Understanding the neuroscience and physiological foundations of the brain and training its networks to combat anxiety and life stressors
Professor Andra Smith from the Faculty of Psychology in the Faculty of Social Sciences has combined her research and personal experiences with mindfulness to teach the course Neuroscience of Mindfulness: Neurons for Well-being. Her interest in neuroscience explores optimizing cognitive processes behind decision-making, organizing behavior, setting goals, and taking the necessary steps to achieve them without distractions. Mindfulness has allowed her students to acquire these skills while keeping stress at bay.
Professor Smith recently published WHO KNEW! Neuroscience and Mindfulness Combat Real World Stress and WIN! We documented her work and asked her how she applies mindfulness and how it affects her students.
Question: What inspired you to research the use of mindfulness to combat the stress you observed in your students?
Andra Smith: „During COVID, I did not have the usual direct contact with the students and noticed that they were struggling with high levels of stress and anxiety affecting their performance. I wanted to give them tools to deal with some of these stress factors and their fear of the future. I had gained so much from my own mindfulness training that I knew they would benefit from learning why and how it works.“
Q: What kind of research have you conducted from a scientific perspective to find evidence for the effectiveness of mindfulness?
ALS: „I have conducted two fMRI studies with mindfulness as an intervention, examining breast cancer patients with neuropathic pain and musicians suffering from stage fright. In both studies, we found significant changes in brain structure and function. We are currently working on an imaging study with concussions in children, and we expect mindfulness to help regulate emotions and alleviate quality of life issues after an injury.“
Q: Mindfulness is met with skepticism by many; how did you see it when you continued to use it?
ALS: „It was necessary to understand the brain and the functioning of mindfulness from a neuroscience perspective. I was skeptical until I learned why and how mindfulness works in the brain: the stress response; the development of our brains; attention networks; nervous systems and their interactions; the way stress hijacks our prefrontal cortex and how to counteract it. These were the academic and scientific features, but personal life experiences also solidified my passion for mindfulness training. I used my mindfulness training during my mother’s illness and ultimate passing, even though it was so sad. It was a ray of hope that brought science and experience together and confirmed their power. I wanted to give it to my students. They embraced it, used it, and were thrilled to see how it changed their daily lives.“
Q: How have your students reacted and what has ultimately been achieved by introducing mindfulness into their curriculum/lives?
ALS: „I offered mindfulness exercises at the beginning and end of the class, and suggested homework exercises. They did the homework, and they enjoyed it! One exercise involved having a mindful conversation, listening to listen, not to reply. This opened the students‘ eyes because they realized that in a conversation, they were not really listening without thinking about how they would respond. It is a gift to give someone full attention, and they felt it during this exercise and cherished their relationships more thereafter. The consensus was that the students had tools to deal with stress, and they learned that stress did not have to control them; they could take the wheel and become more productive. For a professor, there is nothing better than hearing a student say that they have implemented what they learned in class and that it has enriched their lives.“
Q: How do you suggest people take a first step towards mindfulness practice for their own benefit?
ALS: „A good start is to gradually compile several short exercises that feel good. Mindfulness is a variety of exercises to choose from, based on what appeals to you. It is really about attention and training the networks in the brain that allow us to stay focused and outside of the narratives before life and reliving that we so often tell. My book guides the reader through the entire course we have done, so that is a good starting point. I would love to help anyone who wants to try it. I would like to add that I do not recommend learning on your own if you have had trauma or significant mental health problems. It is not a substitute for treatment or therapy. It is a supplement.“
„When we are aware of how stress affects our physiology, we can better combat its potential negative impacts. When we are in tune with our physiology, we receive all kinds of information and cues over which we then have control. Knowledge is power. We need to know our brain, as it controls everything we do, whether it’s good or bad. Mindfulness can help us with that.“