Can Mindfulness Meditation Really Slow Aging? The powerful link between mind and body

October 2nd, 2016 by

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Meditation has a lot of benefits for those who practice regularly. New studies are suggesting that meditation can even help slow down the complicated process of aging. While the work is still new, it’s quite interesting and finds support in a wide variety of studies.

People vary widely in how they age. One marker of biological age seems to be “telomere” length – the length of the protective protein caps at the ends of the chromosomes housed in each of our cells. The longer the telomeres, the more times a chromosome can replicate itself without errors. Shorter telomeres are correlated with weaker immune function, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, osteoporosis, and other problems of old age. “Telomerase” is an enzyme that helps keep our telomeres long and healthy, slowing cellular aging. The correlation between cellular aging and bodily aging is still being studied, but new correlations are coming to light.

Many things can cause the shortening of telomeres – primarily, of course, time. The protective protein caps naturally wear down as cells divide and renew themselves, something all cells do. However, research is showing that having a regular meditation practice seems to have a protective effect on this wearing down process thus preserving the length of our telomeres. While the popular idea that your entire body renews itself over seven to ten years isn’t quite true, it’s pretty close – only a few types of cells don’t renew, and some (like heart cells) renew extremely slowly. Lifestyle factors that seem to accelerate telomere shortening include poor diet, smoking, and a sedentary lifestyle.

Stress is another major factor in shortening telomeres. We know that too much stress is bad for us (as is too little: everyone needs some challenge in life!). Stressful thoughts – such as constantly perceiving threats and ruminating – can lead to prolonged periods of reactivity and chronic stress. In contrast, mindfulness meditation increases positive mental and emotional states, including being able to view stress as a challenge rather than a threat. Various studies are linking mindfulness with increased telomere length.

A pilot study of 39 caregivers compared one group who practiced daily meditation to another group who listened relaxing music, and found that the meditators had better cognitive functioning, less depression, and improved telomerase activity after eight weeks. While these results need to be confirmed in a larger sample, they are promising signs that meditation can be helpful for longevity as well as your mental state.

Higher objective stress is associated with shorter telomeres, leading researchers to conclude that higher objective stress actually ages our cells. Fascinatingly, higher perceived stress leads to even shorter telomeres, thus illustrating the powerful influence of our thoughts on the body. Because meditation helps us change our perception of stress, it also changes the physical effects of the same objective amount of stress, even at the cellular level.

A UCSF study of early-stage prostate cancer patients showed that lifestyle changes – diet, exercise, stress-management (including meditation) and social support – over five years lengthened telomeres by 10% The control group, who didn’t experience the lifestyle interventions, had telomeres that averaged 3% shorter than at the beginning of the study. While the study was very small, it’s quite intriguing! The researchers believe that the findings should hold for healthy individuals, as well.

We’ve long known that mindfulness meditation can help keep us young by encouraging mental flexibility and inner peace. How amazing that it can also keep us physically young by helping our cells renew!

Mindfulness Practices
Awareness of Breath Meditation
Body Scan (Similar to “Yoga Nidra”)
Gentle Yoga
Walking Meditation
Tai Chi / Qigong

Saying “Yes” to Anxiety: How Mindfulness Lets You Step out of the Whirlwind and Really Take Care of Yourself

September 1st, 2016 by

 

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Anxiety is worrying about the future. One reason mindfulness helps anxiety is that being mindful means being in the present. The more you practice dwelling in the present moment, the less room you have for anxiety. It sounds simple, and it is – just not easy.

Mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing your mind to your experience of the present moment over and over again – body sensations, sounds, the feeling of breathing in and out. Minds are distractible. They like to comment, narrate, make judgments, create “stories”. An anxious mind will make up anxious stories. The body responds, for example the stomach churns, the heart races. This can generate more thoughts and emotions that perpetuate a continuous cycle of anxiety. Mindfulness practice enables you to gently bring your attention back to the bare experience of the present moment – your breath, your body, your current real feelings – without the filter of the story-making machine in your head. By learning how to do this, you can step out of the cycle of anxiety and more skillfully manage difficult emotions.

Mindfulness meditation isn’t going to make you happy all the time. Meditation isn’t for distracting you from your current anxiety or trying to “fight” it. Instead, meditation practice teaches you how to stay with your anxious feelings – and just the actual feelings – while seeing, and then letting go of, your thought-induced anxiety about your anxiety. This can take the form of thoughts such as how you are “always going to be an anxious and fragile person”, and how you always “freak out at the littlest things.” Mindfulness meditation, and the skills that come with regular practice, can help you slow down the escalating whirlwind of the anxiety cycle.

Are you anxious about feeling anxious?
Research shows that how we feel (and think) about our feelings affects us as much, or more, than our actual feelings. If we’re anxious about our anxiety, if we believe it’s an inherent part of who we are, or we judge ourselves harshly for it, the anxiety will have more negative effects on our minds and bodies than if we simply allow the initial anxious feelings to be present. Meta-emotions (how we feel about feelings) are powerful. We learn them from our parents, we use them for – or against – ourselves, and we teach them to our kids.

One reason meta-emotions are so important is that they govern whether we’re ok with feeling our feelings, or not. Feeling our feelings isn’t the same as reacting to our feelings. If we’re mindful we can see how feelings of anxiety are often followed by an instantaneous and unconscious reaction to the anxious feelings – typically something like “if I don’t make this go away right now I’m going to feel this way forever!” You can see how this drive to make the anxious feelings go away can lead to unhelpful behaviors (eating when you’re not hungry, or eating the wrong things, over-spending, alcohol or substance abuse, procrastination, the list goes on). Mindfulness enables a pause between the actual physical feeling and our automatic reaction to it. This ability to pause and feel your feelings as they are, without trying to make them go away and without magnifying them through runaway thoughts, enables you to stop the cycle, assess what you really need, and then do something that might actually be beneficial and healthy.

Just say Yes!
Jeffrey Brantley, MD, is the founder and director of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke Integrative Medicine. The following practice is adapted from his book Calming Your Anxious Mind.
The Yes Practice
The simple practice of saying “yes” to experiences as you become aware of them, coupled with mindful awareness, can release you from the deep habits of reactivity and help you stay connected to the present moment. The instructions are simple: As you are practicing mindfulness formally or informally, and you notice any pain or resistance arising, name the pain or upset that is present, and respond with a friendly “yes” to that experience, as if talking to it directly. For example: “Fear about my health, yes!” “Pain in my tooth, yes!” “Anxiety and worry about my job, yes.” You may want to try this in informal practice (the situations of daily life). For example: “Stuck in traffic, not moving, yes!” “Angry about what my coworker just said, yes!” “Frightened by the people walking toward me, yes!” The “yes” practice is a way for you to activate openheartedness as you pay attention moment by moment. Being mindful – noticing what is happening as it is happening – implies making space, being accepting, and not becoming lost in aversion and reactivity.

Mindfully Seeking Shut-Eye

October 8th, 2015 by

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Sleep. It’s one of the most important and least prioritized components of health and happiness. It contributes to our overall well-being in enormous ways, from hormone balance and job performance to the foods we choose and whether or not we feel motivated to exercise. Getting enough sleep has numerous benefits including increased longevity, improved mood, better overall health, and a general feeling of contentment and satisfaction with life, to name a few.

We all need deep sleep. Those who have gone without it for extended periods (like new parents and people with insomnia or other sleep disorders) can attest to the fact that sleep deprivation can make daily life feel like unmanageable drudgery. In fact, not getting enough hours of sleep, or failing to get deep sleep and complete sleep cycles at night, can lead to a multitude of physical and psychological issues.

The Connection Between Stress, the Mind, and Sleep

People suffering from sleep disorders may benefit from better “sleep hygiene”, with a nightly routine of relaxing and unwinding, going to bed at the same time each night, and avoiding bright screens, exercise, and stimulating activities before bedtime. However, chemical and hormonal imbalances resulting from long periods of unmanaged stress are often behind insomnia disorders. A number of research studies on mindfulness training for sleep-challenged adults have demonstrated a significant link.

A recent study at the University of Southern California and UCLA found that mindfulness meditation training is more effective for sleep-challenged adults than sleep hygiene education. “We were surprised to find that the effect of mindfulness meditation on sleep quality was large and above and beyond the effect of the sleep hygiene education program,” said David S. Black, PhD, MPH, author of the study and assistant professor of preventive medicine at USC and Director of the American Mindfulness Research Association (goAMRA.org).

The National Sleep Foundation recommends that adults aged 26-64 get 7-9 hours of sleep each night. People who regularly practice some form of mindfulness meditation are likely to enjoy more sleep and better quality sleep. Mindfulness practices soothe the nervous system and ease mental patterns associated with stress. Mindfulness practitioners learn to let go of their thoughts about the day before bedtime. As Black notes, “Before going to bed, people who can’t sleep worry a lot, and they start ruminating about not being able to sleep.” Mindfulness practitioners are better able to notice these thoughts and set them aside without chasing them or elaborating and creating more stress and wakefulness.

A Mindfulness Routine for Getting a Nourishing Night’s Sleep

In addition to dimming the lights one hour before bedtime, and putting away anything with a screen – tablet, phone, computer, or TV. (The light causes wakefulness), Shelby Freedman Harris, Psy.D., C.BSM, clinical psychologist and director of Behavioral Sleep Medicine at the Sleep-Wake Disorders Center at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, suggests a mindfulness practice known as the “Body Scan” ten minutes before bedtime. Sit in a comfortable chair and bring your attention to the top of your head, or to your toes, and progressively bring your attention to each part of your body, noticing whatever sensations you become aware of. Gradually move your attention through your entire body. When your mind drifts into thinking (which it will), the practice is to simply notice this (without judging yourself) and then gently escort your attention back to noticing sensations in the body. It doesn’t matter how many times the mind wanders away: Each time you bring your attention back to the body you’re strengthening the mindfulness muscle. Spend about 5 minutes on this practice. Then, get in bed and rest your attention on the sensations of your breath. If you are unable to fall asleep, get up, sit in the comfortable chair again and repeat the Body Scan. Don’t get back into bed until you feel sleepy—and don’t sleep in the chair!

Whether you’re getting sufficient shut-eye or not, mindfulness practice can help prevent sleep disturbances and maintain healthy sleep patterns. Sleep well!

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

Research continues to support the many health and quality of life benefits of mindfulness practice: stress reduction, greater physical well-being, and a happier, more stable mental state. Did you know that if you practice mindfulness, you are more likely to be successful in making positive behavior changes in your life (think weight loss, exercise, productivity), and you’re less likely to catch a cold or the flu?  Media personalities are also causing us to take a closer look, including ABC newsman Dan Harris, author of 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Really Works — a True Story. Anchorman Anderson Cooper recently participated in a meditation retreat led by mindfulness pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn as part of a segment on CBS’ 60 Minutes. Cooper reports that because of the benefits he has experienced, he is now a mindfulness practitioner. They’re getting our attention. But why should you build time into your day for mindfulness practice? How are the daily lives of mindfulness practitioners different from the lives of those who have yet to discover this millennia old form of meditation?

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

Sure, mindful people have emotions—we all do, we are human! The difference is that mindful people are aware of their emotions in a different way. Their mindfulness practice trains them to be aware of and feel their strong emotions without automatically reacting to them.  When emotions arise, they are able to observe them from the safety of neutral ground rather than being yanked around by the ups and downs of the emotional rollercoaster. Over time, and with practice, they have learned from their own experience that even the most intense feelings are impermanent.

They Keep Calm and Carry On

Because people who practice mindfulness have practiced working with their difficult emotions, their reactions, decisions, and sense of self are less influenced by their emotional state when things “go wrong” or don’t turn out as planned.  Practitioners are more able than others to remain calm and effective in stressful situations, actively listening to others, and responding skillfully based on what’s called for in the moment, rather than reacting automatically.

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

Mindfulness practice is about bringing awareness to the present moment, noticing thoughts and feelings as well as bodily sensations. People who practice this type of awareness have learned that it is OK to “be with” discomfort, knowing from experience that it too is not “fixed” but changeable. Mindfulness invites us to “hold” and attend to  discomfort in the body with kindness rather than resistance —whether it is the racing heart of anxiety, the burning tightness in the chest of anger, or the heartache of grief. By learning to turn toward what’s difficult in the body, and to explore it with curiosity, they have discovered that pain is often blanketed with layers of thought, resistance, and strong emotion. While everyone experiences pain, mindful people have discovered that without these layers of added psychological pain, their true physical pain is actually manageable. And by staying attentive to the body, they know when and how to take care of themselves, for example with a timely yoga stretch, exercise, or rest. Because they are more embodied than others, mindful people experience the fullness, richness, and aliveness of their embodied human experience.

They Practice Compassion

People who practice mindfulness and meditation tend to be less afraid of thoughts and emotions because they have looked at them and discovered that thoughts and feelings are fleeting and illusory. By the same token, they have willingly embraced deeply painful emotions and felt them in their entirety. Consequently, mindful people are more inclined to connect with and reach out to others who are suffering, and offer them empathy and compassion. The late great Tibetan meditation master Chogyam Trungpa referred to the “genuine heart of sadness,” or the tender, open, fearless heart of compassion that is awakened through practicing mindfulness. By knowing our own pain we connect more intimately with the human experience of others.

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

Sense into your body with kindness and curiosity. What sensations are associated with this emotion? Where are they located?

Notice what happens as you observe.  Do the sensations stay the same, intensify, diminish, or shift in some way?

Name the emotion. Is what you are feeling anxiety, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness?  Research shows that developing the skill of naming our emotions in the moment they arise helps loosen their grip.

Practice “just being” every day. Give your mind an “anchor” to pay attention to, for example the sensations of your breathing, or the sensations of movement during yoga. Notice when the mind wanders into thinking. Patiently return your attention to your chosen anchor, allowing thoughts to drift through your awareness like clouds in a vast sky.

 

 

Too Much Cortisol? The Scary Stress Hormone and How to Decrease it

May 15th, 2015 by

If you’ve ever had a panic attack, or remember a close call when driving on a busy highway, then you’re familiar with the effects of the stress hormone cortisol flooding the body. It’s a horrible feeling! But cortisol isn’t concerned with how you feel. It’s concerned with your survival. Your body is an incredible organism with a brain that functions to protect the body against perceived threats. This could be an oncoming car or a recurrent negative thinking pattern. The primitive part of the brain that scans every moment of your experience for potential threats – the amygdala – has a “hair trigger” and would rather be safe than sorry. So, when the Amygdala gets even a fuzzy sense of a threat —whether “real” or perceived—it instantly activates the autonomic nervous system producing a cascade of stress hormones and a host of physical changes in the body to allow you to either fight off or escape from a predator – commonly referred to as the Fight – Flight response.

This phenomenon is obviously essential for your survival in the face of immediate physical dangers (that near miss on the highway requires immediate evasive action), but it can become a huge problem when the perceived “threat’ is actually chronic stress, which may include automatic reactive and negative thinking patterns that originate within your own mind. The amygdala doesn’t know the difference!

Repeated activation of the Fight-Flight response, even for “threats” that come in the form of thoughts and emotions, like excessive worry, anger, and rumination, means long-term exposure to cortisol. Such exposure has been linked to everything from hypertension, cancer, infertility, high blood sugar, aggression, and more. Excessive cortisol makes the brain more sensitive to pain and exhausts the adrenal glands, which brings a whole host of ailments including insomnia and weight gain. Additionally, cortisol suppresses happy hormones like serotonin, leading to depression.

And it gets worse! Cortisol also effectively turns off the body’s innate repair mechanisms – anything not needed for immediate survival. Think immune system, reproductive system, and digestive system. Cortisol ramps down the functioning of these systems and ramps up those needed to deal with the stressor: especially the cardiovascular and adrenal systems. You can see how long term exposure to cortisol is not a healthy way to live.

How can we rebalance this mind-body system? As Dr. Lissa Rankin points out in her book Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself your body has natural self-repair mechanisms that fight infections, slow aging, and boost immunity. But these mechanisms cannot operate while the nervous system is stuck in “Fight-Flight”. What’s needed are ways to engage and strengthen the body’s parasympathetic nervous system: the part that soothes and calms the amygdala.

There are many simple mind-body practices that activate the soothing parasympathetic nervous system: meditation, yoga, tai chi, qigong, aromatherapy, and physical exercise. To keep yourself in balance, and protected from the damaging effects of cortisol, you must carve out time for self-care, and practice regularly. These practices are protective and healing and have no side effects!

Years ago, before I discovered meditation and yoga, I lived in a chronic state of Fight-Flight and cortisol saturation. I had the chronic pain, weakened immune system, and regular panic attacks to show for it. Now, having practiced and taught meditation for several years, I was recently invited to participate in a university study that examined the cortisol levels of meditation teachers. To my delight, I learned that my levels of cortisol were significantly lower than the average. I have no doubt that my mindfulness meditation practice is responsible for that. Take care of your body-mind. If you don’t, who will?

Mind-Body Practices for Reducing Cortisol

  • Mindfulness Meditation
  • Restorative Yoga
  • Chair Yoga
  • Tai Chi
  • Qigong

Mindfulness Training & Therapeutic Yoga: Optimal Treatments for Insomnia

September 16th, 2014 by

I remember when chronic pain and obsessive worry kept me awake night after night. Typically, around 2 am, my mind was scanning the horizon like a lighthouse, searching for something to worry about. When it locked on it wouldn’t let go, mentally approaching the “problem” from every conceivable angle – until the alarm clock went off. Does this sound like you?  Are you exhausted day after day due to the inability to sleep? What would life be like if a good nights sleep was something you could count on? How about a life with more energy, better moods, improved concentration, and enhanced health? Sound good?

Restful sleep is a foundation of good physical and emotional health.  But many people lie awake nightly, or have difficulty returning to sleep once awakened.  Sleep medications can produce unwanted side effects, including dependency. Medications can also lose effectiveness over time. Is there a natural alternative that’s actually good for you, without side effects, and the effectiveness of which increases over time? There is!

Medical researchers are looking closely at mindfulness training due to the substantial benefits it offers for insomnia as well as a host of other health, quality of life, and productivity concerns. Stress is a major cause of insomnia, but pain, anxiety, and depression – all magnified by stress – are also associated with sleeplessness. Researchers are studying why mindfulness training offers such valuable relief for insomnia.

Jeff Greeson, PhD, MS, clinical health psychologist at Duke University explains, “When we don’t know what to do with intrusive and persistent thoughts, the mind and body feel threatened. That signals the ‘fight or flight’ response which starts a cascade of sleep-robbing emotions like agitation and anxiety.” Greeson’s study of 151 sleep deprived adults, mostly women, who received 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training in mindfulness techniques and gentle yoga, showed significant improvements in sleep quality, sleep disturbances, and less daytime sleepiness. “When people become more mindful they learn to look at life through a new lens. They learn how to accept the presence of thoughts and feelings that may keep them up at night. They begin to understand that they don’t have to react to them. As a result, they experience greater emotional balance and less sleep disturbance.”

Stress is so pervasive today. People worry about the economy, their jobs, bills. “All that worrying, obsessing, and ruminating can increase the risk of illness and disease,” explains Greeson. “When the mind worries, the body responds.” The key, he says, is not to push those thoughts away, but to acknowledge them “That helps people manage their reaction to stress and anxiety and helps them remain calm.”

Researchers at the University of California at San Diego compared mindfulness training with sleep medication in two groups. One received the 8-week MBSR program. The other was prescribed the sleep medication Lunesta™. The MBSR participants significantly reduced the time it took them to fall asleep, increased their total sleep time, reported no adverse events, and scored their satisfaction with treatment as high. Although the patients who received sleep medication obtained similar benefits, their treatment satisfaction scores were not high, most continued using sleeping pills, and several reported adverse events. Because MBSR produces no side effects, and the positive potential benefits of mindfulness extend far beyond sleep, the researchers encouraged people with insomnia, especially those unable or unwilling to use sleep medications, to consider mindfulness training with MBSR.

This year a study by Duke University and Aetna found mindfulness training to significantly improve sleep, stress, pain, and blood pressure. Researchers concluded that mindfulness training reduces stress by teaching people how to significantly shift their attention to the present moment, with a curious and non-judgmental perspective.

If you’re lying awake night after night with a busy or worrying mind, you may already be feeling the effects – from chronic fatigue to more significant health consequences. Imagine a life with more energy, and the feeling of being well-rested and alert!  You can learn time-tested practices that will reverse the cycle of sleeplessness. Mindfulness training can improve the quality of your sleep, your health, and your life  – no pills, no side effects, no dependency.

 

 

Mindfulness and Anxiety

August 22nd, 2014 by

Many of the people who come to Integrative Mindfulness for mindfulness training suffer from anxiety, just as I once did.  Several years ago, when I was in the midst of a very stressful period in my life, I experienced anxiety attacks on a regular basis. For me, this would be a sudden and uncontrollable surge of stress chemicals throughout my body that brought my day to a complete halt until it passed. I also had chronic insomnia and spent most nights worrying.  I knew something was wrong, but I was so caught up in the momentum of my life, and absorbed in my worried thought patterns, that I couldn’t see a solution. Ultimately my health suffered and I became physically ill and depressed. My body insisted that something change.

If you experience anxiety you’re not alone. Anxiety is very common. Chronic anxiety afflicts 15.7 million people in the U.S. each year. One of the best books I’ve come across on this subject, and one which I frequently recommend to my students, is  Calming Your Anxious Mind: How Mindfulness and Compassion can Free You From Anxiety, Fear, and Panic by Jeffrey Brantley, MD, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine. Dr. Brantley notes that anxiety is a “powerful interaction of biology, cognitive-emotional influences, and stress.”

Anxiety and chronic stress are the result of repeated and long-term activation of the body’s fear system, the “fight or flight” reaction which involves many body systems and is designed to help us survive immediate danger. For example, avoiding a collision while driving.  Anxiety develops when the part of the brain responsible for soothing the activated fear system ceases to function effectively. The“fight or flight” reaction is necessary to survive occasional emergencies, but in anxiety the body and mind have learned (or overlearned) the reaction too well, and our natural system for calming the fear reaction have become compromised. “Fight or flight” becomes a long-term way of living.

Here’s the good news – just as the body and mind overlearn, repeat, and sustain the fear reaction, the parts of the mind that naturally calm the fear response can also be trained and strengthened – bringing the mind-body system back into healthy balance. This is where mindfulness is so effective in reversing anxiety.

Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain? Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

July 11th, 2014 by

Chronic pain affects 30 to 40 million U.S. adults, costing an estimated $600 billion a year.  But researchers have learned more about the physiology of pain in the past ten years than in the previous thousand. Pain is created by the brain in response to what it thinks is a threat. Contrary to previous thought, there isn’t just one pain center in the brain, there are many, according to Pain Explained, a publication of the Neuro Orthopedic Institute (NOI) of South Australia. “These parts include clusters of nodes used for sensation, movement, emotions, and memory, and they all link up to each other electrically and chemically.” In chronic pain, some of these nodes are hijacked or enslaved by the pain experience. While this is a complex process, one primary feature of chronic pain is hypersensitivity in the body’s alarm system of sensory neurons whose function is to send “danger” messages to the brain, particularly in the presence of inflammation.

Injured body tissue has a fairly specific window of time for healing. However, pain can persist even when the injury has had time to heal. This typically happens because the body’s natural alarm system becomes hyper-vigilant and abnormally sensitive, sending exaggerated “danger” signals. The brain’s faulty interpretation of these signals becomes deeply ingrained and persistent. “This can mean just touching the skin, or a slight temperature change, might cause the body’s sensors to send danger messages to the brain.” The brain incorrectly concludes that a threat remains, and that you need all the protection you can get. It produces pain, which is the body/mind’s normal way of motivating you to “get away” or escape from the “danger”. According to the NOI, brain responses such as movements, thoughts, autonomic and endocrine responses are then based on faulty information about the health of the tissues at the end of the nerve cells. “It’s as though an amplifier on a sound system is turned up.”

Thought Viruses Maintain the Chronic Pain Cycle

Thoughts and beliefs are nerve impulses too, and part of the chronic pain loop. As the NOI explains, “the brain has learned to be very good at protecting you from anything that might be dangerous to your tissues. Anxious and worrisome thoughts are threatening to a brain that is already hyper-vigilant about your survival. Research has identified thought processes – “thought viruses” – powerful enough to maintain a pain state. Some powerful thought viruses include:

I’m in pain so there must be something harmful happening to my body,”

“I’m staying home and not going out until all the pain goes away,” and

“I’m so frightened of my pain and of injuring my back again that I’m not doing anything!”

Meditation Helps Chronic Pain Sufferers Diminish “Thought Viruses”

People who practice mindfulness meditation find pain less unpleasant because their brains anticipate the pain less, according to a 2010 study. Scientists from the University of Manchester discovered that regular meditators show unusual activity during anticipation of pain in part of the brain called the prefrontal cortex, a region involved in controlling attention and thought processes when potential threats are perceived. “Meditation trains the brain to be more present-focused and therefore to spend less time anticipating future negative events. This may be why meditation is effective at reducing the recurrence of depression, which makes chronic pain considerably worse,” said the lead researcher. The value of meditation is that it soothes the hypersensitive threat/alarm/danger system at play in chronic pain.

Depressive Thoughts Make Pain Worse

In new study at the University of Oxford, researchers induced a depressed mood in study participants and found this disrupted the neural circuitry that regulates emotion, causing an enhanced experience of pain. Researchers believe that a sad mental state disables our ability to regulate the negative emotion associated with pain. Thus, pain has a greater impact. “Rather than merely being a consequence of having pain, depressed mood may drive pain and cause it to feel worse.” Mindfulness meditation is beneficial in preventing the relapse of depression by strengthening the practitioner’s ability to recognize the physical, cognitive, and emotional effects of depressive thoughts, and to proactively “decenter” from those thoughts.

Communication in the Brain Affects Pain

A 2012 Northwestern University study is the first to show that chronic pain develops the more two sections of the brain – related to emotional and motivational behavior – talk to each other. The more the frontal cortex and nucleus accumbens communicate, the greater the chance a patient will develop chronic pain. “The nucleus accumbens is an important center for teaching the rest of the brain how to evaluate and react  . . . . and may use the pain signal to teach the rest of the brain to develop chronic pain,” said the study’s senior author.

With this knowledge of how and why chronic pain develops, and with training in mindfulness meditation, you have tools for influencing patterns of thought and emotion that may be driving your pain. Mindfulness meditation is a complementary practice which can enhance standard medical treatment by your healthcare provider. You can proactively change the vicious cycle of chronic pain.

UW study shows benefits of mindfulness meditation for inflammation

May 4th, 2013 by

While interest in mindfulness meditation as a stress reliever has grown through the years, there’s been little evidence to support that it helps those suffering from chronic inflammation conditions in which psychological stress plays a major role. Until now. A new study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists suggests mindfulness meditation techniques may help people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease and asthma. Read more from this article by By Keren Herzog of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Truly Mindful Workplace

December 12th, 2012 by

If you follow workplace mindfulness in the news, you’ve had quite a bit of reading material in the last few months. Businesses of all types have embraced the fact that the wellbeing of their employees improves the health of the company. This is a truly informative article by Christy Cassisa, Co-Director of Workplace Initiatives and Giving at UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. Read more . . . . .

Image: Cristian V.

 

 

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