Resilience and the Athletic Mind

Executive functions make up the system that controls higher-order cognitive processes such as planning, decision making, information monitoring, self-regulation, goal directed behaviour and much of human volitional behaviour. The prefrontal cortex (PFC) is the region of the brain responsible for these critical functions and also happens to be one of the most vulnerable to stress hormones (McEwen & Morrison, 2013) produced in response to psychological stress, like excessive workloads. Corticosteroids (stress hormones) can profoundly alter the PFC on a structural, functional and biochemical level that translate into behaviours that disrupt success (Miller, 2000) or potentially; lead to mental illness (de Kloet, Joels, & Holsboer, 2005). Fortunately, this vital brain region has some plasticity that we can exploit to build neuroprotective resilience against excessive stress.

The PFC can be thought of as like a muscle that can become overloaded when too much physical strain is placed upon it for long periods of time, the muscle becomes tired and can be strained or cramp up. So how do we keep this muscle healthy and strengthen it for optimal functioning? One great solution is to work like an athlete and use mini mindfulness breaks. Mindfulness meditation doesn’t mean sitting still for hours with your legs crossed in an uncomfortable position. It is a portable learned skill and can be practiced almost anytime and anywhere. Short 3 minute bouts of focused mindfulness practice can be a highly effective way of punctuating the working day and ensuring the minds gets focused periods of rest, it is one of the most highly effective tools used in validated mindfulness based programs (Segal, Williams, & Teasdale, 2002, p. 174). It also allows the PFC to reengage, so we may continue with higher-order cognitive processes and interrupt automated unhelpful thinking patterns that emerge in a stressful state.
Muscles won’t tolerate nor operate during intense periods of physical activity without any rest, and neither will the mind. Buying oneself 3 minutes of mindfulness recuperation a few times a day can make a huge difference to mental well-being and performance.


de Kloet, E. R., Joels, M., & Holsboer, F. (2005). Stress and the brain: from adaptation to disease. Nat Rev Neurosci, 6(6), 463-475. doi:10.1038/nrn1683
McEwen, B. S., & Morrison, J. H. (2013). Brain On Stress: Vulnerability and Plasticity of the Prefrontal Cortex Over the Life Course. Neuron, 79(1), 16-29. doi:10.1016/j.neuron.2013.06.028
Miller, E. K. (2000). The prefrontal cortex and cognitive control. Nat Rev Neurosci, 1(1), 59-65. doi:10.1038/35036228
Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2002). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: A new approach to preventing relapse. New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.
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