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Mindfulness and mental toughness

by Dr. Claudia Aguirre

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There has been a lot of news about how athletes and military special forces use meditation to improve mental toughness. In your opinion, how does meditation improve mental toughness? And, what are the general practices that we should follow to improve ours?

Dr. Claudia’s answer:

Thanks and great question! I think it’s a wonderful thing that governments are embracing an integrative, mind-body approach to training their armed forces. It’s well understood that service members’ resilience (mental toughness), or the ability to withstand, recover, grow, and adapt under extremely challenging conditions, is vital to force protection. In fact, psychological training is now a more common aspect of general fitness training, including training professional or elite athletes. Luckily, we don’t have to be professional soldiers or athletes to reap the benefits of ‘mind fitness’ training!

So how does it work? Well, we’re still working that out. What we do know is that optimal fitness might be more dependent on our state of mind than on the frequency of our gym trips. And like physical fitness, mind fitness can be strengthened through attention and concentration practices (i.e. meditation) that literally change the brain structurally and functionally – a process called neuroplasticity. Just like you build up muscle strength to prevent injury or weakness, mind fitness builds resiliency that leads to faster recovery from psychological stress. Delving a bit deeper into the inner workings of our brain, a recent study showed that eliciting the body’s relaxation response could even affect our genes – in just minutes! They found that meditating (even just once) could dampen the genes involved in the inflammatory response, and promote those genes associated with DNA stability. So in a way, meditating builds our mental resilience against future stress by strengthening the resilience of our very genes.

Think of it like hitting the gym. Maybe your practice focuses on observing your passing thoughts, or maybe it’s just quiet time, just like you may have ‘leg day’ or ‘arm day’ at the gym. The key is to maintain constant practice. Many mind-body techniques can help, from meditation to yoga to biofeedback and even simple breathing exercises. So get out there and build some mental armor!

Dr. Claudia Aguirre

Dr. Claudia Aguirre is a neuroscientist and mind-body expert. She earned her doctorate degree in Neuroscience from the University of Southern California (USC), and she recently completed a year-long certificate course on Mindfulness, Yoga and Social Change from Loyola Marymount University. She is also a TED Ed educator, creating various neuroscience-related lessons, which have reached millions worldwide. She researches the latest science around mindfulness and meditation, and communicates these findings to the Headspace audience.