How Firefighters are Using Mindfulness

Catch up with the latest news in mindfulness.

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In the Face of Fire

They were an experienced crew of smokejumpers—firefighters who parachute in to the forest—and they were battling an out-of-control blaze in the Los Padres National Forest of California. But while they rushed to tackle a spot in front of them, they didn’t notice that a vertical plume of flame and smoke had burst above them, cutting off their only path to safety. Trapped, they resorted to the small cocoon- like shelters they each carry to protect them from the intense heat.

Fortunately, no one was killed that day, but three of the firefighters needed treatment for burns. One was in hospital for a week.

“They got caught in tunnel vision,” says veteran firefighter Jim Saveland, who studied the 2008 fire as part of his work in risk management at the US Forest Service. For Saveland, who is a smokejumper himself, the incident raised an important, potentially life-or-death challenge: how to help firefighters maintain situational awareness, especially in the midst of dangerous, high-stress situations.

“So we developed a mindfulness course,” Saveland says, “and piloted it with some crews in the West.”

Saveland, 59 and a longtime meditator, has gone on to develop a series of programs with mindfulness elements to reduce work-related injuries and death in the Forest Service, which averages six fatalities a year. “I think a mindfulness practice can help folks be a little bit more cool, calm, and collected in high-stress situations,” he says. “Are you just reacting or are you bring- ing some deliberate decision-making to the process?”

Saveland has looked at U.S. military studies show- ing that in high-stress situations, the neocortex—the part of the brain that manages higher functions, spatial perception, and motor commands—can go offline. Fire fighters and armed forces personnel face many of the same physical and emotional challenges.

“When fighting fires you may experience auditory exclusion, where you don’t hear certain things,” he says. “With mindfulness training the neocortex re- mains online longer and comes back online quicker.”

Saveland also sees mindfulness as a means to build emotional resiliency and to help people recover from job-related stress and trauma—key for those who ght re for a living.

A Boston native who moved to Georgia at a young age, Saveland spent several years at the Air Force Academy, where he was on the parachute team, then went on to serve as an Airman during the Vietnam era. He earned his master’s in re ecology at the University of Idaho.

“Early on I read about these crazy people who jump out of airplanes into forest res,” he says. “It sounded like something interesting to pursue, to become a smokejumper.”

Saveland has had a mindfulness practice for years and is also pro cient in aikido. Taking Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program helped him introduce mindfulness in an institutional setting. “Most of my meditation these days is when I nd a spare moment o duty outside or go for a hike and nd a place,” he says.

Using his experience with mindfulness as an inspi- ration, Saveland is spearheading other pilot programs at the Forest Service, including Yoga for Fire ght-
ers. His o ce is funding research at Oregon State University about attributes that make for good leaders in re ghting crews. The researcher there has come up with something called S.H.A.R.P., which Saveland describes this way:

Stop: Take a moment; what’s happening, what’s going on? Here: Am I present? Act: What are my actions at the moment? Respond: How am I a ecting the situ- ation? Person: Am I taking care of myself?

Not a bad strategy for being in the heat of any moment, flames or not.

Kindness Evolution

When we think of “survival of the fittest,” Darwin’s theory of evolution comes to mind. But have you heard of “survival of the kindest”?

Dacher Keltner thinks that’s more accurate. He’s director
of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, which has been keeping track of research into prosocial behavior—actions that promote mutual well-being—since 2001. Keltner says he’s now seeing “a sea-change in sci- enti c literature” on evolution- ary psychology. In contrast to the dog-eat-dog view of human nature, new research is showing that people are inher- ently altruistic and cooperative. “We’re equipped with mecha- nisms for care and nurturance,” says Emiliana Simon-Thomas, Greater Good’s science direc-tor. “And they’re as original as any we have for self-preservation and competition.”

In a recent paper discussed in Greater Good’s online magazine, Harvard researchers David Rand, Joshua Greene, and Martin Nowak (coauthor of the book SuperCooperators: Altruism, Evolution, and Why We Need Each Other to Succeed) exam- ine how we behave in social dilemmas—that is, where our short-term “selfish” interests conflict with long-term community interests. Their conclusion? “Although the cold logic of self-interest is seductive, our first impulse is to cooperate.”

Researchers in neurology are also finding ways we’re programmed for altruism. When we give something away we get a shot of dopamine, the neuro- transmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers. Mirror neurons also play a role, says Keltner, enabling us to take on other people’s pleasures as our own. “That’s a powerful cognitive mechanism.”

Keltner’s own work shows that self-interest is overrated. Greed is, in fact, not good.
“We know scienti cally that if we prime people to focus on materialistic things and them- selves, they’re less cooperative.” But trying to make it on your own is not the key to success over the long run.

And as the planet’s population grows, figuring out how we can live together peaceably and e ectively is key, says Simon- Thomas. “Really solid skills in communicating, understand- ing, and working well with other people are your biggest assets.”

It turns out even Darwin didn’t believe we’re all self- ish—he argued that sympathy is our strongest instinct. And Keltner says, “a lot of the data today lends credence to that view. It shows we have a default tendency to share and give.”

Free from Falls

Your mom was right. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Now maybe she needs a reminder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, falls are the lead- ing cause of death by injury for adults age 65 and older. Falls are also the most common cause of hospital admissions for trauma among that group. In 2010, 2.3 million older Americans were treated for fall-related injuries and more than 662,000 were hospitalized.

With this data in mind, the fall prevention program at Stanford Hospital & Clinics introduced Mindfulness in Fall Prevention, a new component that offers these great tips to stay safe:

  • Whenever you change positions (lying down to sitting, sitting to standing), bring your attention to how your body is feeling before, during, and a er. Ask yourself, “How is my body feeling right now? Am I dizzy or light-headed? Do I feel pain or weakness?”
  • When you’re walking, try to focus solely on walking. Distraction in- creases the potential for falls.
  • Use the awareness of your breath
    to keep your attention in the present moment.
  • Slow down. Try to bring attention only to the task at hand.
  • Use everyday objects and sensa- tions—say, the sound of wind chimes—to help bring your attention back to the present.

Mindful Governance

In March, Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness- Based Stress Reduction, addressed British members of parliament who had taken part in the rst mindful- ness course o ered to government o cials in Britain. The 12 MPs spent 75 minutes a day for eight weeks medi- tating and learning how their bodies and minds respond to stress.

“Mindfulness is being discussed now at really quite senior levels in parliament,” says Chris Cullen of the Oxford Center for Mindfulness. He helped organize the visit and says Kabat-Zinn spent two days talking to socials about integrating mindfulness into education, health care, and other sectors.

Kick the Habit

Studies show that smoking addiction ranks right up there with addiction to hard drugs. And it can take considerably longer to shake a cigarette habit. “You hit rock bottom a lot faster with alcohol and cocaine than you do with smoking,” says Judson Brewer, the medi- cal director at Yale’s Therapeu- tic Neuroscience Clinic.

With this in mind, Brewer has developed an app to assist with smoking cessation. It’s
a three-week, mindfulness- based program called Craving to Quit.

“We did a study comparing it to the gold-standard pro- gram for quitting smoking—the American Lung Association’s Freedom From Smoking—and we found that Craving to Quit was twice as e ective,” he says.

Brewer’s study found that 36% of participants following the Craving to Quit program did not return to smoking a er four weeks, compared to only 15% from the Freedom From Smoking group. And a er 17 weeks, 31% of those from the mindfulness group still weren’t smoking, compared to only 6% for Freedom From Smoking.

Craving to Quit starts by helping users acknowledge how smoking connects with not just pleasure but stress. The goal is to notice how we fall into “habit loops”: when a certain stimulus arises, we have a set response, such as lighting a cigarette.

“When you get yelled at by your boss, notice how you get a craving to smoke,” says Brewer. “And then notice that smoking doesn’t x your problem with your boss. It’s also important to notice what it’s actually like to smoke—what it tastes like, what it’s like to suck fumes into your lungs.”

Brewer says people start to see that smoking is not as pleasurable as they thought it was, and that it doesn’t necessarily help them address or x problems that arise in life.

The app goes further by encouraging self-compassion, which short-circuits the judgments that can come when we try to make difficult changes in our lives. “When people have a craving, it’s good to notice if they’re resisting or beating themselves up,” says Brewer.

Part of the Craving to Quit program includes access to a closed online community
for questions or peer support. “This isn’t a magic pill,” says Brewer. “You have to do the practice and you have to want to quit smoking. This isn’t go- ing to work if you’re ambivalent about it. But then, I don’t think anything will work if you’re ambivalent.”

How often are you aware of your breathing over the course of a day? (Aside from those meetings that are so boring you wonder if you’ve stopped breathing altogether.)

Probably your answer is not o en, or never. But paying attention to how you’re breathing at any given moment can be a powerful tool in dealing with stress. And now a breath-measuring app is be- ing tested that could help you track how you’re doing throughout the day.

“You can think of Breathware as a pedometer for your breath,” says Neema Moraveji, director of the Stanford Calm- ing Technology Lab and cofounder of Breathware.

The app measures breath rate through a sensor that you wear at your waist. It sends respiration information to your smart- phone, and if your breathing becomes erratic or you’re holding your breath— “which we o en do,” says Moraveji—the app sends you a noti cation and o ers a practice to bring your breathing back to a normal rate. Normal, Moraveji explains, just means what’s comfortable. “There is no universally good way to breathe.”

Moraveji says that increasingly popular “self-tracking” devices—wristwatches that monitor heart rate, mobile apps that measure stress through the phone’s cam- era lens—are still “pretty preliminary” ways of measuring body changes. And they o en supply readings of things we can’t control, he notes.

But breathing is di erent. With the information at hand, you can alter your breathing, your thinking, or both. “The way you breathe relates to the way you’re thinking,” says Moraveji. “If you’re breath- ing kind of shallow or fast and erratic, the brain is doing the same thing. If you’re breathing smoothly and deeply, the mind is operating in a similar fashion. The breath is mirroring the thought pattern.”

Are America’s prisons preparing people to return to society? The high number of released prisoners who end up back behind bars suggests not.

According to a Pew Center report called State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons, of the two million Americans in the correctional system, 40% return to state prisons within three years of their release.

The Prison Mindfulness In- stitute thinks it may be able to help. PMI’s agship program is Path of Freedom, a curriculum for both prisoners and prison sta . It teaches mindfulness practice, cognitive behavioral training, and social and emo- tional learning.

The program helps par- ticipants understand the connection between attitudes, thoughts, feelings, impulses, and behaviors. “Prisoners’ minds tend to be more disor- ganized than most,” says Fleet Maull, who started this work

in 1989 while he was serving a 14-year sentence for drug trafficking. “They have minimal attention stabilization and tend to have very poor emotion regulation.” Most prisoners grew up in chaotic environments and were exposed to a great deal of trauma. Many have been diagnosed with ADHD.

“Through mindfulness training you can learn to recognize

that moment when you can catch yourself in the middle of a pattern,” says Maull. “A mind- fulness practitioner can think, ‘Oh, I recognize where this goes, and I’m not sure I want to go there this time.’ I recognize this moment of freedom when
I can make a new choice, one that will lead to a di erent outcome. ”

Path of Freedom is offered in prisons in several states, and in some prisons in Canada, Sweden, and Chile. More than 200 facilitators have been trained to lead the program.

Maull believes it belongs in the mainstream of correctional programming. PMI moved its headquarters from Colorado to Rhode Island to be near a cluster of correctional facilities and began research projects to assess the impact of its mindfulness-based programs. One ve-year study, launched in 2011, will measure the success of Path of Freedom.

Executive director Kate Crisp says she’s collected thousands of quotes from pris- oners highlighting their positive experiences in the program.
In the words of one prisoner, “A er meditating I feel so much clearer—like my mind has more logic. It was like something opened up and other possibili- ties were there for me.”

Research Roundup

Listen up, college preppers: meditation may help boost SAT and GRE scores. Researchers from the University of California–Santa Barbara recently wondered whether reducing mind wandering could improve performance on standardized tests. They found evidence it does. A er a group of undergraduates went through a two-week intensive mindfulness training program— which included practices to reduce distractedness and improve working-memory capacity—they performed better on the verbal-reasoning section of the GRE. 1

Mindfulness meditation as a stress reliever has been studied extensively, but there’s been little evidence that it helps those suffering from chronic inflammation conditions where psychological stress plays a major role. Now a study by University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientists suggests mindfulness meditation techniques may help people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, in inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma, and “offer a lower-cost alternative or complement to standard treatment.”