“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”. Sometimes, however, 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 your brain’s “executive functioning skills” a bit weak. Mindfulness exercises can be beneficial in improving your executive function.
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 skills are unable to face and complete various challenges. As a result, this leads to a decline in confidence and self-esteem. Impaired executive functioning skills have also been implicated in various psychiatric disorders such as depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and addiction. Improving executive functioning skills are 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 skills.
Mindfulness and Executive Functioning Skills
Mindfulness is a concept based on the Buddhist teachings of “focusing your awareness on the present moment”. In the field of psychiatry, clinical practitioners utilizes mindfulness as a technique for actively controlling attention through meditation. Moreover, reports show that it has been highly effective. In recent years, more and more people have turned their attention to Eastern religious beliefs, especially in the United States. Consequently, mindfulness has created a major movement worldwide as a lifestyle and philosophy of “maintaining a peaceful state of mind”.
Execution function, on the other hand, includes the following three elements.
Inhibition here means stopping reactive or impulsive behaviors and thoughts as needed. For example, it is the ability to resist tempting distractions 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 or discard relevant 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 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.
Improve Executive Function 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. Throughout the practice, acknowledge any distracting thoughts or stimuli you feel.
If you’re interested in finding out more about mindfulness meditation exercises, 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’s not easy to maintain active control of your consciousness. In fact, it takes extensive training to get to the point where it comes naturally to utilize in daily life.
Mindfulness Techniques in Practice
Unfamiliarity with mindfulness exercises can also 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 unaccustomed to mindfulness techniques will inevitably “try not to think” about it when extraneous thoughts come to mind during meditation. This exhausts the brain, and depletes its energy.
However, researchers say that this brain energy can be restored once it is depleted. One study found that mindfulness exercises, when practiced for two weeks, does not deplete the brain’s energy. Instead, the techniques work towards restoring it.
The Anapanasati Mindfulness Exercise
Here are some simple exercises that are easy to work with, even if you’re new to mindfulness exercises.
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. Then, count slowly from one to ten, with one count equating to 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 let it go. Then slowly return your attention to your breath again.
This exercise is easy for anyone to practice because it is simply counting your breath. Futhermore, it is a method that has been adopted in various research and clinical studies as introductor exercises 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, cognitive function generally declines with age. Therefore the older we get, the more likely executive function is to decline, and the harder it is to improve.
However, the use of mindfulness techniques to improve cognitive functioning has been incorporated into the field of elderly care, with some beneficial reports. To improve executive functioning skills through mindfulness, it is necessary to repeat daily training. Therefore, it is important to incorporate mindfulness techniques into one’s life in a way that is easy to work on.
Improved executive functioning skills can also increase your tolerance for stress. This works through suppressing your unpleasant emotions and naturally distance yourself from negative thoughts. In addition, achieving the goals you set for yourself 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”. 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 skills through mindfulness exercises?
If you’re looking for more tips on how to care for your mental health, check out some of our past blog posts!
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Tanaka, K., & Sugiura, Y. (2015). Executive Function and Mindfulness. Japanese Psychological Review, 58(1), 139-152. doi: 10.24602/sjpr.58.1_139