Living a hyper-active lifestyle can have serious effects on our happiness and well-being. Is meditation the answer?

Meghann Gerber is a licensed clinical psychologist who works at a mental health clinic in Seattle. She also leads a course at the University of Washington (UW) called “Mindfulness Meditation for Beginners.” She believes that her work experience as a professional therapist and clinical psychologist have provided her with a good understanding of the impacts of stress.

Modern stress is one of the greatest obstacles threatening our health, she admits. The way we are training ourselves is problematic and unhealthy for the majority of the population, especially those who do not balance their work life with down-time and self-reflection. Stress is produced in many different forms: from the constant flow of information from different channels to the constant expectation to be performing at a high level.

Is our culture nourishing the hyper active lifestyle?

Our culture is “on the go” the majority of the time. We try to accomplish as much as possible, as quickly as possible. It is rare for our calendar to say: “it’s time for a restful or reflective hour.” The way that we are moving through the world is much more complicated, with more distractions and the pressure isn’t helping. Gerber believes that meditation can certainty help, but “the problem is much bigger than that.”

“I don’t think we can solve the problem [of our hyper active world and its numerous effects] with meditation,” she said.

A research study, called: “The effects of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Multitasking in a High-Stress Information Environment” was conducted by four professors [three from the UW and one from the University of Arizona] who analyzed the effects of meditation training on multitasking behavior. Three groups were tested; ”some underwent an 8-week training course on mindfulness-based meditation, the second endured a wait period and only then underwent the same training and the third group had 8-weeks of training in body relaxation.”

The research showed that: “only those trained in meditation stayed on tasks longer and made fewer task switches, as well as reported less negative emotions after task performance, as compared with the other two groups.” Both the meditation and the relaxation groups showed improved memory for the tasks they performed.

Signs that you are under stress:

Some of the symptoms Gerber listed include: sleeping problems, crying at the drop of a hat, having trouble concentrating, re-reading the same paragraph over and over; basically not being able to engage in our lives with the same ease we once had.

“It is often the interruption in our functioning to really get our attention,” she said.

Gerber sees the effect of untreated stress as multidimensional. For example, one could look at stress at a physiological level. Cortisol, which is a stress hormone released by our body’s “alert system,” is usually active when we are under stress. It is designed to protect us from danger.

“When there is a threat in the environment, we run or we fight it off,” she said. The secretion of this hormone “is designed to keep us safe.”

This system was developed “out in the Savana somewhere escaping predators,” she said.

In modern life, it becomes about everyday fears, not about being chased by a lion. What happens now is that same system gets activated, not because our life is threatened, but because we are getting a performance review or our partner is mad at us. That stress response triggers cortisol and leads us to not be able to think clearly. The constant presence of the cortisol hormone in our system becomes harmful and it can often lead to overwhelming anxiety.

“Our bodies … have not developed a sophisticated system that is designed to protect us” from the challenges we are facing in today’s modern day to day life, Gerber said.

Our mental well-being:

Any mental predisposition, such as: anxiety, depression or other mental disorders may come from stress. “Stress in general, exacerbates every health [problem] that we might [have],” she said.

Stress can even affect relationships, Gerber adds. ”If you come home, and your kid is having a meltdown, do you have the resources to be able to respond to that effectively?” she asked.

Stress can impact our physical, social and mental state.

How our digital lifestyles are affecting our attention:

“The degree to which these vast sources of information are accessible to us, in a very immediate basis … all the time, people are often incapable to hold one thing in their attention,” Gerber said.

We are often looking at multiple screens and devices at once. We might have five different windows open at the same time on a computer. Our attention is often divided between different pieces of information. This affects the way our brain functions and our ability to pay attention.

Speaking about the neurological aspect of things: ”the way that we use our brain dictates its actual structure, so in a way everything that we do is training our minds,” she said.

So, being glued to your iPhone, TV, or laptop screens, month after month, is also a form of mind training. Beyond our environment and our lifestyle, our day-to-day choices impact our brain.

Gerber mentions that people often focus their attention on what is going wrong, and in a way that makes sense — as humans, we are problem solvers — but, focusing on that one problem may lead to depression.

The yoga and meditation practice:

Gerber believes that regardless of how often or how long you practice meditation, it is still beneficial and important. Don’t think “did I do it long enough?” she said. This “self-criticism is a detour,” she said. It is important for you to practice yoga and meditation, no matter the duration. She thinks meditation is most beneficial for “just enhancing your awareness of what you let your attention rest on and how much that can influence your mood, your perspective, your capacity to see possibility.”

The meditation practice is an awareness practice that trains your attention on what you want it to do. Painful things exist — it is not about ignoring them — but being able to focus on the positive and the things that truly matter. We have to consciously focus on the things that are going well, and hold them in our attention. And positivity can be anywhere, Gerber said, it can be “the way the light is heating those leafs, how that impacts your mood, or the things you do after that, or the next time you see that tree.”

Understanding the consequences of multitasking and how it affects our lives is crucial in order for us to maintain a balanced and healthy lifestyle. Our human attention is a trainable resource and meditation is one of the most effective ways we can start controlling our behavior.

[Photo by Bust it Away Photography – CC BY]

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