Financial uncertainty and the fast pace of change in modern life have created an unprecedented rise in stress. My work at banks and hedge funds, where I run leadership performance programmes, has made clear the true consequences and impact of stress on workplace productivity. We are often told that we should work towards creating happiness, engagement and fulfilment in the workplace, for ourselves and others.
Yet for many that feels like a pipe dream, as they struggle with life’s daily stresses and pressures. What has become evident is that the practice of mindfulness and meditation have long and lasting effects on our resilience to stress. If we had said this to a corporate audience five years ago, we would not have been taken seriously. Thankfully, times have changed.
Stress is essentially a brain and body chemistry problem that can affect many aspects of your day. Do you recognise any of the below?
- Thoughts and decision-making: do you find it difficult to concentrate and be creative without getting distracted? Are you worrying about your position to the point that your self-esteem is lower than you remember it being in your adult life?
- Emotions: do you feel irritable and angry more often, but don’t know how to express or release these feelings?
- Behaviour: If we asked your children, would they say you are short-tempered and grumpy a lot of the time? Do colleagues complain that you are locked away at your desk and never available?
- Physicality: do you clench your jaw; grind your teeth; bite your nails; take tablets to deal with symptoms of acid reflux, headaches or back pain; take more than an hour to fall asleep or lie awake way before your alarm goes off in the morning?
Have you been ignoring these signs or perhaps dealt with them superficially, without getting to the root cause? What can you do to avoid the build-up of stress?
Stress is inevitable in highly competitive and developed global economies, so it’s important to develop your own and others’ resilience through healthier behaviours for your brain and body.
A growing body of evidence
Today, you will now be hard pushed to find a leadership or development course that does not at least touch upon mindfulness. Even the US Marines now incorporate it into their daily routine. They found that Marines who meditate for 12 minutes a day were more resilient on the battlefield then those that did less or none.
Thanks to neuroscience, and the advances in neurological imaging, what has been common knowledge for centuries (if not millennia) in some parts of the world, is now an accepted scientific fact. We can now image brains before, during and after meditations. This imaging shows that practicing meditation and mindfulness increases the folds of the brain in the cortex (gyri). Why should that matter? The cortex sits around the limibic system, the older, more emotional part of the brain. If we are stressed, tired and under pressure, we are more likely to revert to using this more reactive part of the brain to make decisions. However, the cortex, a more recent part of the human brain to develop, is there for executive function, to be able to mitigate and filter the impulses of the limbic brain. If we increase the folds in the cortex, we increase our capacity to press the pause button and can make more rational decisions and decrease our reaction or feelings of stress.
Furthermore, there is some evidence that meditation can help create a gamma wave state of relaxed alertness in the brain. Gamma waves help us to focus, make better and faster connections in our brain, and improve our memory recall. It’s when what we are doing seems effortless and fun. People often seek this level of engagement simply because it does feel effortless; it’s that feeling of your work giving you energy rather than draining it from you.
If 12 minutes of mindfulness a day can do all this for you, why not give it a go? Here are some ideas to get you started on your path to mindfulness and meditation:
- Mindfulness meditation: focusing on the present or a single focus (commonly your breath) which brings about an incredible and pervasive sense of well-being with regular practice
- Compassionate meditation: opening up the heart and mind towards goodwill, appreciation and equanimity to others (and yourself)
- Transcendental meditation: using a sound or mantra which you repeat daily as a method for relaxation, stress reduction and self-development
- Yoga nidra (psychic sleep) visualisations: readily available on YouTube or go to a yoga class
Dr Tara Swart, is a renowned neuroscientist, medical doctor and CEO of The Unlimited Mind. She will be speaking in South Africa in May 2017. For more info or to engage Dr Swart for keynotes, training or coaching visit http://www.brg.co.za/leadership/ or email: firstname.lastname@example.org