By Melissa Lafrance on March 4, 2019
Guest contribution by Dr. Thara Vayali
Did you know that humans have three brains? There is the central nervous system (CNS) that originates in your cranial cavity (the “brain”) and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) that is based out of your brain, spine and pelvis. The PNS has multiple functions, two of which are the “fight and flight” response and the “rest and digest” response. The third, less-commonly-discussed one is the enteric nervous system (ENS) that originates in your intestinal tract — also referred to as the “gut brain”.
As far as we know, these brains are linked by only one vital nerve, the vagus nerve, by which they send their messages of joy and warning, back and forth. What’s astounding is that even if that vagus nerve is severed, the ENS keeps functioning without direction from the CNS brain headquarters. It is a “brain” on its own.
Mindfulness impacts the vagus nerve and thus the ENS directly. The ENS is a major factor in digestion and mental state. A mindfulness practice crosses both mental and physical aspects of health.
Let’s first learn about where the nerve hubs are:
- Origin of thoughts and reactions
- Over 85 billion neurons and 100 neurotransmitters
- 5% of serotonin, 50% of dopamine
- Origin of fight, flight, freeze and fall – the responses to situations of danger, fear and pain
- Slows digestive processes to direct attention toward managing threats
Brain, Pelvis and Vagus Nerve (PNS)
- Origin of rest, repair and digestion
- Directs digestion and bowels
Gut Tissue (ENS)
- Origin of “gut feelings”
- 100 million neurons and 40 neurotransmitters
- 95% of serotonin, 50% of dopamine
While the CNS certainly has the most influence on daily life, the vagus nerve is a two-way information highway connecting the gut to the brain. It delivers messages about the state of affairs between the brain and the gut. When the mind is at ease, the body can follow suit. Likewise, when the gut is at ease, the mind receives messages of calm. The gut brain is the group huddle for the body’s health and wellbeing.
Knowing this, let’s not only consider what we are eating, but also how we feel while we eat. A mindfulness practice is a tool that allows messages of restoration and digestion to flood the gut. An enhanced capacity for digestion can send messages of calm back to the mind
Take 10 to tame your breath and tame your gut
Before each meal, take 10 deep inhales and long exhales. This process changes your chemistry enough to signal to your vagus nerve that you are willing to go into a digestion phase of the day. Ten deep breaths is a short amount of time in relation to a day’s work – about one minute – but it can certainly feel long or inappropriate in your current rhythm.
Until it feels natural, perhaps do this by yourself, looking out a window or on a slow walk down the hall. Oftentimes, once we sit down to eat, our minds have already moved on to either hunger, conversations or time pressures.
Allow yourself the space and preparation to welcome your meals and let the nourishment begin.
Dr. Thara Vayali is a Vancouver-based naturopathic doctor and yoga teacher, UBC alum and popular guest contributor to our Healthy UBC newsletter who specializes in intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. For more information about Thara, visit www.tharavayali.ca
By Guest Contributor on June 8, 2016
Guest contribution by Wendy Quan
Do you have a busy mind? If you said yes, congratulations, you have a typical human mind!
The mindfulness concept of the ‘monkey mind’ is the name given to your busy mind. You know that one I’m talking about — you have so much going on in your life, that your mind jumps around like an agitated monkey. Most people generally are not too aware of it, and when you do notice it, it can increase your stress when you notice the monkey mind.
Perhaps you recognize your busy monkey mind and have tried to calm it down. Maybe you have tried meditation on your own by reading a book or trying to learn by listening to recordings. Did you find this successful? If not, it’s likely that you got frustrated because your monkey mind just won’t ‘shut down’ and stay calm.
Having thoughts is normal – it’s human. As you practice meditation, you will notice an increase in your focus and concentration. You will be increasingly more capable of focusing in the object of your meditation, such as your breath, a visualization, or a silent mantra. It is very common to expect a completely calm mind when meditating but the reality is that this should not be expected of meditation.
Here’s the key: Meditation is not about achieving a totally blank or calm mind throughout the entire meditation. Meditation is about focusing, and then when your mind does wander (and it will!), your job is to notice when it has wandered, then re-focus on the object of your meditation.
A great tip is to change how you regard your wandering mind – instead of getting frustrated and disappointed when this happens, congratulate yourself for noticing when your mind has strayed. Feel good that you’ve noticed! Feel good that you are self-aware! See your growing awareness as a positive, not a negative.
Every time you notice your mind has wandered, know that you are doing a good job in meditation!
Doesn’t that change your perspective on the wandering mind? When I teach this perspective in class, people feel relief and start to enjoy meditation so much more.
Wendy Quan will be teaching a three-week summer ‘Learn To Meditate’ class for beginners at UBC. Join her for a wonderful introduction to mindfulness and meditation, and leave feeling confident to start your personal practice. Program cost is $35 and sessions run July 11, 18, 25 from 12:00-1:00pm. Sign up here.
Wendy Quan is a certified organizational change manager who has created an innovative way to build personal and organizational change resiliency through meditation and mindfulness. Wendy has two published papers on this subject with the worldwide Association of Change Management Professionals, speaks at conferences, and has taught at UC Berkeley. Wendy is a leader in the change management community and founded the Vancouver Change Management Practitioner’s community of practice. Her career has also included management in human resources, organizational development, coaching and information technology.
By Guest Contributor on November 1, 2015
Sometimes, it really is all in your head. Despite our best intentions to relieve stress, Multi-Tasking and Daily Decision Making can make the effects of stress worse. Occasionally, these habits can generate a stress response on their own, without any external stressors being present. Last year, I talked about how the chemicals released during stressful events trigger various physical responses. In this post, I’ll share how the brain shifts its modes in daily life and how some of our default modes can actually make our brains feel a little stressed out.
In The Organized Mind, Daniel Levitin and Vinod Menon present four states that the waking brain operates in:
- Mind Wandering – (Daydreaming State) – The natural state; resting and integrating state. Where great ideas come from.
- The Filter – (Sensing State) – Detail oriented, filters importance out of the noise – draws the Thinking State (below) into gear. Something catches your fancy.
- The Central Executive – (Thinking State) – Sustained attention. Focused decision making. Finding flow.
- The Switch – (Multi-Tasking State) – Alternates sustained attention between important tasks – requires much more energy than sustained attention, but also allows us to change paths when needed. Divergent decision making. Herding Cats.
When switching between tasks, the brain needs to continuously be making decisions on what, how, when, where, and why. In addition to the everyday decisions of what to eat, what to wear, which route to take to work, this cumulates into something called Decision Fatigue. Putting continuous energy toward minor decisions can drain the brain’s capacity to handle the larger, more meaningful, consequential decisions. There is a functional reason for world leaders wearing the same clothing style daily or award-winning scientists eating the same daily lunch for a season. Or why you might want to do the same. Multi-task when it’s time for a change, not all the time.
Multi-tasking builds higher cortisol levels and the brain requires more glucose than when working in sustained attention mode. Decision fatigue becomes a barrier to even simple task management. Distraction is a high-cost commodity.
Learning how to stay on task and allowing space for daydreaming helps productivity and requires less energy.
Every person and project requires different foci, but here are effective tools for each brain state that you can adapt or use as needed.
1. Mind Wandering (Daydreaming)- At least once a day, do nothing for five minutes. Not thinking, not talking, not sleeping, not eating, not reading, not watching. Allow yourself to stare off into the space. Let your brain have active rest. Allow integration and growth of new knowledge, creativity, and drive. It’s harder than it seems – gazing at moving clouds or a flame helps.
2. Attentional Filter (Sensing) – Learning how to filter information is an undervalued skill of our time. Prioritizing our focus is a necessity from inboxes to looming deadlines or dinner plans.
A great tool for inboxes, from Getting Things Done, by David Allen, is the 4 Ds:
- Delete it or Drop it – If you’ve been keeping it in your to-do list for months, it probably isn’t that important to you. Delete it. Unsubscribe from lists that you consistently delete without reading. If that seems impossible, then put it one of the next three categories.
- Do it – If an email can be answered within two minutes, organize your day so that you have portions of time dedicated to answer chunks of just these quick emails. If a physical task can be accomplished within a short time frame that you have in front of you, do it first before doing anything else.
- Defer it – If an email or electronic task will take more than two minutes, but still requires quality attention, set aside appointed times in your day to address these, one at a time. Similarly for physical tasks – create an hourly schedule and slot in your deferred tasks. Be realistic and include buffer times. It will take you a few minutes to organize this each day, but it is worth it.
- Delegate it – Know your scope and your skills. Sometimes tasks or emails land on your desk that are much better handled by someone else. Learn to say no, and more importantly, “I don’t know and I need help.”
- I’ll add a 5th & 6th D: Decide & Divide – Before you start these, each day you will want to sit down and decide which category your tasks fall into and establish filters so new tasks that arrive are either dealt with or are saved for tomorrow’s decisions. Without this preparatory step, the previous steps can feel disorienting and overwhelming in themselves.
3. Central Executive Mode (Thinking) – Once you’ve decided on your task, big or small, your brain is primed for action. Ensure you have time allotted and, get to it! Do what you need to do to minimize distractions, be it for five minutes, 25 minutes or three hours. Turn on ambient music, put headphones in, got to a quiet room, go to a large courtyard. Each of us has a preferred way of focusing, so find out what works and commit to using it whenever you have filtered out your “do it now” task.
4. Switching Mode (Multi-Tasking) – Multi-tasking happens when our attentional filter tells us that many things are important at once. It happens when you search for keys every morning or try to remember that it’s garbage day, or look at unlabeled spices in a cupboard when cooking. Using your thinking brain for actions that could be habitual takes energy away from the sustained attention brain. This is too often the case in our busy lives. People we may associate with productive multi-tasking may in fact be highly efficient ‘mono-taskers’, with rote memory for the regular tasks. Prevent Decision Fatigue.
Make the simple decisions simple.
A billion pressing things? Get it all out on a whiteboard or paper or index cards that you can see regularly. This isn’t a list, it’s a brain dump.
Consistently misplacing things? Keep regularly used objects in the same space. Label irregularly used items. Use muscle memory.
Trying to remember to do that one thing today? Place a reminder object or note near the door, or a place where you will look.
For clothes, events and meals, make a choice once and stick with it for a week, a month, or a season.
At work, choose to block out alerts and other communications while you focus on a task for a given amount of time.
Bottom line: prevent distractions, make it rote, and get it out of your head.
When stressors arrive, know that you’ve done your best with your brain modes. Be realistic with your skills and timeframes and pressure will release.
Thara Vayali is a Naturopathic Doctor & Yoga Teacher in Vancouver and is also a UBC alumnus. She is obsessed with intestinal and immune health, hormones, and pain-free bodies. She is the creator of Change Natural Medicine: Budget conscious, membership based health consulting.
By Guest Contributor on January 7, 2015
Guest contribution from Dr. Geoffrey Soloway
Last year, UBC HR launched an exciting six-week Mindfulness@Work program for UBC faculty and staff. The response was overwhelmingly positive as four programs ran from March through June. After going through the program, one participant said “I am happier and empowered to deal with difficult situations. I am now better able to let things go.” Mindfulness@Work is back, with MindWell Canada offering another round of programs beginning April 2015.
What is Mindfullness?
From the Globe and Mail to the New York Times, Wall Street Journal; and even the February, 2014, cover of TIME magazine, mindfulness is everywhere. But it is not new – mindfulness, a systematic training of the attention, is rooted in wisdom traditions more than 2,500 years old. Today mindfulness is being taught in modern settings with an evidence base rooted in neuroscience. Rather than worrying about what has happened or might happen, we learn to respond skillfully to whatever is happening right now, be that good or bad.
This evidenced-based training of the attention has become a crucial skill for those hoping to succeed in an increasingly frenetic, multitasking and connected environment because it allows them to slow down and focus on the task at hand. As Bill George from Harvard Business School says, “leaders who are mindful tend to be more effective in understanding and relating to others, and motivating them toward shared goals. It also enables them to be less reactive to stress, more compassionate, and better equipped to approach challenging issues.”
Mindfulness@Work consists of a six-week program with a two-hour session once a week, as well as a four-hour silent mini-retreat between weeks four and five. Modeled off the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program (MBSR; Kabat-Zinn, 1990), the program consists of mindfulness practices including mindful breathing, movement, eating, and loving kindness, as well as applications in the workplace such as communication and conflict.
As part of the Mindfulness@Work offering in 2014, Dr. Daniel Skarlicki, UBC professor in the Sauder School of Business, and his team conducted a research study with UBC participants. Results from the study showed:
- Mindfulness@Work training program significantly increased participants’ overall levels of mindfulness and creativity.
- The training had a significant impact on interpersonal conflict style. Specifically, as compared to those in the control group, trained participants were less likely to report feeling powerless and withdraw from conflict situations.
- Participants in the training showed significant improvements in emotion regulation as a result of the training, which was found to mediate the effect of the training on interpersonal conflict style change.
UBC staff and faculty who went through the 2014 Mindfulness@Work program reported:
- “I have been able to stay relatively calm in a crisis situation.”
- “I am no longer being too quick in responding to emails; instead I am really thinking things through.”
- “I had a terrible relationship with a co-worker who was under my supervision. By not reacting, my role became clearer to me, and I was able to invite her to cultivate joy at work. I am happy to see that there is no more tension between us, even though there are problems to solve in the project.”
- “Mindful listening and speaking helps to sort out conflict, not just between two people but in also in relation to the work. Seeing a larger picture and not letting emotions take over the task, makes the task easier, and leads to better outcomes.”
Registration for the six-week program will take place at the Orientation on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 12:00-1:00pm. (Sign up here).
The Orientation is free and will provide a comprehensive overview of the program. There will be two programs running in April/May 2015.
Mindfulness@Work Program 1 will run from 9:00-11:00am on:
- April 1, 8, 15
- April 20, 27
- April 25 (10am-2pm)
- May 4
Mindfulness@Work Program 2 will run from 2:00-4:00 pm on:
- Wed April 1, 8, 15
- Mon April 20, 27
- Saturday April 25 (10am-2pm)
- Mon May 4
MindWell Canada is a leader in helping people integrate mindfulness into their personal and professional lives, by working with executives, athletes, health care professionals and teachers helping them create a more joyful, less stressful and more connected career and life. MWC has a network of partners around the world and has worked with companies and organizations throughout North America, Europe and Asia.
Geoffrey Soloway has been working in the area of health promotion, mindfulness and wellbeing for over 12 years. Geoff completed a PhD on Mindfulness at OISE of the University of Toronto, as well as a Master’s of Education on Holistic Education. Geoff has worked as an Instructor at the University of Toronto, teaching in the area of Stress Reduction, Health Promotion and Enabling Learning as well as offering Mindfulness-based workshops and programs with human service professionals in the workplace. Geoff has also worked as Health & Wellness Specialist within Human Resources at University of British Columbia focusing on faculty wellbeing and developing new mindfulness programming. Geoff is also an Organizational Coach, completing his certification through the University of British Columbia. Currently, Geoff is a Partner MindWell Canada, and Instructor for UBC Continuing Studies.
Kabat-Zinn, J. (1990). Full catastrophe living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness. New York: Random House.