MIND OVER MATTER: DISCOVERING A BETTER SELF
Words By David Leith | Sports Science Institute of South Africa.
Present life is full of stressors that tax us emotionally, spiritually and indeed physically. Research shows the deleterious effects of stress on one’s mental, physical and physiological health1. This is underpinned by an increasingly pro-inflammatory, sympathetic state coupled with harmful health behaviours that associate closely with heightened stress e.g. smoking, substance abuse, poor sleep, unhealthy eating and physical inactivity. Stress is therefore associated with increased risk of morbidity and mortality from associated chronic diseases and/or mental conditions including cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and depression1. ‘Mindfulness’ training is becoming an increasingly popular means of coping with life stress, leading a healthier lifestyle, improving one’s work and sporting capacity and reducing the risk of disease2.
Mindfulness may be described as having a non-judgemental attention to the present moment i.e. viewing one’s experiences through an objective, non-emotional lens of acceptance2. This is commonly trained using techniques such as meditation, body scanning, walking meditation, mindful breathing and mindful yoga, with a common goal of enhancing and/or transforming one’s capacity for self-regulation2. In other words, Mindfulness training aims to improve your awareness and change your perceptions of oneself and those around you, refrain from judgement and reactive responses, openly acknowledge and accept one’s experiences and be content in the present moment.
Olivia Bloomer | SSISA
Such interventions have been found to confer mental, emotional and physiological benefits by down-regulating the brain’s reactivity pathways, reducing one’s sympathetic nervous system (‘fight or flight’) response to experiences, fostering positive emotions, reducing stress-related negative health behaviours and improving one’s resilience2. These results would particularly benefit the most highly-stressed individuals or those with conditions that are most stress-sensitive. Mindfulness training has also been applied and recommended to people simply aspiring to be more productive in the workplace or athletes seeking an extra boost to their sporting performance3.
‘Mindfulness-based stress reduction’ interventions have been researched for their efficacy in general population settings as well as individuals with specific illnesses or conditions. Their premise is to teach individuals how to mindfully attend to and deal with their body sensations and emotions in non-reactive, non-judgemental ways, accept what they are experiencing and commit to more positive thoughts and behaviours that alleviate pain and negativity2. These programmes have reported success in improving stress related disease-specific outcomes, particularly pain management in chronic illnesses such as fibromyalgia, arthritis and low back pain as well as depression and anxiety2. Various neural, inflammatory and hormonal pathways have been implicated, however, more research is required to uncover the exact mechanisms involved. The potential benefit of Mindfulness training for cardiovascular and metabolic (e.g. diabetes) conditions also requires further exploration.
Mindfulness training has been increasingly integrated into sports-peoples’ training routines in recent decades3. The ‘Mindful sport performance enhancement’ (MSPE) approach, for example, incorporates aspects of sitting meditation, mindful breathing, mindful yoga and body scanning.. MSPE again aims to promote an objective, non-reactive recognition of one’s physical and emotional state so as to enable the athlete to devote complete attention to the task at hand3. This has been found to enhance mindfulness, ‘flow’ and performance in well-trained cyclists and reduce competition anxiety4. ‘Flow’ refers to a feeling of enhanced physical and psychological functioning devoid of negative thought or distraction4.
In the context of cycling, this enables the rider to be completely absorbed in the present moment, dispel pessimistic thoughts or emotions and commit to delivering their optimum performance. Similar interventions have been empirically successful in a wide range of sporting disciplines, including long-distance running, rowing, archery and golf. Long-distance running and rowing, both endurance sports and characterised by repetition, fatigue, increasing pain and negative feelings, reported primarily enhanced concentration and relaxation as well as reduced effects of fatigue and negative thoughts4. This means their heightened mindfulness enabled them to let internal strife enter and exit their minds without unnecessary distraction, but rather focus on factors actually relevant to their performance at that moment such as their breathing, posture and gait or stroke. Archers and golfers found they were better able to concentrate and relax, ignore external sources of distraction (e.g. noise) and they were instilled with greater feelings of confidence and optimism about their shot or stroke to come. Although difficult to quantify the effect of Mindfulness interventions in these settings and prove a causal relationship, these empirical findings give some credence to the utility of Mindfulness-based interventions in enhancing sporting performance by creating athletes that are ‘cool, calm and collected’.
Therefore, it appears that Mindfulness training may be relevant for us all. Given the panicky, multi-tasking, highly-competitive nature of modern living, coupled with the uncertainty and volatile times in which we find ourselves, many of us are stressed, reactive, harbouring negative thoughts or emotions and adopting sub-optimal health-related behaviours that may impair our daily ‘performance’ and place us at a greater risk of disease in years to come. Let us flip the switch, become more mindful of our own mental, psychological and physical states and behaviours, and re-direct ourselves towards a more positive, accepting and healthier path.
- Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G and Siegel,S. 2005. Stress and Health: Psychological, behavioural, and biological determinants. Annu. Rev.Clin. Psychol. 1: 607-628.
- Creswell, J.D., Lindsay, E.K., Villalba, D.K., Chin, B. 2019. Mindfulness training and physical health: mechanisms and outcomes. Psychom Med. 81 (3): 224-232.
- Zhang, C and Baltzell, A. 2019. Towards a contextual approach to athletic performance enhancement: Reflections, perspectives and applications. Journal of sport psychology in action. 10:4 (195-198).
- Scott-Hamilton, J., Schutte, N., and Brown, R. 2016. Effects of a mindfulness intervention on sports anxiety, pessimism and flow in competitive cyclists. Applied psychology: health and well-being. 8(1):85-103.
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