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Mindfulness practices for high-performance

The most frustrating part of striving for excellence in high-pressure situations is that, take away the stress, we are totally capable of the task! Let’s use a sporting example: If we take a basketball practice with shots of varying difficulty, the typical professional player will make the majority of them. Compare that to game time when the player is facing a similar situation, but now there’s uncertainty around the opponent’s actions and, subsequently, around our own ability. We’re dealing with emotions that don’t arise during practice. We anticipate plays and strategies, but we’re often unprepared for the stressful environment that comes with them. There’s no way to recreate what it feels like when everything is on the line, so performance preparation can be tricky.

Nevertheless, by maintaining a regular mindfulness practice we develop greater proficiency in dealing with stressors, both big and small. The benefits of mindfulness are plentiful. Research has found it to “lead to more cognitive flexibility, better emotional regulation, creativity and innovativeness, higher levels of well-being, and more empathy due to increased levels of alpha and theta wave activity.”1 It also changes and develops gray matter concentration. The regions found to be affected are “involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.”2. By practicing mindfulness, we’re able to cultivate increased attention and lower emotional reactivity—key components to success in high-pressure situations and prerequisites for consistent high-performance.

State effects vs. Trait-Like Effects

The impact of a mindfulness practice like meditation has two classifications when mapped using MRIs: state effects (effects during meditation) and trait-like effects (effects after sustained practice).3 State effects are seen as helpful in stressful or painful situations, while trait-like effects lay the groundwork for accessing mindful states in the future. These effects have been theorized to positively affect our neuroplasticity, which is the process of building new mental pathways via repeated action.4 In their study on the effects of meditation on neuroplasticity, Treadway and Lazar mention the usefulness of understanding trait-like effects in “treating chronic conditions such as depression and anxiety disorders.”5

When we practice meditation regularly, we practice controlling our awareness. By spending more time in these states, we strengthen the pathways in our brain that lead to decreased stress and sharper, sustained attention.

Types of mindfulness practices

Mindfulness is most often associated with meditation,6 but there are other options. Many components of yoga require sustained attention on holding specific body positions or chanted mantras. We can also weave mindfulness into everyday tasks; taking a shower and making coffee serve as perfect opportunities to fully immerse in the simple task at hand. In these practices, we’re working on building the habit of trained attention. We’re carving pathways for our mind to follow next time we’re in a stressful situation. We’re replacing knee-jerk emotional responses with measured breathing and perspective. 

Nature walks serve as an excellent grounding practice. The purpose is to observe nature, follow the breath, feel the earth underfoot, and breathe in the scent of surrounding flora. By following our senses, we’re taken into the moment. When our attention strays to our thoughts, we recapture it through auditory, olfactory, or tactile stimuli.

For more ideas about mindfulness practices, explore 8 Types of Meditation Explained.

Mindfulness doesn’t need to involve yoga, but it’s a great way to stay in the moment.

Applied Mindfulness

A second component of mindfulness is transferring personal practices to our workplace (or our high performance area of choice). Let’s call this applied mindfulness. It’s helpful to implement this in low-stress situations at first. Perhaps the first step will be applying breathing techniques at your desk or during a run-of-the-mill meeting. Practice is where mistakes are allowed, exploration is welcomed and weaknesses are strengthened. We’re free to discover what works for us.

When we want to up the ante, we can implement scenarios that intentionally increase the level of stress. A great way to mimic the stress state in practice is by timing exercises, forming series (ie. ten in a row), or adding an audience. These kind of exercises create an imagined, yet palpable, pressure. We can increase the pressure even more by doling out a reward or punishment based on predetermined goals.

Another way to heighten stress is to create a physically uncomfortable environment. This puts our body in a stress state that mimics how we react in challenging situations. Turn the thermostat down till it’s freezing in the room, or do the opposite and pump up the heat. Rehearse late at night after a long day. Do an intense workout before sitting down to a task involving fine motor skills. By simulating mildly stressful environments, we close the gap between practice and performance. In doing so, we are able to fine tune our mindfulness practice for high-pressure situations.

Be willing to get uncomfortable.

Self-awareness in Stressful Situations

Be sure to track your attention in these types of drills. Are you focused on impressing your boss or making zero errors? Are you worried about winning, performing well or keeping your job? Are you worried about how tired you are or how much your head is hurting? All of these thoughts are attached to distracting, and often anxiety-inducing, emotions. If we’re thinking about these things in practice, we can be sure they will return tenfold in important, high-pressure situations. A mindfulness practice gives us the opportunity to recognize what’s bothering us, to accept the presence of unhelpful thoughts and, finally, to pivot towards a beneficial solution. By honing the skill of staying in the moment, we expand our capacity for sustained attention—and that leads to high performance. 

Question time:

What kind of mindfulness practices do you currently use?

What kind of intentional stressor would you like to implement into your routine?

Footnotes

  1. Treadway, Michael T., and Sara W. Lazar. “Chapter 7: Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain.” In Assessing Mindfulness & Acceptance Processes in Clients: Illuminating the Theory & Practice of Change, 185-206. Baer, Ruth. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2010.
  2. Hölzel, Britta K., James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, and Sara W. Lazar. “Mindfulness Practice Leads to Increases in Regional Brain Gray Matter Density.” Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging 191, no. 1 (January 30, 2011): 36-43.
  3. Treadway, Michael T., and Sara W. Lazar. “Chapter 7: Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain.” In Assessing Mindfulness & Acceptance Processes in Clients: Illuminating the Theory & Practice of Change, 185-206. Baer, Ruth. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2010.
  4. Definition of Neuroplasticity. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/neuroplasticity
  5. Treadway, Michael T., and Sara W. Lazar. “Chapter 7: Meditation and Neuroplasticity: Using Mindfulness to Change the Brain.” In Assessing Mindfulness & Acceptance Processes in Clients: Illuminating the Theory & Practice of Change, 185-206. Baer, Ruth. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 2010.
  6. Definition of Meditation. Science Direct. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/neuroscience/meditation

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