Psychotherapist Donald Altman changed his life after studying mindfulness practices in a monastery. He now teaches these practices as a way to relax, destress, and think more clearly. For the 73rd CFA Institute Annual Virtual Conference, Altman discussed the neuroscience behind mindfulness and highlighted its benefits, explaining how mindfulness can be used to stay calm in the face of extreme stress.
Altman noted that many of us are experiencing heightened anxiety in the current environment — our nervous systems crave constancy and regularity, and our brains are wired for face-to-face interaction. To cope with their absence, Altman recommended developing mental clarity and a sense of equanimity. He highlighted mindfulness as a way to quiet down the emotional inner core of our brains.
The science of mindfulness begins with the amygdala, which is deep in the brain’s limbic system. It acts like a smoke detector, gathering input from our senses to determine whether we are safe. For some of us, the current environment has driven it into a state of constant activity.
When the amygdala kicks in, it triggers stress hormones, like cortisol. It can help us manage stressful situations in the short term, but raised cortisol levels are harmful to our bodies over an extended period, putting us in a perpetual state of fight, flight, or freeze. Cortisol also dampens the response from cells that help ward of infection.
Excess cortisol harms our immune system and clouds our thinking. High levels of cortisol and an activated amygdala can decrease our “response flexibility,” which is the ability to think and process information. We become less able to tap into our thinking brains, clouding our thinking and decision making.
Altman recommended mindfulness practices to create a space away from the negativity that can cause distressing thoughts and impact our ability to be effective. Mindfulness turns on our parasympathetic system, slowing everything down and triggering an inner state of calm.
We can choose our attitude in the face of stress, and Altman said it was important to move towards states of acceptance, kindness, and caring. By practicing mindfulness, we can ward off rumination and anxiety when under stress. It also strengthens brain networks and allows us to recognize what is happening in our bodies. The mere act of knowing our emotional state has been proven to help regulate our responses.
Another important concept is gratitude — Altman noted that there can be personal gratitude, relationship gratitude, and even what he called “silver lining” or “paradoxical” gratitude, allowing us to learn positive lessons from difficult or negative circumstances.
One of the exercises that Altman described was what he called “palming the present,” which involves putting your palms together slowly, focusing on the sensations in your hands, and breathing. He said that mindfulness practices involve being in the present and that clearing your head can help eliminate RATS: rumination, anxiety, transition issues, and stress.
Altman outlined breathing exercises and specific positions for optimal breathing, reviewing some of the principles and practices from his books, which include Simply Mindful and The Mindfulness Toolbox. He emphasized the importance of coming back home to the present moment and ended with his three-minute detox practice.
This year, archived recordings of every presentation from the CFA Institute Annual Virtual Conference will be available online, with additional insights and commentary published on the CFA Institute Annual Virtual Conference blog.
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