Mindfulness and high performance

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Time:

Place: Aud A

Formal title

Mindfulnes in high performance environments

Formal

The main aim of this thesis was to explore the feasibility and effects of mindfulness-training (MT) in elite cohorts operating in dynamic and taxing environments. We sought to highlight aspects related to feasibility, stress-reduction and the inhibition aspect of executive functions.

Description

This thesis comprises four studies (N = 107). The first study examined the feasibility of MT in a high-performance cohort. The study involved pre to post changes and long-term effects of 12 months of MT in a male high-performance combat aircraft cohort (n = 21), using self-report measures of mindfulness, mental skills and anxiety, followed by post-intervention interviews, and two-year follow-up. In the second study we investigated whether a computerised go/no-go test could be a reliable measure of changes in response-inhibition during whole body vibration in elite orienteering-runners (n = 19). In the third study we sought to determine if a 4-month MT intervention had a measurable impact on stress and inhibitory functioning in military aviation personnel (n = 40) during a period of prolonged high-workloads. This was a controlled study comprising two military helicopter units during their deployment-periods. Personnel in one squadron (n = 25) received MT, while personnel in the other squadron (n = 15) acted as wait-list controls. We used the same go/no-go test as in study 2 to test response inhibition, and also included a test of inhibition of stimulus-driven attentional capture. Stress-reduction was measured using saliva cortisol and self-reported mental demand on the go/no-go test. In the fourth study we investigated the association between different facets of mindfulness and inhibitory control in professional soccer players (n = 42), not yet exposed to MT, using the same computerised tests as in study 3.

Result

In study 1, there was a pre- to post-improvement in self-reported mindfulness, attention regulation, emotion regulation, and a reduction in performance related somatic anxiety. Participants reported a high degree of acceptance and satisfaction with the programme. Mindfulness scores remained elevated throughout the two-year follow-up. In study 2 we found that the go/no-go test was sensitive to subtle decrements in response inhibition during whole body vibration. In paper 3, the results from a mixed between-within analysis revealed that the MT participants, compared to controls, had a larger pre to post increase in high- and low-cortisol slopes, together with decreased perceived mental demand imposed by the go/no-go test. No pre to post changes were found in performance on any of the computerised tests. The main findings in study 4 were that in MT-naïve professional soccer players, higher scores on the observation facet of mindfulness were associated with improved inhibitory control and perceptual flexibility, while higher scores on the non-judgement facet were associated with a loss of inhibitory control and more impulsive responding.

Conclusions: Overall, the findings indicated that MT alleviates some of the physiological and psychological stress of challenging tasks and periods of high workloads. The results from the follow-up in study 1 also indicated that these effects may be long lasting. Inhibitory functioning, as measured in the current thesis, was differentially related to mindfulness-facets in MT-naïve participants, but was not readily improved by a 4-month MT programme.

Applied Implications: These findings are important as MT interventions could be a useful method for protection against fatigue and attrition effects of extended periods of high workload, supporting the vision of MT as a promising technique for promoting resilience in high-performance groups. However, MT in the form that was studied in the current research was not an efficient measure to improve the inhibition element of executive functioning, at least not at the level of preventing interference from stimulus-driven attentional capture or stopping motor action. Methodologically, the current research underscores the importance of multidimensional measures of mindfulness and demonstrates that the computerised tests used may be easily accessible and useful markers of response inhibition and inhibition of automatic task-irrelevant stimulus processing in elite cohorts. There is a need for future randomized controlled trials (RCTs), with active control groups to further assess the effect of MT in high performance environments. Qualitative research should also be undertaken to further develop the mechanisms and processes of becoming more mindful in these environments.

Paper 1: Meland, A., Fonne, V., Wagstaff, A., & Pensgaard, A. M. (2015). Mindfulness-based mental training in a high-performance combat aviation population: A one-year intervention study and two-year follow-up. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 25, 48-61.

Paper 2: Ishimatsu, K., Meland, A., Hansen, T. A., Kasin, J. I., & Wagstaff, A. S. (2016). Action slips during whole-body vibration. Applied Ergonomics, 55, 241-247.

Paper 3: Meland, A., Ishimatsu, K., Pensgaard, A. M., Wagstaff, A., Fonne, V., Garde, A. H., & Harris, A. (2016).  Impact of mindfulness training on physiological measures of stress and objective measures of attention control in a military helicopter unit. The International Journal of Aviation Psychology, 25, 191-208.

Paper 4: Meland, A., Høgmo, P. M., Ishimatsu, K., & Pensgaard, A. M. Inhibitory control is differentially associated with mindfulness facets in a high performance cohort.  Mindfulness, (submitted).

This project was a joint venture between Norwegian Armed Forces Medical Services – Institute of Aviation Medicine, the Norwegian Olympic training center (Olympiatoppen), and the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences.