This is the third article in the Mindful Engineering series, written by Elyssa Dixon, P.E., M.ASCE, founder of fleeceandforests LLC. Elyssa is that rare ASCE multi-hyphenate: a registered professional engineer slash mindfulness and meditation teacher. The incoming president-elect for the Seattle Section and incoming chair of ASCE’s Committee on Younger Members, Elyssa worked as a civil engineer in consulting for almost eight years and realized that her passion lies in helping others succeed. So she trained as a meditation and mindfulness teacher and brings her unique background and skillset to teach others how to use mindfulness practices to improve their personal wellbeing and create more resilient teams and leaders.
Read the previous articles in the series:
The bluff rose to my left as the long, flat beach stretched towards the Pacific Ocean on my right. The trees, perched high above me, bent sharply from years of exposure to wind; their artistic forms always fascinated me.
I was with my family on a walk on a typical blustery Pacific Northwest fall day on one of our annual long weekend trips to the coast. On this particular walk, I was in middle school and remember asking my parents a “why” question about something in the world. And along with receiving an answer, I remember also receiving a comment about my curiosity.
I frequently reflect on that conversation when I wonder “how?” and “why?” – questions I still ask today. It’s that natural curiosity that led me to engineering.
It’s a curiosity that also led me to mindfulness.
Mindfulness came into my life more formally in 2018, although I wasn’t fully receptive to the concept yet. A therapist told me to try walking and eating more slowly and without multitasking. I thought that sounded like a true waste of time. A year later, following more life changes and regular therapy sessions, I connected with a mindful eating coach and that’s when my mindfulness practice began to change my life and I began to explore the how and why of the practice.
When we experience chronic stress, our brains change. We inadvertently teach them that more energy should be allocated toward stress response rather than higher-level executive function such as planning, decision-making, problem-solving, self-control, and memory. The prefrontal cortex and hippocampus have been shown to respond to higher levels of stress with structural changes, including fewer and altered neural connections, fewer formation of new neurons, and volume reduction. These changes can result in functional changes such as difficulty in regulating our thoughts, emotions, and behavior; contextualizing new situations and information; and in storing new information and learning. The amygdala, the portion of the brain responsible for our stress response, can increase in size and cause a hyperactive stress response.
Mindfulness practices tap into the neuroplasticity of our brains – new neural pathways can be built over time. So just as long-term exposure to stress can change the functionality of our brains, so too, mindfulness can rewire and ultimately counteract some of the impacts of stress. Mindfulness practices increase brain gyrification, which is the folding of brain tissue. This allows our brains to process information more efficiently.
Multiple studies conducted by researchers at Harvard have explored the impacts of mindfulness on the brain. Study participants completed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979, which is an intensive mindfulness course involving daily practice and weekly group meetings for eight weeks. Researchers took functional MRIs of participants shown emotional content before and after the program. The research found that areas of the participants’ brains had changed: decreased gray matter in the amygdala and increased gray matter in the hippocampus and temporoparietal junction.
Even if you haven’t experienced chronic stress, mindfulness does more than counteract these impacts. This practice can positively affect your brain and body. Here are examples of some other benefits of mindfulness:
- Reduced blood pressure
- Alleviation of pain
- Improved quality of sleep
- Enhanced treatment of diseases such as diabetes and cancer
- Improved self-compassion
- Improved relationships
- Improved empathy
- Improved concentration and attention
- Increased faculty of memory and IQ
- Reduced anxiety and stress
- Reduced addictive tendencies
These benefits are important to our individual wellbeing, but also impact our teamwork and leadership as engineers. As we discussed in this series’ second article, a mindfulness practice is most effective as a practice: these benefits will be felt with consistency and time. Find what works best for you - maybe it’s sitting on a beach somewhere focusing on the waves with windswept trees above - and grow your journey.
- Free Meditations for Engineers: Wednesdays 12-12:15 p.m. EST
If you’re interested in learning more about mindfulness and how these skills can help you with your own stress management or leadership, check out the events linked above, corporate services, or contact Elyssa at [email protected]. Resources for engineers at fleeceandforests.com/engineers.