan, and gentle Hatha yoga to cultivate awareness of internal present-moment experiences to built acceptance and non-judgment. The SME intervention comprised of the same time commitment of weekly group classes for eight weeks with a single weekend retreat day, daily home practice guided by audio recording, in-class time included information given in didactic format, covering topics of stress, stress physiology, effect of stress on body systems, time management techniques, sleep physiology, insomnia, optimal nutrition, effects of stress on diet, caffeine, exercise.. .etc., and to supplement the yoga of the MBSR group, this group was taught gentle strength and posture exercises by a physical therapist for the same amount of time.12 The researchers concluded that MBSR not only was successful at reducing anxiety symptoms in patients with generalized anxiety disorder compared to the SME group but also they postulated that patients who learned mindfulness meditation had improved coping mechanism during a laboratory stress test, therefore raising the possibility that these training can cultivate resilience to stress and increase positive self-statements.
Further, another study from Harvard found the mere act of clearing your mind for fifteen minutes a day for eight weeks can demonstrate changes to 172 genes that regulated inflammation, circadian rhythms, and glucose metabolism and including a meaningful decrease in blood pressure.13 These areas are all important for us as high blood pressure can be damaging to our organs and cause long term serious health issues; inflammation has been linked to many autoimmune diseases, such as lupus, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other illnesses; circadian rhythm controls our basal bodily functions, including sleep/ wake cycles and lack of it can lead to anxiety, depression, fatigue and more; and glucose metabolism leads to metabolic diseases such as diabetes that lowers our quality of life and can be life-threatening if it’s not managed well.
This is just a glimpse of some studies I found to be fascinating as the medical field and researchers are expanding their efforts to validate the claims of benefits related to mindfulness-based practices.
WHY MINDFULNESS PRACTICE MATTERS TO ATTORNEYS
In recent years we have increased awareness of incidents of suicides in our profession, in some cases contributed to chronic depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse problems, and general unhappiness or lack of satisfaction felt in the profession. Attorneys are constantly bombarded with deadlines, meeting expectations of clients, colleagues, bosses and personal obligations. These expectations and obligations are ever expanding, and electronic communications have made it almost impossible to step away from the job even at times that should be dedicated to sleep, rest, and renewal, as it has become the norm to expect immediate responses. We often sacrifice rest, sleep, time with friends and family to meet the demands of our profession. However, this also means a busy mind that is constantly churning and does not get the normal rest, relaxes, renewal cycles that we need for our own wellbeing. Studies have shown that frequent multitaskers are poor performers, have trouble organizing their thoughts, have trouble discerning irrelevant information, and generally less productive.14
As the practice of mindfulness is a practice of focusing and paying attention to the moment, it is a great tool to retrain your mind to stay in the moment. Because the practice of mindfulness cultivates the ability to focus better, pay attention better, it is greatly helpful for attorneys in their daily activities. For example, it can help attorneys in court as they argue cases, as it would train them to stay more in the present and allow better responses to judge’s questions or form better cross-examination questions. Further, a person who practices mindfulness is likely to be more aware of the client’s needs during a meeting, pay attention to details, intake the complex situations better, and arrive at creative solutions. It can also help with your energy level, your anxiety levels, and help you stop ruminating on stressful triggers and instead focus on the present moment.
BRINGING MINDFULNESS TO YOUR DAILY ACTIVITIES
Before getting into the mindfulness I wanted to briefly discuss a few examples of being in the present moment and in effect being mindful that you are already doing but may not realize. For example, when you are with friends and truly break out into laughter, that is actually being in the moment as you are fully aware of that moment, your mind is not processing other thoughts. When you are watching a game or a show, if you are captivated by it, that is actually focusing on one thing instead of letting your mind wander. A conversation with a friend, when we find ourselves completely engrossed in the moment, that is being in the present moment. If you are playing a sport, you are in the present moment. Listening to good music or dancing is usually being present in your body and enjoying the moment. These are a few examples of how you may already be practicing mindfulness in your daily lives.
BASIC MINDFULNESS MEDITATION
Find a quiet place, sit with your spine straight, put away your phone and lay your hands on your lap, with palms open, focus on breathing through your diaphragm, drop your shoulders, and feel the opening of your chest. If your mind starts to wonder, bring it back to the breath. You can focus on a word or a phrase if that helps, such as when you breathe in, you can think “I am” and as you exhale, think “present.” Some other helpful phrases can be, “I am loved,” “I am open,” “I am grounded,” or any other simple phrase that may resonate with you. It is normal to have thoughts appear, find your mind has wondered, when you become aware, bring it back to the breath. Also, with thoughts, it is important to just observe them, see it as something passing through like on a TV screen instead of something you engage. You may also find it useful, at least in the beginning to try a guided meditation or create your own guided meditation if that helps.
Remember that to cultivate mindfulness through meditation, it does not have to be a long practice. You can try it for a couple of minutes, gradually increase it to maybe five minutes, then ten and so forth. When I first started mindfulness practice in 2014, I remember thinking there is no way I could turn off my mind, but what I have come to realize is that you don’t have to turn off your mind, you can focus it on your awareness. It is important to understand that even if the best you can do is just sit still for a few minutes, that is a good start. Remember, it is training and practice, therefore it is more like weight lifting, you must slowly build your strength and the muscles.
Here are a few suggestions to bring mindfulness to your activities.
- Commute to work – you may find that there are times when you drove to work and you can’t remember the drive or the songs you listened to or the radio station you tuned into because you were on “autopilot.” It’s an activity that you are so used to, that your brain feels free to wonder while paying minimal attention to the traffic to keep you safe. But your commute to work is a great time to turn off the music or the radio and take a moment to stay in the present moment. Even before you start your drive, take a minute, put your hands on the wheel, take a deep breath, let it go before you start the car. Actively pay attention to your commute, engage in the process, and stop your brain from going into autopilot mode.
- Brushing your teeth – if you are using an electric toothbrush with a two-minute timer, spend the two minutes in the present moment, feeling the sensations and turning down your thoughts.
- In the shower – next time you are in the shower, instead of thinking about your to-do list, take a moment, feel the water, focus on your breath for a few minutes. You can imagine the water washing away your stress.
- First thing in the morning – stay in bed for a couple of minutes, bring your awareness to your body. Set an intention for the day.
- Right before sleep – take a moment to focus on your breath or do a gratitude meditation as you are falling asleep. A gratitude meditation, as the name suggests, is focusing on people and things for whom you are grateful, coming up with least three to five things from that day and listing them with gratitude. Part of this would cultivate a practice in which you are looking for these moments, which can train your mind to look for the positive aspects of your day. If you are new to meditating, you can easily find many different Apps that provide guidance. For instance, I use “Insight Timer” which has many free guided meditations, on many different topics, from many different instructors lasting for different lengths of time (such as for 5, 10, 20, 30, or 60 minutes). Also, YouTube has many different meditations and meditation music.
- During the day -think about setting an alert on your phone to remind yourself to take two minutes to just relax and focus on letting go or deep breaths.
- Short walk – if you find it hard to sit still, do a short walk, or try a walking meditation.
- In between meetings – instead of surfing on the internet or checking social media, take a few minutes and do a mindfulness exercise.
These are some of the few quick-tips to give you an idea of the type of activities that would allow you to incorporate mindfulness into your daily activities. As you are incorporating these practices, remember to add some activities that cultivate joy and bring mental downtime, meaning turning off that analytical brain to allow your brain to recharge. As this topic of mental downtime maybe another article for another day, it is important to note that downtime has demonstrated to improve your attention span and your overall wellbeing. 15 When incorporating these activities with mindfulness, you can reap better benefits and cultivate a healthier lifestyle, focusing both on your mental and physical wellbeing. Here are some such activities:
- Yoga – doing yoga can be a mindfulness exercise.
- Playing a musical instrument – learning to play a musical instrument or practicing a musical instrument is also a mindfulness exercise that allows mental downtime. While you may not have much free time in your day, even setting aside 30 minutes once or twice a week to do something like playing the guitar can be just turning off the analytical mind and focusing on the moment.
- Arts and crafts – working on a craft project or painting is a good way to turn down the analytical mind and stay in the present moment.
- Cooking or baking – being fully present during these activities is a creative way to stay in the present moment.
- Other activities – cycling, walking, running, hiking or other activities can also be turned into mindfulness activities by being present in the moment, truly enjoying the surrounding.
As you take these steps toward a more conscious life, remember to practice non-judgment and compassion toward yourself. Your mental wellbeing is just like your physical wellbeing requires practice, so don’t be too hard on yourself when you have trouble staying in the present moment. Just keep practicing and trying new ways to stay in the moment.
Gayani R. Weerasinghe, Esq., M.A. is a transactional attorney practicing intellectual property and business/corporate law, including working with entrepreneurs and start-ups on their patents, trademarks, copyrights, protection of trade secrets, and compliance training of employees. Before coming to law, she spent 13 years doing biomedical research, including co-authoring a dozen publications of original research in peer-reviewed scientific journals. She is also a mindfulness and personal development coach, assisting businesses and other professionals in navigating their goals and objectives and setting new ones. For more information, please visit, www.feel-mindfulabundance.com or her LinkedIn profile.
1. Cleveland Clinic, Functional for Life Mindfulness, Center for Functional Medicine, https://my. clevelandclinic.org/-/scassets/files/org/functional-medicine/functioning-for-life-mindfulness.ashx?la=en (last visited Apr. 28, 2019).
2. Alvin Powell, When Science Meets Mindfulness, The Harvard Gazette (Apr. 9, 2018), https://news. harvard.edu/gazette/story/2018/04/harvard-researchers-study-how-mindfulness-may-change-the-brain-in-depressed-patients/.
3. Cleveland Clinic, supra note 1.
4. Powell, supra note 2.
5. NCCIH, Mindfulness Meditation is Associated with Structural Changes in the Brain (Jan. 30, 2011), https://nccih.nih.gov/research/results/spotlight/012311.htm.
6. Britta K. Holzel, Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density, Psychiatry Res. (Jan. 30, 2012), https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3004979/pdf/nihms-232587.pdf.
13. Richard Knox, Harvard Study: Clearing Tour Mind Affects Tour Genes and Can Lower Tour Blood Pressure, WBUR (Apr. 6, 2018), https://www.wbur.org/ commonhealth/2018/04/06/harvard-study-relax-genes.
14. Travis Bradberry, Multitasking Damages Tour Brain and Career, New Studies Suggest, Forbes (Oct. 8, 2014), https://www.forbes.com/sites/travisbradberry/2014/10/08/multitasking-damages-your-brain-and-career-new-studies-suggest/#1ca2734556ee.
15. Ferris Jabr, Why Tour Brain Needs More Downtime, Scientific American (Oct. 15, 2013), https://www. scientificamerican.com/article/mental-downtime/.