“It’s hard to do the things I’ve set my mind to”
“I try to start something but always run into setbacks”
Have you ever felt down or troubled from such experiences?
In our daily lives, we have to make many decisions, and go through with them. In order to lead a better life, there are things we “have to do” or “should do”, but sometimes it’s hard to put those into action, even if you know it in your head… For those types of people, it might be that the “executive function” in your brain is a bit weak.
What is Executive Function?
Executive function is a cognitive system that controls the thoughts and actions that people need to perform complex tasks. Put simply, it’s the system that lets you “do what needs to be done”. People with weak executive functioning are unable to face and complete various challenges, which leads to reduced confidence and self-esteem. Impaired executive functioning has also been implicated in various psychiatric disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addiction. Improving executive functioning is essential to preventing these mental illnesses and becoming a person who can accomplish their goals. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to improve the brain’s cognitive-related functions with a “can do it” mentality alone.
So, what can you actually do? In recent years, research has shown that mindfulness, which has been widely adopted in the fields of psychiatry and business, has proven effective in improving executive functioning.
Mindfulness and Executive Functioning
Mindfulness is a concept based on the Buddhist teachings of “focusing your awareness on the present moment”. In the field of psychiatry, it has been incorporated into clinical practice as a technique for actively controlling attention through meditation, and has been reported to be highly effective. In recent years, as more and more people, especially in the United States, have turned their attention to Eastern religious beliefs, mindfulness has also created a major movement worldwide as a lifestyle and philosophy of “maintaining a peaceful state of mind”.
The execution function, on the other hand, is said to include the following three elements.
Inhibition here means stopping reactive or impulsive behaviors and thoughts as needed. For example, it is the ability to resist the desire to talk or play games while you are working or studying.
2) Update Working Memory
“Working memory” is the ability to store the information needed to accomplish a task. It also refers to the ability to obtain new information needed and discard unnecessary information in response to changes in circumstances. It is the ability to organize information in your mind.
3) Cognitive Flexibility
Cognitive flexibility is the ability to flexibly switch one’s perspective and approach to a problem in response to new demands, rules and priorities in performing a task. It is a function that allows us to be resourceful in responding to situations and to try things out until we get it right.
Since both of these elements require active control of one’s own consciousness as needed, the basic approach to mindfulness of “focusing one’s awareness on the present moment” has proven effective in improving executive functioning.
How to Improve Executive Functioning Through Mindfulness
The practice of mindfulness is based on a meditation called “mindfulness meditation”. In this meditation technique, you close your eyes in a relaxed state, focus on your own breathing, and slowly bring your attention back to your breath, recognizing any distracting thoughts or stimuli you feel.
If you’re interested in finding out more about mindfulness meditation, check out the article below.
In the practice of mindfulness, it’s important to continue the practices. As those of us who have experienced it can realize, it is more difficult than you might think to maintain active control of your consciousness, and it takes a lot of training to get to the point where you can do it naturally and make use of it in your daily life.
Unfamiliarity with mindfulness training is also said to temporarily deplete “the brain’s energy to control its own thoughts and actions”. The more this energy is depleted, the more difficult it is to activate your inhibitions, which is one of the elements of executive functioning. People who are not accustomed to mindfulness training will inevitably “try not to think” about it when extraneous thoughts come to mind during meditation. This is believed to exhaust the brain and deplete it of energy
However, it has been found that this brain energy can be restored once it is depleted. One study found that mindfulness training, when practiced for two weeks, does not deplete the brain’s energy, but rather works towards restoring it.
Here are some simple exercises that are easy to work with, even if you’re new to mindfulness training.
Anapanasati, meaning “mindfulness of breathing”, is a method of meditation in Buddhism, in which you count your own breaths. Try to breathe at a relaxed and natural pace, counting slowly from one to ten, with a count being one set of inhaling and exhaling. When you get to ten, start counting again from one and repeat. If a thought or stimulus distracts you from your breath, recognize the thought or stimulus and slowly return your attention to your breath again.
This exercise is easy for anyone to practice because it is simply counting your breath, and is a method that has been adopted in various research and clinical studies as an introductory practice for mindfulness.
You Can Do Whatever You Set Your Mind to!
The executive function is one of the cognitive functions of the brain, and it is not easy to improve it. In addition, since cognitive function generally declines with age, the older a person gets, the more likely executive function is to decline, and the harder it is to improve.
However, the use of mindfulness to improve cognitive functioning has been incorporated into the field of elderly care, and some benefits have been reported. To improve executive functioning through mindfulness, it is necessary to repeat training on a daily basis, as the effects cannot be felt in a short period of time. It is first important to incorporate mindfulness into one’s life in a way that is easy to work on.
Improved executive functioning can also increase your tolerance for stress if you are able to suppress unpleasant emotions and naturally distance yourself from negative thoughts. On top of that, being able to achieve the goals you set for yourself in your daily life can lead to a sense of fulfillment and happiness.
There are many “troublesome” and “difficult” things in life, no matter who you are. When you face these things, don’t give up and say, “I can’t do it anyway,” but instead try and accomplish them. Your life will become more vibrant and fulfilling.
To that end, why don’t you try training to improve your executive functioning through mindfulness?
Tanaka, K., & Sugiura, Y. (2015). Executive Function and Mindfulness. Japanese Psychological Review, 58(1), 139-152. doi: 10.24602/sjpr.58.1_139