Training a More Laid-Back Brain

September 22nd, 2012 by

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn’t involve chanting “Om” while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, “without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative,” says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain. Read more of this article by Meryl Davids Landau for U. S. News & World Report.

Saying Goodbye

July 23rd, 2012 by

I’ll be sending my only child, my son Jordan, off to college in a few weeks. The moment I’ve dreaded since he was born will soon be upon me. I don’t know what the actual moment of “Good-bye” will be like. At orientation the college advisors instructed us parents not to “break down” or “lose it”, as this will only make the child worried about us, and will take away from the fun experience of starting off in college. Hmmm. I will certainly try. But it may be like trying to stop a tidal wave. Last night and today, and maybe a few other days in recent months, I’ve felt waves of emotion. Today, as I sat during my morning meditation practice – “being” in the present moment – feeling myself “in” my body, noticing the sound of the raindrops outside the window, I recalled a letter I had received from my aunt when Jordan was probably 8 or 9 years old. She had never met Jordan and asked me about him in the letter. “How does he grow?” she asked. Those words “How does he grow?” seemed so expansive and open to the experience of watching a boy travel through his childhood, and change, and express his uniqueness.

Lately I’ve been thinking about how a moment, such as the one I’ll face in a few weeks, brings so much together – all those experiences and frustrations and laughter, arguments, excitement at Christmas, anger, talks, talks that should have been but weren’t, worry, mistakes (mine), hugs, broken hearts, messy rooms – they add up to what this whole experience was. It all begins to come into a kind of stark and pregnant focus as the day of release approaches. Sort of like how you procrastinate when you’re planning to go on a trip, and then, suddenly, the day to leave on your trip is here, and all the things that you’ve been thinking about in your head that need to be done are either done, or they aren’t. The day has arrived.

All the experiences that add up to a childhood – You don’t always experience how special they are until you realize that the time has come for that period of life to end, and a new period of life to begin. Was I present enough? What about the times I got ridiculously angry and childish? Did I show him enough love? Did I listen enough? Was I a good teacher, a good parent? Did I cherish the times with my boy as he grew? Did I cherish them as deeply as I’m grieving the end of my day-to-day connection with him now?

I think of how he is a wonderful, loving, and kind human being – ready to start out on his own adventure of life, to have his own triumphs and make his own mistakes, to learn to work with his own strong emotions, just like I am now. I know “Good-bye” will be tough for him too. I’ve already seen waves of emotion moving through him at times, and we’ve shared long bear hugs seemingly out of the blue lately. I remember my own experience of being alone and away from home for the first time – those pangs of loneliness and fear.

I’ve been recalling guidance I received from my teachers, and which I share with my own meditation students – “turn toward” the emotion, not away.” “Emotions want to be felt.” Practice saying “It’s OK, let me feel it.”  As I sat on my meditation cushion this morning I remembered my aunt’s words, “How does he grow?” I felt something physical spread through my body, as if moving through and inhabiting every cell. “It’s OK. Let me feel it.” I recalled a friend of mine sharing the experience of her own daughter’s departure from home. It brought tears to her eyes as she spoke, some twelve years later. I thought of another friend whose son, just a young man not yet twenty, recently died. What must it be like for her? How does she handle the grief?

As I sat with my eyes closed, I could feel tears rolling down each cheek. I felt them move along the jaw and join together at my chin. I felt the cells of my body warm with sadness. It’s here, I thought. Sadness is here. It’s part of my human experience at this moment. I held this experience in full awareness and breathed some space for it to be. Nestled within me. Cared for. Safe. Beautiful and poignant. Part of this amazingly rich and varied experience of being alive. How “will” he grow? How will I grow? The adventure and the experience continue to unfold.

Image: © tia_maria (used with permission)

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

Image: nanny snowflake

Barney and Me or The Power of Emotions

April 7th, 2012 by

This Saturday morning my husband and I were sitting outside enjoying the beautiful weather. I had wrapped myself in a quilt as it was a little chilly, and my dog, Peanut, was snuggled up close in my lap.  As my husband read the paper, he read aloud to me the Ask the Veterinarian column. Someone had written recounting the last months of their beloved cat’s life during which they and their veterinarian had attempted to save the cat through multiple trips to the vet and a series of treatments and injections.  All well meaning, but the truth of the matter was it was time for the cat to die. The writer regretted all she had put her cat through trying to extend her life, and lamented the lack of palliative or hospice care for companion animals. Ultimately the owner was able to locate a veterinarian who agreed to euthanize the animal at home, in familiar, comfortable surroundings, in the arms of the person who had loved her all her life.

I looked at my sweet dog in my lap, his wagging tail, his graying muzzle, his kind and devoted eyes looking back at me. The moment gave me the gift of being able to plan for his passing. I vowed that when the time comes, he won’t be euthanized in a vet’s office, a place that terrifies him. I’ll inquire now, and make sure he’ll be in his home, where he plays, and sleeps, and romps, and explores every day, as he’s done his entire life. This is how this sacred and tender process of death should be experienced if possible.

But this story isn’t about my dog. It’s about a wonderful blue-eyed and very talkative Siamese cat named Barney. Barney was my fast friend for a long time. He lived and traveled with me during my college and law school days, moving with me from apartment to apartment and town to town as I made my way through those early adult years. He was still with me with me when I fell in love and married. Barney was both a feisty and incredibly affectionate and loyal animal. I remember a period when he spent a great deal of time away from home, and I learned (to my horror) that he had been stalking the new baby chicks that had hatched at the farm next door. On more than one occasion he gifted me with the carcass of some poor squirrel, and once even stole a chicken breast out of a pot of boiling water on the stove! (my pre-vegetarian days).

In the mornings when he wanted breakfast, he would crawl under the covers, all the way to my ankles, and give me a gentle “bite” to wake me up. If I wasn’t prompt enough for his liking, his next “bite” would be just a bit more forceful, until he was successful in getting me up. He was quite jealous of my other cat and would tackle her every time he saw me petting her (even though she significantly outweighed him and could have easily put him in his place.) However, when he wasn’t up to these shenanigans, he was lying in my lap, or next to me in bed, purring LOUDLY, and staring DEEPLY into my eyes, “kneading” his paws just like a kitten. I recall thinking at those times “what will I ever do without you?”

When I was in law school, Barney suffered a serious bout of feline leukemia (this was before the vaccine) and came close to death.  He lost much of his fur and became too weak to stand and feed himself. Twice daily I would hold him in my lap and hand feed him bite size pieces of cooked liver. He eventually went into remission, his fur grew back, and he lived several more years.

I was already married and working when the leukemia returned. We made a bed for Barney in the bottom of a closet. My husband and I would take turns coming home from work at lunch to check on him. He began to cry out in pain, and x-rays revealed that he had tumors throughout his body. One night we knew we had to take him to the emergency vet. We didn’t yet have a cat carrier, so I put a blanket inside a large box and put him inside and placed it in the back seat of the car. For some reason, I felt it wise to place the lid on the box during the car ride. Barney looked up at me with his huge blue eyes. He was afraid.  I agonized over placing the lid on the box as we started out for the vet. I knew he was leaving me. Although I held him as the vet administered the final injection, I regret having taken him out of his home for this experience.

What amazes me now, more than twenty years later, is how real, deep, and tender my memories and emotions are still. When my husband read the letter from the newspaper this morning, and I recalled Barney, it was astounding to me how after so many years these deep emotions are still with me, needing to be felt, expressed, and remembered. Barney was with me during a wonderful and adventurous era of my life. He brought me tremendous joy, and was a huge comfort to me when I was lonely or sad. I loved him (and still do), and also loved that part of me who lived, and laughed, learned and discovered, made mistakes and wrong turns, doubted and was unsure. That part of me, of life, of Barney’s life, that made her way through those years. What a time it was!

 

How to Work with Sadness

March 28th, 2012 by

Sadness, grief, despair, and fear are probably some of the most difficult emotions to work with in meditation practice. We avoid feeling them, which can cause them to be entrenched – forever trying to work themselves out through repetitive behavior patterns in our life, or expressing themselves through bodily symptoms. Not good.  I found a very thorough and, I believe, wise method for learning from, and transmuting, these difficult emotions in this article by author and psychotherapist Miriam Greenspan. I realized that the process she describes parallels my own path of working with sadness. Please let me know your thoughts. Are you dealing with strong emotions?

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