If mindfulness training works to achieve peak performance in Navy SEALs and top athletes perhaps it’s not such a New Age idea. In fact what distinguishes people who are resilient in the face of physical challenges may be a natural capacity for the kind of self-awareness that mindfulness teaches.
A New York Times article called my attention to fascinating research being done at the University of California, San Diego.
Psychologist Lori Haase has conducted a series of studies looking at how the capacity to deal with stressful situations (resilience) and the ability of athletes to achieve peak performance in competition is linked to the ability to be aware of the body in a non-fearful and attentive way (mindful attention).
Researchers at UCSD have been looking at how adventure racers and elite special forces troops are able to cope with the extraordinary demands that they face, both emotionally and physically. They found that when faced with an extremely distressing physical challenge – wearing a face mask that made it difficult to breathe – these very resilient people showed a pattern of brain activity that indicated they were focusing awareness on their lungs and other body systems that were being challenged, but they did not show activation of the stress response systems in the brain.
In other words these people were paying close attention to the physical sensations that were distressing but they were not activating the fight or flight parts of the brain. They were paying close attention to sensations that were identical to the sensations that people were experiencing a panic attack notice, but they weren’t becoming fearful.
In this state, they are very connected to the actual events taking place in their bodies, able to react very quickly to any change, which is why they are able to perform so well athletically. In fact, they are much more connected to the actual events taking place than people who are having a fear response.
Think of it this way, in this state of “mindful internal awareness” there is a lot of sensory information flowing to their brains, and they are very aware, both consciously and unconsciously, of what is going on inside themselves.
In a state of “fearful internal awareness” the brain is actually attending to much less of the sensory information. The parts of the brain that are involved in fear responses are activated and many fear thoughts are being generated that demand attention. In terms of sensory awareness, that is restricted to “scanning” the sensory input for evidence of potentially frightening signals. The brain does not get the “full picture” of what is going on physically.
Fearful awareness is like the young child glancing out of the corner of his eye at a pile of dirty clothes in the corner of his darkened bedroom which he thinks might be a monster. If the child turned on the light and really looked at the pile of clothes he would see the true situation, but in his fright he does not do so.
In their most recent study, the UCSD researchers expanded their study to look at “normal volunteers” – not just elite athletes and warriors – and they gave these subjects a questionnaire designed to distinguish high resiliency individuals (those who responded easily to stressful situations) and low resiliency individuals. And, again, in this sample they found the same pattern – high resiliency individuals, when trying to breath through the mask, had the same pattern of brain activation as elite athletes, and low resiliency individuals had a pattern that was more similar to what happens in panic attacks.
Very interesting, you may be saying, but how does that help me if I am not naturally someone who easily handles stress?
The researchers have also begun to show that training people using mindfulness meditation techniques increases everyone’s capacity for responding to high stress situations with “mindful internal awareness” instead of “fearful awareness.”
In other words, you may be able to change your brain’s response to challenging situations to more nearly match the responses of high performance athletes.
Haase L, May AC, Falahpour M, Isakovic S, Simmons AN, Hickman SD, Liu TT, Paulus MP. A pilot study investigating changes in neural processing after mindfulness training in elite athletes. Front Behav Neurosci. 2015 Aug 27;9:229. doi: 10.3389/fnbeh.2015.00229. eCollection 2015. PubMed PMID: 26379521; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4550788.
Haase L, Stewart JL, Youssef B, May AC, Isakovic S, Simmons AN, Johnson DC, Potterat EG, Paulus MP. When the brain does not adequately feel the body: Links between low resilience and interoception. Biol Psychol. 2016 Jan;113:37-45. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsycho.2015.11.004. Epub 2015 Nov 28. PubMed PMID: 26607442.
Johnson DC, Thom NJ, Stanley EA, Haase L, Simmons AN, Shih PA, Thompson WK, Potterat EG, Minor TR, Paulus MP. Modifying resilience mechanisms in at-risk individuals: a controlled study of mindfulness training in Marines preparing for deployment. Am J Psychiatry. 2014 Aug;171(8):844-53. doi: 10.1176/appi.ajp.2014.13040502. PubMed PMID: 24832476; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4458258.
Haase L, Thom NJ, Shukla A, Davenport PW, Simmons AN, Stanley EA, Paulus MP, Johnson DC. Mindfulness-based training attenuates insula response to an aversive interoceptive challenge. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2016 Jan;11(1):182-90. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsu042. Epub 2014 Apr 8. PubMed PMID: 24714209; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC4692309.