Debbie Schultz on the science of mindfulness

18 April 2017

Business School alumna Debbie Schultz explains how mindfulness can make us more resilient and effective in an increasingly demanding world. She is the founder of BlueSkyMinds, which specialises in delivering research-based organisational mindfulness programmes.

Video Transcript


The growing interest in mindfulness has been prompted, I believe, because of a variety of factors. First, our increasingly frantic pace of life. It is not okay any more to do one thing at a time – we have to do 15 things at a time. Not only that, but the way that we are using technology – we check our phones on average 150 times a day. And there are a number of reasons that we are enticed by our technology. Often it is out of habit or the need to keep up with what is going on. But also, the reward centre of our brain releases a small amount of dopamine, which is a feel-good hormone, every time something new pops up on our screen – and that is actually addictive.


So, the pace of life and the way we are using technology is pushing us to operate in a state of what we call "continuous partial attention". And that gives us that feeling of franticness, distraction and a fragmented sense to our lives. But I also feel like we are operating on this flawed notion that busyness means happy and successful. And yet, if you think about it, we are all racing around busy, but I don't see us all rolling around deliriously happy. In fact, the health consequences are staggering. Depression is now the most widespread illness globally. A quarter of us will suffer from some form of anxiety in our lifetime. Stress-related illness is the number one reason that people visit the doctor today.


But it is not just about the health consequences, though mindfulness has been proven to be effective in all of those three areas. It is also about what we are missing out on. That ability to really connect with each other. That ability to do meaningful, real work. So, the pace of life, and the technology, and the way we are running our lives are having a real impact on our success and happiness.


We have got this frantic pace of life that we are living and yet we have still got this primitive part of our brain which is operating – and it is very similar to the fight-or-flight response that you might see in a zebra for example. So, let's imagine that you have got a zebra relaxing on the plains of Africa, and next minute a lion leaps out of the bush. And the zebra is running for its life, activating its fight-or-flight response and dumping cortisol and adrenalin into its bloodstream, shutting down its digestion and its immune functionality. Let's say the zebra survives to live another day, and it is able to activate its relaxation response. And that is a form of natural resilience. And I think we have lost our ability to activate our own natural resilience because our fight-or-flight, or panic, button is being pressed constantly all day just from little things like the flood of email coming into our inbox when we come to work in the morning right through to that horrible feeling that you are never going to get to the bottom of your to-do list. So, we are having this almost constant reactivity to stress that is happening throughout the day. And I think that is contributing to our health conditions as well.


So, we have got this frantic pace of life, this primitive part of the brain activating our threat response constantly throughout the day, and we have a more executive functioning part of our brain which is coming in and offering to help us out. And that gives us the ability to operate on autopilot, or to think about what we are not doing. You probably have had an experience where you have driven home from work, you have pulled into the driveway, and then you have realised that you have not seen a thing on the journey home because you have almost been operating like in a trance.


But the problem is we are spending so much time, because our lives are busy, thinking about what has just happened, or planning or worrying for what is about to happen, that this direct experience that we are having in any given moment is getting squished in the middle. Research has proven that we only spend 47% of our time in our direct experience. And the more time we spend thinking about what we are not doing, the more unhappy we are. Right now is really the only moment we have to experience things like happiness and success. For example, a participant on a recent course that I ran said for her it was the little things. Recently at work, in a public setting, she was commended for a project that she did, and she just took a moment for that praise to really sink in. Or, when she arrived home from work and was greeted by her young daughter hugging her, having a moment to just feel the warmth of that hug.


Mindfulness training has a load of benefits, but it is really important to look at the evidence-based research around the benefits. There has been a lot of hype around mindfulness lately, so it is important to remember that there is 35 years of clinical research to support the benefits of mindfulness in things like anxiety, depression, illness, and chronic pain. We also know through research that has been conducted in the area of neuroscience that mindfulness makes physical changes to our brain. It actually increases the grey matter of our hippocampus, and that is the part of the brain that is responsible for emotional regulation. It also decreases the grey matter in our amygdala, which houses our threat response – that trigger button. So, we are able to react less to moments of stress because of that.


So we have got some great clinical research, we have some great neuroscience data. There is some really promising research on mindfulness in organisations. The research is still in its infancy, but a review of all the evidence-based research conducted recently concluded that mindfulness can have an impact on areas of wellbeing, of performance, and of relationships.


Mindfulness can have a real impact on our work experience and effectiveness, and I see it happening over three levels. If you build a mindfulness practice up over time, it will have an impact on your attention, on your awareness, and on the way you act. So, on your attention, increasing your concentration span so you can manage distraction. In terms of your awareness, much more aware of what is happening internally – your tendency to be thinking about the past, or worrying about the future. But you are also able to take in the full context of what is happening around you and see things as they really are. And the last area is your actions – being able to manage how you respond to pressure and stress and conflict, and not react, but rather respond more skilfully.


Increasingly, organisations are turning to mindfulness-based programmes to support things like emotional intelligence, leadership, and resilience. But, if it is something that you wanted to explore further, then my advice would be first off look for something that has a scientific evidence base behind it to support its benefits. And also look for something that is going to give you support over a period of weeks, because mindfulness training is like training at the gym for your muscles. It is not a quick fix. So you actually need something to strengthen your mindfulness muscle over a period of weeks.



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