Brain Training in the Age of Digital Distractions

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Scientific research indicates that the highest number of heart attacks occur on a Monday morning.

This should come as no surprise to those of us who suffer from Mondayitis – the general feeling of distress experienced upon returning to the workplace on a Monday.

Having worked for myself and been a student for most of my life, I never experienced Mondayitis or the stress of working fulltime until I started my PhD.

From observing other academics and PhD students (particularly students in the final stages of their projects), it became clear that stress was the norm. It seemed as if there was something seriously wrong if you weren’t stressed out. In my initial relaxed state I couldn’t help but think that perhaps I was off track, a sloppy researcher and not working hard enough.

So what happened? In less than a month of starting my PhD I became stressed, overwhelmed and incredibly busy.

But this weekend I had a reality check.

I was lucky enough to attend a workshop called “The Mind that Changes Everything” run by cancer survivor and educator Dr Ian Gawler.

Dr Gawler pointed out how many of us in Western culture feel busier, more stressed and overloaded than ever before and the subsequent negative impacts of carrying around this chronic stress (e.g. depleted immune function, cold and flu symptoms).

His message was simple yet powerful – we can train our minds (like any muscle) to live happier and healthier lives.

According to Dr Gawler our state of mind is of critical importance to our health and wellbeing. After all, it is our mind that decides what we eat, who we choose to spend our time with and whether we exercise or not.

He stated-

“In a relaxed state of mind you have an enhanced ability to take charge of your life…in training our mind you can get to a point that your state of mind isn’t determined by your external circumstances”

So how do we do this?

Mindfulness training seems to be the key.

Mindfulness is most commonly defined as the state of being attentive to and aware of what is taking place in the present moment, both internally and externally, without judgement. It can be practiced in one of two ways – 1) as a way of being (by doing nothing, having a calm still mind and being able to let go) and 2) with the help of a technique.

Since we live in the age of digital distractions it can be very difficult (if not impossible) for many of us to just “do nothing” and still our monkey minds. The fact of the matter is that most of us need the help of a technique to quieten our minds.

The “Accountants meditation” is an ideal exercise to help the apprentice meditator improve their concentration and relax. As Dr Gawler explained, it involves the following simple steps –

1. Take a breath in and then breathe out. As you breathe out, say the number 1 in your head.

2. Take another breath in and this time as you breathe out say the number 2 in your head.

3. Continue to do this until you reach the number 10. Once you get to 10, return to the number 1. Repeat this process for 10 to 20 minutes (one to two times a day).

4. If your mind is distracted at any point during the exercise (e.g. you find yourself thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner) then return to the number 1 and start the process again.

I once had a boyfriend who was a little up tight so I suggested he give meditation a shot. We meditated a few times together before he said “This doesn’t work. It’s stupid”.

Interestingly, Dr Gawler stressed that just like any activity it takes time and practice to get good at meditation. He made the point that you wouldn’t expect someone who had never played golf before to become really good at the sport in just a few days, so why expect the same of meditation?

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