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.

Nurturing a Mindful Mind: Kids naturally take to mindfulness

June 20th, 2016 by

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Talk to any mindfulness practitioner, and they’ll say, “I wish I had discovered mindfulness sooner!” Increasingly, research shows that mindfulness benefits children just as much as adults — maybe even more. Mindfulness practices teach us many valuable skills including how to pause and observe what we’re feeling, how to concentrate, and how to soothe our emotions. Learn early and you’ve got a real advantage!

Goldie Hawn may be most famous as an actress, but she believes in mindfulness so much she founded the Hawn Foundation in 2003 to create MindUP™, an evidence-based training program for teachers and students. “Mindfulness can help people of any age,” she says. A sixth grader in the program reports, “Being mindful calms me down when I am angry. It helps me not get in a big fight because I don’t want to hurt my friends. It also helps me focus on my work.”

The Mindful Schools initiative trains educators to practice mindfulness themselves and to integrate it into their classrooms. The results have been striking. Studies show that mindfulness can improve a host of outcomes and teach critical life-skills to youngsters. Who wouldn’t want their child to have improved attention and focus, or better grades? How about increased emotional regulation, more empathy, and enhanced social skills? Benefits also include reduced test anxiety, stress, and depression.

Training kids in mindfulness doesn’t have to be difficult. The hardest part might be developing your own mindfulness practice: meditation, yoga, mindful eating. Kids will notice if you tell them to do something you’re not doing yourself! It’s also important to know that mindfulness isn’t going to change your child into a model of good behavior. Kids will still be kids. Mindfulness will help give them the tools they need to work with their emotions more skillfully when they arise.

One popular mindfulness activity for very young children is a “mind jar” — a jar full of glitter suspended in liquid, that your child can shake to reflect their busy mind and then watch the glitter settle as their own thoughts and feelings calm down. A snow globe will also work. Several websites have easy instructions for making a mind jar. [http://www.preschoolinspirations.com/2014/11/13/6-ways-to-make-a-calm-down-jar/]

Kids are naturally curious, so mindfulness practices are a great fit for young minds. One great exercise is eating one raisin mindfully. Ask your child to look at one raisin as if they’d never seen one before. Then guide them to notice the raisin with each one of their other senses, asking them what they notice-— how it feels, smells, tastes, and even the sound of chewing. The inner “aha” that comes from paying close attention to something as simple as a raisin spurs children to see what else they can discover just by paying attention. The Harvard Vanguard blog has a great script for talking your child in mindful eating. [http://blog.harvardvanguard.org/2013/04/smart-kids-practice-mindful-eating/]

Children are very active, so often a movement-based practice works well. Many kids love yoga for its moving and soothing qualities. Mindful walking, especially in nature, can help children connect what’s outside them to what’s inside them. Simply go for a walk and pay attention to the walk itself.

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman, relates the “breathing buddies” exercise. Even very young children can focus mindfully on their breath with help. You and your child can lie on your backs each of you with a stuffed animal on your belly. Focus attention on the movement of the buddy as you breathe in and out. This exercise is great for improving kids’ attention skills and self-management. They learn to associate the soothing qualities of their breathing with their ability to pause, focus, and soothe themselves.

Some people, including kids, can actually become more anxious when they first start practicing mindfulness — if you’ve never paid close attention to yourself before, you may find a sense of worry living inside. If your child experiences this, encourage him or her to continue the practice and try to determine what part of the experience is causing the anxious feeling. If your child is uncomfortable with negative thoughts, help her to practice letting go of thoughts and returning to the feeling of the breath. If your child is uncomfortable with letting go, help him notice how he feels in his body in the present moment. Ask him to breathe kindness into the part of the body that feels anxious. You might also have your child place a hand on the part of the body that feels anxious, feel the warmth of their own soothing touch, and gently repeat a kind word of their choosing like “soft, soft, soft”. If the problem persists, it may be best to find another mindfulness activity, such as yoga, mindful walking, or mindful eating, that don’t cause anxiety. [http://www.gisc.org/gestaltreview/documents/teachingmindfulnesstochildren.pdf]

Sharing mindfulness with your children can be a wonderful way to help them help themselves. Even if your children aren’t attending a school with a mindfulness program, you can teach them to experience the present moment through your own examples and guidance. Mindfulness is a quality that can be strengthened with practice, and teaching them some simple techniques will serve them their entire lives.

Graduate’s Story: Artist Theresa Girard

February 14th, 2016 by

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Many of you have seen the beautiful art on display in the Integrative Mindfulness studio in Bonita Springs, FL. These are the words of the artist, Theresa Girard, on her experience upon completing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program –

“The discovery of this seemingly simple process reaches far beyond anything I had previously considered. Being present for me began a new emotional connection to who I am and what is embodied in my true spirit. At the same time, filling a spiritual void that had crept into my life.
Previous torments, such as anxiety, fear, a barrage of “what ifs” lessened in an acceptance of being where I needed to be in the moment. A certain quieter place comes forward and seeps into much of my decision making and provides a peace focused on awareness. Even when things are not going well, I was able to decrease my self judgement and negativity.

As an artist, with an overly active and creative mind, I became able to self soothe in a forgiving way and found that my work actually raised to a higher level as I learned to slow down and really “look” and be a part of the painting in the present.

My new series of work is not based on comparison to other artists, but a peace at being here and a new self talk to encourage and gently disengage my focus from low self worth. I am lovable in this moment. My work is good, I can be successful for myself, just as a direct expression of my own energy……mindful energy….

Thank you!”

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!

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

Taking Mindfulness in Stride

December 23rd, 2014 by

Looking for a way to quiet your mind that doesn’t involve sitting still and following your breath? Walking meditation may be for you. It is just as beneficial as sitting meditation, with some differences. Obviously you’re walking instead of sitting, but the focus of your attention is also a bit different. Rather than attending to each breath, in walking meditation you gently attend to the experience of each step. When the mind wanders away from the feeling of walking, the practice is to patiently bring it back.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society at the University of Massachusetts and the pioneer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), explains that mindful walking differs from regular walking in that, “you’re not going anywhere.” It’s an opportunity to bring awareness to an aspect of life, like so many others, that has become quite automatic or “mindless.”

Walking meditation shares the same 2,500-year-old tradition as sitting meditation. Ancient texts state the Buddha himself taught that meditation should be practiced in four different “postures” – sitting, standing, walking, and lying down.  The idea seems clear – train the mind to abide in the present moment in a variety of contexts, and become “present” for the whole of your life.

Walking meditation is done very slowly in a “lane” in which one walks back and forth. Remember, you’re not going anywhere. Beginners often like to use the phrase “lifting, moving, placing, landing” to help them focus their attention on the four components of each step.

For even more of a beneficial boost, take your walking practice outside. Research from Japan has shown that walks in nature, compared with urban walks, produced a 12.4 percent decrease in the stress hormone cortisol, a seven percent decrease in sympathetic nerve activity (“fight or flight”), a 1.4 percent decrease in blood pressure, and a 5.8 percent decrease in heart rate. Participants had better moods and less anxiety.

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.

The Wall Street Journal: To Cut Office Stress, Try Butterflies and Meditation?

October 15th, 2012 by

Job pressures are the No. 2 cause of stress after financial worries, a recent survey shows. And while most of us struggle to manage the stress of a demanding boss or a mounting workload on our own, savvy employers are stepping in to help both their employees and their own bottom line. The research is incontrovertible: meditation reduces stress, improves employee health and productivity, decreases health care costs and absenteeism. Read about the growing number of companies offering meditation training for reducing workplace stress in this article from the Wall Street Journal. 

Can Meditation Help Me With My Chronic Pain?

July 15th, 2012 by

Past Ten Years of Research Say “Yes”

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.

References:

Explain Pain, Neuro Orthopaedic Institue, Noigroup Publications, South Australia 2003, 2010. www.noigroup.com

University of Manchester (2010, June 2). Meditation reduces the emotional impact of pain, study finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100602091315.htm

Elsevier (2010, June 7). Why does feeling low hurt? Depressed mood increases the perception of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2010/06/100607111318.htm as reported in Science Daily (June 7, 2012

Northwestern University (2012, July 1). Why chronic pain is all in your head: Early brain changes predict which patients develop chronic pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 2, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com

American Gastroenterological Association (2011, September 19). Negative emotions influence brain activity during anticipation and experience of pain. ScienceDaily. Retrieved July 7, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2011/09/110919113842.htm

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Live Long and Thrive: How Mindfulness Slows the Aging Process

May 21st, 2012 by

Are you interested in something you can do for yourself to slow the aging process, and enhance the quality and length of your life? Then you’ll be interested in the emerging body of scientific research on stress, aging, and mindfulness, a practice correlated with a protective effect on our cells. By taking up a regular mindfulness practice you can improve your well-being, slow the aging process, and help protect yourself against the most common diseases of aging.

Chromosomes 101

At the heart of this story are chromosomes – the bundles of DNA in each of our cells – especially the tips, or end caps, of chromosomes called “telomeres”. Telomeres are like the protective ends on shoelaces that keep them from fraying.  Telomeres are necessary for a cell to divide in a healthy way. Each time a normal cell divides, the telomeres become shorter and shorter. Ultimately, the cell’s telomeres become so short it can no longer divide. The result is that the cell dies. Historically this shortening of telomeres was thought to be a one-way street: shorter telomeres meant the aging and death of cells, and eventually the living thing made up of these cells.

However, new research concludes that telomere shortening is neither inevitable, nor a one-way street.  Dr. Elizabeth H. Blackburn of the University of California, San Francisco, and her colleagues, discovered why. In 2009 they received the Nobel Prize for the discovery of Telomerase – a protective enzyme in our cells that actually replenishes and lengthens telomeres. More telomerase means longer telomeres, and thus longer and healthier cell life, and presumably longer life for the organism. As you can imagine, the implication of Blackburn’s discovery for the treatment of age related disease, and the investigation of the aging process, is now growing rapidly.

Stress and Telomere Length

Many common diseases of aging are associated with shorter telomeres: cancer, diabetes, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, weakened immune system, and cardiovascular disease. Research has linked chronic stress to shortened telomere length. Interestingly, pessimism in post-menopausal women shortens telomeres as well. Chronic stress wears down our telomeres and causes our cells, and our bodies, to age and die more rapidly. But what happens to telomere length when we learn to positively change the way we manage stress? Studies now show that reducing stress and increasing positive states of mind, particularly through the practice of mindfulness, promotes telomere maintenance and lengthening!

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness, as taught in the 8-week program “Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction” or “MBSR,” is one of the most extensively studied methods for reducing stress and improving quality of life and overall health. Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the moment, without judgment. It’s considered an inherent aspect of human consciousness, and it can be strengthened through a variety of mental training techniques collectively known as mindfulness meditation.

How Does a Mindfulness Practice Result in Longer Telomeres?

The evidence reveals that mindfulness meditation practices are associated with increased levels of telomerase, the enzyme that protects, replenishes, and even lengthens telomeres. Researchers believe this is so because mindfulness promotes the adaptive regulation of emotion and reactivity, and is linked to greater psychological well-being. Mindfulness practice decreases rumination (the pattern of revisiting negative thoughts), while it increases the intensity and frequency of positive and pro-social emotions like empathy, kindness and compassion for yourself and others.

“We have found that meditation promotes positive psychological changes, and that meditators showing the greatest improvement on various psychological measures had the highest levels of [the chromosome protecting enzyme] Telomerase.” Clifford Saron, PhD University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain

Researchers believe that cultivating positive mental states, and decreasing negative moods and thinking, through a regular mindfulness practice, results in a “stress-buffering” benefit for our cells.  This positive change boosts our levels of telomerase which replenishes and lengthens telomeres and the life-span of our cells. In this way a mindfulness practice buffers cells against the long-term wear and tear effects of stress, and is thus believed to slow the rate of cellular aging.

References:

Blackburn, E. H. Telomeres and Telomerase: The means to the end. Nobel Lecture by Elizabeth H. Blackburn, delivered December 7, 2009 at Karolinska Institute, Stockholm (retrieved from www.nobelprize.org)

Epel, E. et. al. Can meditation slow rate of cellular aging? Cognitive stress, mindfulness, and telomeres. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 2009 August; 1172: 34–53.

Jacobs, T. L. et. al. Intensive meditation training, immune cell telomerase activity, and psychological mediators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2010)

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