College is an invigorating world for most students, a time without parental restraints and a period in life when new experiences occur on a regular basis. But this backdrop can also be a barrier to classroom concentration and attention.
New research, published in the journal Mindfulness, suggests practicing meditation before class can help students focus and lead to better grades.
In the study, George Mason University professor Dr. Robert Youmans and University of Illinois doctoral student Jared Ramsburg conducted three classroom experiments at a California university to see if meditation might help students focus better and retain information.
Researchers randomly selected students for basic meditation instructions before a lecture and discovered that the students who meditated before the lecture scored better on a subsequent quiz than students who did not meditate.
In one experiment, the meditation even predicted which students passed and which students failed the quiz.
Interestingly, the researchers also showed that the effect of the meditation was stronger in classes where more freshman students were enrolled, showing that meditation might have a bigger effect on freshman students.
“One difficulty for researchers who study meditation is that the supposed benefits of meditation do not always replicate across different studies or populations, and so we have been trying to figure out why.
“This data from this study suggest that meditation may help students who might have trouble paying attention or focusing. Sadly, freshmen classes probably contain more of these types of students than senior courses because student populations who have difficulty self-regulating are also more likely to leave the university,” said Youmans, an assistant professor of psychology.
Youmans believes that self-reflection might therefore have an important place in freshmen seminars or institutions with high attrition rates.
A significant finding from the exercise was a marked improvement in student scores after only six minutes of written meditation exercises — and the researchers believe with more extensive training and coaching that the results could improve.
“Personally, I have found meditation to be helpful for mental clarity, focus and self-discipline,” said Ramsburg, lead author of the study and a practicing Buddhist.
“I think that if mindfulness can improve mental clarity, focus and self-discipline, then it might be useful in a variety of settings and for a variety of goals.”
Youmans also suggests that, in theory, other forms of active self-reflection such as prayer, taking long walks or even just taking the time to mindfully plan out your day in the morning could have some of the same positive effects as meditation.
“Basically, becoming just a little bit more mindful about yourself and your place in the world might have a very important, practical benefit — in this case, doing better in college.”
Breathing is the FIRST place not the LAST place one should investigate when any disordered energy presents itself.”
- Sheldon Saul Hendler, MD Ph.D., The Oxygen Breakthrough
Arguably the most important aspect of mental and physical health and well-being is the respiratory process. This has been known throughout the history of mankind. Consider that during the course of your life you are “inspired” by ideas, “aspire” toward your goals and dreams, and finally “expire” at the end of your life. Many of the ancients developed lifestyles and physical exercises such as yoga and qui-gong that are based around the patterns of breathing and respiratory cycles. So why is breathing so important?
It has been suggested that the average individual can survive:
40 days without food
4 days without water
4 minutes without oxygen
It is true that oxygen is absolutely essential for all human function. In fact, the primary homeostatic mechanism in the human body is designed around necessitating appropriate cellular oxygenation. The respiratory and cardiovascular systems provide and properly distribute oxygen to the cellular mitochondria where it serves as the terminal electron acceptor in the oxidative phosphoralization process and the formation of cellular ATP. All human performance, energy, and function is based on appropriate tissue oxygenation.
Endurance, the ability to sustain vigorous effort, is substantiated by the ability of the heart and lungs to supply oxygen to the working muscles (1). Although many factors have an impact, endurance and human working capacity end when the cardiovascular and pulmonary systems can no longer keep up with the demands for oxygen. In addition, the structural and functional integrity of brain and viscera are profoundly dependent on regular oxygen supply. Any disturbance of this supply can be life threatening.
The world famous Dr. Arthur Guyton theorized that all chronic pain, suffering and diseases are caused from a lack of oxygen at the cellular level (2). Lack of cellular oxygen is termed hypoxia. Hypoxia has been implicated in central nervous system pathology in a number of disorders including cancer, heart disease, stroke, and various other neurodegenerative diseases (3). Among other diseases, regions of low oxygen tension are commonly found in malignant tumors and are associated with increased frequency of tumor invasion and metastasis (3)
Consider this: The average human being breaths between 12 – 18 breaths a minute. That equates to 18,000 to 26,000 breaths every 24 hours. It has been suggested that at rest we should consume 6 breaths in a minute to supply our needs. The extra activity involved in our short, shallow breathing habits is robbing us of precious energy, producing toxic waste products and promoting disease in our bodies.
Dr. Schunemann actually found in a long-term study that lung function predicts mortality rates. He explains, “The lung is a primary defense organism against environmental toxins. It could be that impaired pulmonary function could lead to decreased tolerance against these toxins. Researchers also have speculated that decreased pulmonary function could underlie an increase in oxidative stress from free radicals, and we know that oxidative stress plays a role in the development of many diseases.(4)”
Dr. Wendell Hendricks, (Two-time Nobel Laureate, Winner of the Nobel Prize for Cancer Research, Hendricks Research Foundation) said the following. ”Cancer is a condition within the body where the oxidation has become so depleted that the body cells have degenerated beyond physiological control. Similarly, the true cause of allergy is lowered the oxidation process within the body, causing the affected individual to be sensitive to foreign substances entering the body. Only when the oxidation mechanism is restored to its original high state of efficiency can the sensitivity be eliminated.”
Effective and efficient oxygenation of the cells, tissues, and organs of our body is an absolute energy necessity. Our respiration cycles are governed by the autonomic nervous system. When your body is under stress you tend to take short, shallow breaths. Because these breaths only penetrate into the upper portion of the chest and lungs they are called “chest breaths.” This reduces your bodies’ ability to effectively oxygenate. This is appropriate in order to increase respiratory rate when you are under truly stressful situations, like being chased by a lion or sprinting on a track. However, when it continues for an extended period of time it sets up the pathological processes described earlier.
Several studies have shown that heart disease, depression, anxiety, and chronic pain patients have an intimate relationship with persistent shallow, chest breathing behaviors. Several researchers have suggested maintenance of posture and breathing habits to be the most important factor in health and energy promotion.
Diaphragmatic or abdominal breathing is the proper way to respirate. Taking deep, diaphragmatic breaths is necessary to get the oxygen rich air deep into the base of the lungs where three times as many blood vessels are available for respiratory exchange compared to the upper lung region. Amazingly, when we are taking deep breaths, our diaphragm which is attached to the heart, is able to pull the heart down and massage it with each breath. This process optimizes the body’s natural ability to pump fluid and nutrients into the heart vasculature and suck out the wastes. In the absence of diaphragmatic breathing, the body is unable to adequately deliver nutrients and eliminate wastes from the heart
Dr. Guy Hendricks says “Healthy breathing should be the first thing taught to a heart patient. A Dutch Study conducted by a Dr. Dixhoorn, compared two groups of heart attack patients. The first group was taught simple diaphragmatic breathing, while the second group was given no training in breathing. The breathing group had no further heart attacks, while 7 of the 12 members of the second group had second heart attacks over the next 2 years.”
The diaphragm is also attached to the lumbar spine and produces a natural rhythm of movement that stretches the back and pumps fluid and essential nutrients into the avascular soft tissue structures like the intervertebral disc and ligaments preventing and possibly correcting spinal degeneration and chronic pain syndromes. The effects continue in that proper diaphragmatic movement pumps cerebrospinal fluid (the fluid around the spinal cord), which results in an increase in brain metabolism and the resulting feelings of physical and mental well-being and enhanced mental alertness.
It is essential to focus on your breathing throughout the day. Take pauses in your activities to correct your posture and take long, deep breaths from the belly. The body responds to this stimulus by relaxing, understanding that it is not in a life-threatening situation (obviously if you are breathing long, slow, deep breaths you are not being chased by a lion). The parasympathetic nervous system is activated, calming stress hormones, decreasing heart rate and blood pressure. As you consume more oxygen and release metabolic waste products like carbon dioxide you will improve your mood and energy levels.
Steps to Tranform Your Breathing Habits:
*If you notice your chest moving a lot as you breathe – than you guessed it – you’re a chest breather. The good news is that you can change that today and experience a new life of energy and “inspiration.”
To Optimize Breathing Habits For Life
I am open to receive with every breath I breathe.”
- Michael Sun
1. Engel R, Vemulpad S. The Effect of Combining Manual Therapy with Exercise on the Respiratory Function of Normal Indivuals: A Randomized Control Trial. JMPT Sept 2007;30, 7;509-513.
2. Guyton, Arthur C. The Textbook of Medical Physiology, (5th Edition.) Pennsylvania: WB Saunders Co., 1976
3. Acker T, Acker H. Review: Cellular oxygen sensing need in CNS function: physiological and pathological implications. The Journal of ExperimentalBiology, 2004; 207;3171-3188
4. Schunemann HJ, Dorn J, Grant BJB, Winkelstein W, Jr., Trevisan M. Pulmonary Function Is a Long-term Predictor of Mortality in the General Population 29-Year Follow-up of the Buffalo Health Study. Chest2000;118(3)656-664.
5. Bradley. “Hyperventilation Syndrome.” Celestial Arts (1991).
6. Hymes and Nuernberger. Breathing Patterns Found in Heart Attack Patients. Research Bulletin of the Himalayan International International Institute. 1980 2:2; 10-12.
7. Nixon P, Human Functions of the Heart. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1987: 37
8. Luna-Massey P, Peper E. Clinical Observations on Breath Patterns and Pain Relief in Chronic Pain Patients. The Association for Applied Psychophsiology and Biofeedback. 1986; 82-84.
9. Gay Hendricks, Ph.D. Conscious Breathing, Pg. 16.
Dr. David Jockers owns and operates Exodus Health Center in Kennesaw, GA. He is a Maximized Living doctor. His expertise is in weight loss, customized nutrition & exercise, & structural corrective chiropractic care. For more information go to www.drjockers.com Dr. Jockers is also available for long distance phone consultations to help you beat disease and reach your health goals.
Corey Schink found forgiveness in the form of his late stepfather who appeared to him in a dream.
“My stepdad Jim was a big bear of a man,” the Smithland, Iowa, native recalled. “We got into a fight right before he died.”
Schink carried that guilt for months, along with feelings of aimlessness in life.
One night, his stepfather appeared in a dream, telling Schink that he would be all right and that all was forgiven.
“It was as if a wave of emotions flooded over me,” Schink said. “I don’t think I would’ve gotten to that point without Eiriu Eolas.”
An Irish Gaelic term that means “growth of knowledge,” Eiriu Eolas (pronounced Aye-Roo Oh-lahs) is a breathing and meditation program which combines modern neuroscience with ancient wisdom.
The attributes of Eiriu Eolas is that it detoxifies one mind and body while liberating one’s heart.
Discovering the yoga-influenced meditation on the Internet, Schink credits Eiriu Eolas with turning his life around.
“I wasn’t a very happy person before Eiriu Eolas,” he admitted. “But within six months, I was able to turn my life around.”
Currently, a Briar Cliff University social work major, Schink is also a Eiriu Eolas-certified trainer. He will be teaching the program as part of four-week Western Iowa Tech Community College’s Institute for Lifelong Learning, starting in April.
Explaining Eiriu Eolas, he said it’s a way for a person to relax from the stresses of everyday life while working through past emotional and psychological trauma.
Through a series of progressive breathing exercises, it will eventually allow a person to release repressed emotions and mental blockages while rejuvenating and detoxifying one’s mind and body.
“Eiriu Eolas moves the barriers that stand between you and true peace, happiness,” Schink said. “Ultimately, it help you to achieve a successful, fulfilling life.”
Since learning the meditation, Schink said he’s able to enjoy life to its fullest.
“You know how carefree you felt as a kid?” he asked. “That’s how I feel all the time.”
This is why Schink said he enjoys teaching Eiriu Eolas to newcomers of all ages.
“No matter your age and fitness level, you can benefit from Eiriu Eolas,” he contends. “You’re learning how to breath again, beginning with a technique called pipe breathing before graduating to bioenergetic breathing, which allows a person to dig deep into his emotions.”
Which is important to Schink, since he’s interested in becoming a social worker, counseling at-risk kids.
“Through Eiriu Eolas, I’ve been able to strengthen my inner voice while silencing my inner critic,” he said. “It’s taught me to stay connected with my emotions and liberating me from the burdens that were keeping me down.”
Schink can’t help but smile.
“I am now living the life that I want to live,” he said.
What: Eiriu Eolas: The Growth of Knowledge meditation, taught by certified trainer Corey Schink
When: 6:30 p.m. Apr. 16, 23, 30 and May 7
Where: Room L416, Advance Sciences Building, Western Iowa Tech Community College, Sioux City
Contact: Institute for Lifelong Learning, (712) 274-8733
Healthy vagal tone is indicated by a slight increase of heart rate when you inhale, and a decrease of heart rate when you exhale. Deep diaphragmatic breathing – with a long, slow exhale – is key to stimulating the vagus nerve and slowing heart rate and blood pressure, especially in times of performance anxiety. A higher vagal tone index is linked to physical and psychological well-being. A low vagal tone index is linked to inflammation, negative moods, loneliness, and heart attacks.
Heart disease is the number one killer in America. One way to improve your heart health is to focus on the vagus-friendy lifestyle habits I explore below. Well conditioned athletes have higher vagal tone because aerobic breathing creates healthy vagal tone, which results in a lower resting heart rate. Healthy cardiac function is directly linked to stimulating the vagus nerve.
In 1921, a German physiologist named Otto Loewi discovered that stimulating the vagus nerve caused a reduction in heart rate by triggering the release of a substance he coined Vagusstoff (German: “Vagus Substance”). The “vagus substance” was later identified as acetylcholine and became the first neurotransmitter identified by scientists.
Vagusstuff is literally a tranquilizer that you can self-administer simply by taking a few deep breaths with long exhales. You can consciously tap the power of your vagus nerve to create inner-calm on demand. This knowledge alone should be enough to reduce the fear-of-fear-itself and give you grace under pressure next time you need it.
What exactly is the vagus nerve?
The word vagus means “wandering” in Latin. The words vagabond, vague, and vagrant come from the same root. The vagus nerve is known as the wandering nerve because it has multiple branches that diverge from two thick stems rooted in the cerebellum and brainstem that wander to the lowest viscera of your abdomen touching your heart and most major organs along the way.
The vagus nerve is constantly sending sensory information about the state of the body’s organs “upstream” to your brain. In fact, 80-90% of the nerve fibers in the vagus nerve are dedicated to communicating the state of your viscera up to your brain. When people say “trust your gut” they are in many ways saying, “trust your vagus nerve.” Visceral feelings and gut-instincts are literally emotional intuitions transferred up to your brain via the vagus nerve.
As with any mind-body feedback loop, messages also travel “downstream” from your conscious mind through the vagus nerve signaling your organs to create an inner-calm so you can “rest-and-digest” during times of safety or to prepare your body for “fight-or-flight” in dangerous situations.
Your vagus nerve is the commander-in-chief when it comes to having grace under pressure. The autonomic nervous system is comprised of two polar opposite systems that create a complementary tug-of-war which allows your body to maintain homeostasis (inner-stability).
The sympathetic nervous system is geared to rev you up like the gas pedal in an automobile – it thrives on adrenaline and cortisol and is part of the fight-or-flight response. The parasympathetic nervous system is the polar opposite. The vagus nerve is command central for the function of your parasympathetic nervous system. It is geared to slow you down like the brakes on your car and uses neurotransmitters like acetylcholine and GABA to literally lower heart rate, blood pressure, and help your heart and organs slow down.
Unfortunately, the vagus nerve’s reflexive responses can backfire and turn it from comrade into saboteur. Anytime you psyche yourself out before an important event, feel intimidated, or insecure your vagus nerve interprets that you are in real danger which exacerbates these negative responses.
All of the physical symptoms of performance anxiety – racing heart, sweaty palms, dry mouth, upset stomach, shakiness – are the result of your vagus nerve disengaging. Luckily, you have the power to harness your vagus nerve and keep it engaged to create grace under pressure. By understanding the incredible power of your vagus nerve you can begin practicing ways to flex it’s inhibitory strength to keep you mellow in times of distress.
7 habits that will stimulate your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure
1. Visualize the Vagus Nerve. Visualizing the vagus nerve as a wellspring of neurobiological ingredients that create mental and physical calmness will create a self-fulfilling prophecy. This is not just the placebo effect in action. Remember, anytime you take a deep breath and exhale you are triggering a biological release of vagusstuff that will lower heart rate and blood pressure.
In addition to visualizing my vagus nerve I literally talk to it in the third person like it is a separate entity. You can try this too the next time you have the butterflies or are shaky before a big presentation or challenge. I will literally say to my vagus nerve things like, “I thought we were in this together. I need you to work with me here. Come on! Don’t let me down.” Somehow this helps take my ego out of the situation, puts me at ease, and makes me feel like I have a loyal comrade on deck. Try this trick the next time you need grace under pressure and see if it works for you.
I include this narrow anatomical drawing to help you visualize what the vagus nerve actually looks like in your body and to illustrate how long it is from top to bottom [see top left].
2. Practice, Practice, Practice. In a Psychology Today blog entry called No. 1 Reason Practice Makes Perfect, I wrote about the power of your cerebellum to store muscle memory and allow you to perform gracefully under pressure. Without extensive practice we are forced to rely too much on the ‘executive function’ of our prefrontal cortex. Anytime you ‘over-think’ your performance you are more likely to choke, fumble and drop the ball. Arthur Ashe called this “paralysis by analysis.” Once the cerebellum is running the show your vagus nerve engages which helps create fluidity in your thoughts and actions.
3. Create Flow by balancing skill and challenge. The key to being in the ‘zone’ or creating a state of ‘flow’ is to find the sweet spot where your skill level perfectly matches the challenge. Get in the habit of continually nudging against your limits. By increasing the challenge gradually you become more skilled and comfortable with more difficult tasks.
Seek challenges that keep you nestled between anxiety and boredom. The key to peak performance is to have a heightened state of arousal but an inner sense of calm reflected in a perfect dynamic tension within the yin-yang of your autonomic nervous system. Although it is tempting to bite-off-more-than you can chew, your vagus nerve can betray you if it feels you’re in uncharted territory. By consistently increasing your skills you will feel at ease as you take on bigger challenges. That said, if you ever do have the opportunity to leap frog to a high-stakes challenge, use other techniques here to harness the vagus nerve and use it as an ally to get you through.
4. Reframe Priorites and Values. I strongly believe that friends, family, good health, and generosity of spirit matter more than any achievements that requires grace under pressure. In 2006, Geoffrey Cohen, a professor at the Stanford University School of Education, conducted a series of experiments designed to reduce test-taking pressures. In the experiment he asked students to write a paragraph about a topic unrelated to the exam such as: “relationships with friends and family,” “religious values,” “athletic ability,” and “being good at art” before being tested. This brief writing assignment significantly improved the grades of students.
Before you face any challenge or test that fills you with performance anxiety get in the habit of reframing the importance of the event by putting it in a broader perspective of other things that you’re good at and what matters most to you. Even when the stakes are high, remember that every hurdle is an opportunity to learn. Mastery is a process. Overblown performance anxiety jacks up cortisol and andrenaline levels and makes you less likely to succeed.
5. Use neuroplasticity to re-wire habits of positive thinking. By generating positive emotions and a learned optimism you will ‘fire-and-wire’ together neural networks associated with a mindset that will give you grace under pressure. The vagus nerve picks up on signals coming from the ‘top-down’ and from the ‘bottom-up’ and uses these signals to re-wire your mind through neuroplasticity.
On January 28, 2013 researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland announced that they are hoping to help victims of stroke to overcome physical disabilities by helping their brains to ‘rewire’ themselves using a Vagal Nerve Stimulator (VNS). Lead researcher Dr Jesse Dawson, a stroke consultant and clinical senior lecturer in medicine, described the vagus nerve by saying, “That nerve is one of the major nerves that goes to the brain. By stimulating the nerves, you can cause upstream changes in the brain without having to go into the brain.”
It is hoped that the device will stimulate release of the brain’s own chemicals and help the brain form new neural connections which might improve participants’ arm mobility. In 2005, the FDA approved the use of VNS for treatment-resistant depression, although it’s use remains controversial… VNS is also used to treat epilepsy and tinnitus.
Dr Dawson added: “Evidence from animal studies suggests that vagus nerve stimulation could cause the release of neurotransmitters which help facilitate neural plasticity and help people re-learn how to use their arms after stroke, particularly if stimulation is paired with specific tasks.” The link between vagus nerve stimulation and neuroplasticity is strong. By focusing on creating healthy vagal tone you can trigger similar neuroplastic changes from the bottom-up. Creating a mindset of grace under pressure can be reinforced through the powerful mind-body connection of the vagus nerve.
6. Seek Daily Physicality. Cardio-respiratory activity, strength training and yoga stimulate vagal tone and harmonize hormones and neurotransmitters linked to grace under pressure. Aerobic activity stimulates healthy vagal tone due to the inherent diaphragmatic breathing of rhythmic cardio-respiratory exercise. Strength training with an emphasis on a robust exhale as you push the weight will stimulate vagal tone.
Yoga increases vagal tone, too. In a 2012 article published in Medical Hypotheses, researchers from Boston University School of Medicine (BUSM), New York Medical College (NYMC), and the Columbia College of Physicians and Surgeons (CCPS) presented evidence that yoga may be effective in treating patients with stress-related psychological and medical conditions such as depression, anxiety, high blood pressure and cardiac disease.
The researchers hypothesize that stress causes an imbalance in the autonomic nervous system (parasympathetic under-activity and sympathetic over-activity) as well as under-activity of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA. According to the researchers, low GABA activity occurs in anxiety disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, epilepsy, and chronic pain. The hypothesis advanced in this paper could explain why vagal nerve stimulation (VNS) works to decrease both seizure frequency and the symptoms of depression.
“Western and Eastern medicine complement one another. Yoga is known to improve stress-related nervous system imbalances,” said Chris Streeter, MD, associate professor of psychiatry at BUSM and Boston Medical Center, who is the study’s lead author. Streeter believes that “This paper provides a theory, based on neurophysiology and neuroanatomy, to understand how yoga helps patients feel better by relieving symptoms in many common disorders.”
6. Anxiety is contagious: Avoid anxious people. As a neurosurgeon, my father needed to have grace under pressure. He understood how delicate the sensors of his own vagus nerve were and would ask anyone in the operating room to leave if he or she was emitting an uptight vibe.
I’ve learned to do the same in life – especially before an important event. Because anxiety is catching, I will remove myself from the vicinity of anyone who is negative, cynical or doubtful of my ability to hit-it-out-of-the-park in a high stakes situation. The vagus nerve picks up on people’s vibe. Of course, none of us like to be around high strung people, but it is particularly important when you need to have grace under pressure.
If you are unable to remove yourself from anxious or nervous people (like in a waiting room for an audition or near the starting line of a race) I recommend using headphones with music that creates an appropriate mood and blocks the ability of others’ anxiety to affect your vagal tone. You can also close your eyes and do mindfulness or meditation maneuvers to distance your vagal nerve from picking up the nervous vibe of people in your vicinity. Obviously, people who emit easy-going, warm, upbeat emotions are much better for your health, longevity, and ability to perform with grace under pressure. Seek these people out!
7. Foster Loving & Kindness. In order to maintain healthy vagal tone it’s important to foster diverse and rewarding social connections. In a 2010 study published in Psychological Science, Barbara Frederickson and Bethany Kok of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill focused their attention on the vagus nerve.
Their article was titled: How Positive Emotions Build Physical Health: Perceived Positive Social Connections Account for the Upward Spiral Between Positive Emotions and Vagal Tone.They discovered that a high vagal tone index was part of a feedback loop between positive emotions, physical health and positive social connections.
Their research results suggests that positive emotions, positive social connections, and physical health influence one another in a self-sustaining upward spiral dynamic that scientists are just beginning to understand. Kok states that: “We propose here that people’s ability to translate their own positive emotions into positive social connections with others may hold one of the keys to solving this mystery.”
In the experiment Frederickson and Kok used a Loving-Kindness Meditation technique to help participants become better at self-generating positive emotions. However, they also found that simply reflecting on positive social connections and working to improve them also caused improvements in vagal tone.
Conclusion: The Vagus Nerve and Ferocious Equanimity
Equanimity is a core tenet of many ancient philosophies and religions. Equanimity is defined as “Mental calmness, composure and evenness of temper, especially in a difficult situation.” Equanimity has its biological roots in the vagus nerve and is synonymous with grace under pressure.
Equanimity is not synonymous with passivity. As you strive to push yourself ever higher – and take on bigger challenges – do so with what I call “Ferocious Equanimity”. Use your vagus nerve to stay balanced and calm when the stakes are high. As you push against your limits remember that your vagus nerve is always there to keep you imperturbable and steady on the high-wire act of living your life to it’s fullest and maximizing your potential.
Hopefully the advice herein will give you some tools to utilize the incredible power of your vagus nerve and give you grace under pressure the next time you need it.
All sorts of gizmos and gadgets can help you be more productive at work, and theories abound on how you should structure your days to get more done.
But a new study finds that becoming more focused, productive and less stressed at work may involve nothing more than learning to meditate.
David Levy, a computer scientist and professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, found that those who had meditation training were able to stay on task longer and were less distracted. Levy and his co-authors discovered that meditation also improved test subjects’ memory while easing their stress.
Levy, who has used meditation for many years in his own life, decided to do the experiment involving the workplace after reading Darlene Cohen’s book, The One Who Is Not Busy: Connecting to Work in a Deeply Satisfying Way.
“In the book she was talking about how she’s adapted some Zen training to the workplace,” he says. “For 20 years I’ve been looking about how to add balance to the workplace, and that gave me the idea for the experiment.”
Levy had one group of human resource managers undergo eight weeks of mindfulness-based meditation training. A second group got eight weeks of body-relaxation training. The third group received no initial training but then was given the same training as the first group after eight weeks.
Subjects were given a stressful test on their multitasking abilities before and after each eight-week period. They had to use email, calendars, instant-messaging, phones and word-processing tools to perform common office duties.
Researchers looked at their speed, accuracy and number of times they switched tasks. The participants also were asked to record their stress levels and memory performance while doing the jobs.
Researchers found that the meditation group not only had lower stress levels during the multitasking tests but also were able to concentrate longer without being distracted.
But for the other two groups — those who received relaxation breathing training and those who had no initial training — stress did not go down. However, when the third group received meditation training after eight weeks, their stress also decreased.
Further, those who meditated also spent more time on tasks, didn’t switch between different chores as often and took no longer to get their work done than the other participants, the study found.
“Meditation is a lot like doing reps at a gym. It strengthens your attention muscle,” Levy says.
Levy says that he knows what it feels like to be overwhelmed at work, calling himself “stunned” when he left a Palo Alto, Calif., think tank to take up academic duties.
“I kept thinking, ‘This is crazy,’ ” he says. “I do wonder why we make ourselves work this way. There’s no time to even think. We’ve gotten to a place where we’re just speeding up and we don’t do things well. We’ve got to slow down.”
While Levy says further study is needed to determine whether the meditation benefit can continue over the long term, in his own life he says meditation has helped calm his stress. He thinks it can be worth a try for workers who feel overwhelmed, distracted and stressed.
Many employers are beginning to agree. For example, Google offers “Search Inside Yourself” classes that teach mindfulness at work. Employees reportedly have given the program rave reviews and say it increases their focus and decreases stress.
“There’s an awful lot going on in this area,” Levy says. “You see it in health care, in the schools and in the workplace. It’s really turning into a serious direction and finding a place in American lives.”
For those who have not had training in meditation or mindfulness, Levy says the first step can be a simple one.
“The simplest form of mindfulness meditation I know is to just to sit and pay attention to your breathing,” he says. “To feel the actual sensations of your breathing and when you mind inevitably goes away to something else; just bring your mind back. Bring it back to the sensation of the breath again and again.”
“It really can make a difference in your life,” he says.
Anita Bruzzese is author of “45 Things You Do That Drive Your Boss Crazy . . . and How to Avoid Them,” www.45things.com. Write to her in care of Gannett ContentOne, 7950 Jones Branch Drive, McLean, Va. 22107. For a reply, include a self-addressed, stamped envelope.