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

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!”

Client Stories: Wendy Berg

January 1st, 2016 by

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I’ve been thinking about how your MSBR class has changed my life. One area I haven’t heard many people talk about is mindfulness and athletic performance. Your class helped me become more aware of my body and to tune into the messages it gives me. When I used to run, I mainly distracted myself from what I was doing with music, thoughts, or TV. I still do that some of the time but most of the time I am aware of what is happening. I am now running, biking, swimming, doing strength training, and yoga as I train for a triathlon sprint. I do body scans while exercising, checking in with each part looking for issues, discomfort, pain, or fatigue. I check on my technique and form. Do I feel strong? Can I go faster? Further? Do I need to change my stride? My gear? My reach? My hip rotation? Or do I need to scale it back? Catch my breath? Walk for a minute? In the past, I never listened to my body and just pushed myself to finish whatever I set out to do even if it meant injuring myself. Ok, I’m still pretty goal oriented and almost always finish my daily plan, but I’m doing it in a kinder gentler way. I am more accepting of what is. I am okay with just doing my best no matter what that is on any given day. I’ve been able to do so much more without pushing so hard. I’ve let go of so many ideas I had about being too old to do something, and what I expected my body to be like in my 50’s. I am now in better shape than I’ve been in a long time, maybe ever. I’m still a little overweight and slow, but I no longer beat myself up over that. Now, I celebrate what my body can do and enjoy pushing the limits set by my mind and by society. And the back pain I’ve dealt with for 14 years is practically nonexistent. I’m not sure if that is from being in better shape, meditation, actually paying attention to my body, or a combination of everything. I find myself able to accept, appreciate, and celebrate what is in all areas of my life. Thank you for helping me along this journey. Feel free to use this if it may be helpful to share the benefits of MSBR and your class. Wendy Berg

Mindfully Managing Menopause

December 15th, 2015 by

Mindfully Managing Menopause

The significant hormonal shift that comes with menopause – bringing with it forgetfulness, insomnia, sweats, emotional outbursts, skin and breast changes, and slower metabolism—can leave women feeling most unhappy! If you are longing for a better way to navigate menopause, mindfulness offers some real benefits.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the skill of paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, without judgment. We all have this skill, especially in childhood, but it can diminish over time as we fall into the automatic reactive patterns of adulthood. Add menopause to the mix and you’ve got some very good reasons to seek relief!

According to research, menopausal women who participated in a training program known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (“MBSR”), when compared with a control group who did not receive the training, reported lower anxiety and perceived stress, reduced bother from night sweats, sleep disturbances, and hot flashes, improved quality of life, less overwhelm, and greater attentiveness.

How do you practice Mindfulness?

Mindfulness practice is patiently training the mind to focus on a chosen “anchor” that exists in the present moment – your breath, sounds (like the ceiling fan whirring), sensations in your body – and gently returning your attention to your chosen anchor when it wanders (and it will!). Each time you “come back” to your anchor, you’re strengthening your mindfulness muscle.

As you practice, you simply witness and observe all that comes into your awareness moment to moment, letting go of that natural tendency to judge what’s arising as “good” or “bad”, “pleasant” or “Unpleasant”. As you practice, lots of things will come up! Body sensations (tingling, numbness, fluttering, warmth, coolness) and thoughts (“How will I get everything done today?” “My back is killing me?” “I’m burning up!”). Rather than resisting these things, or trying to replace them with something else, you allow them to be present, but in the background of your awareness, as you escort your attention back to your chosen anchor. Simple, but not easy!

Why practice mindfulness?

Even in a short ten-minute practice you will get lots of opportunities to “come back” to your anchor, and this coming back is really what the practice of meditation is all about. It fortifies your ability to attend to just “what is” in the present moment without the overlay of thoughts that so often color our experience and make us truly miserable. In so doing you become skilled at differentiating between “observing” a thought from the point of view of a neutral witness, and being drawn into the “content” of the thought, two very different things. The latter is typically loaded with judgments, opinions, memories, fantasies, past, or future – all of which have an impact on your present moment experience, physical, mental, and emotional. Mindfulness practice enables you to step off the merry-go-round of thoughts and just “be”. And this quality of “being”, when cultivated on a regular basis, has real life implications for your health and quality of life.

Navigating a Hot Flash

At age 53, I’ve had numerous opportunities to “practice” during a hot flash. Before mindfulness, my thoughts would have judged the sensations as unpleasant and unwanted (“Why did I wear long sleeves?” “Now I’m going to miserable!”). Pursuing such thoughts undoubtedly magnified the unpleasant qualities of what was happening, making my hot flash much worse than it needed to be. With mindfulness I practice letting go of the judging and instead simply note that the sensation of heat is arising. I might reflect internally “This is how it is right now.” I let go of the impulse to escalate it by following the content of my thoughts. I stay attuned to what other sensations are present; the sound of rain dripping from the roof, the hum of the refrigerator, the feeing of breathing in and breathing out. I witness the stream of changing sensations moment to moment, and eventually notice the feeling of a current of air against my skin. Coolness. Yes, every experience, including a hot flash, eventually changes. I stay present with this process of change and notice after a few moments that my body is beginning to resume a normal temperature. Undoubtedly this hot flash would have lasted much longer, and been much more unpleasant, if I had automatically followed the content of my misery filled thoughts.

The practical benefits

While mindfulness cannot completely remove the symptoms of menopause, it can alter your experience of the symptoms. You can liken the symptoms of menopause to a loud, blaring television, bombarding you with colors, sounds, sensations, music, and storylines. Mindfulness won’t necessarily turn off the TV, but having a regular mindfulness practice can help turn the volume way down.

Mindfulness On The Go: Apps and Audio to Facilitate Your Meditation Practice

April 3rd, 2015 by

The technological age is amazing! From apps to podcasts to audio books and videos, everything we need or want to learn is just a Google or YouTube search away. We also have remotes for just about everything to up our convenience factor. With mindfulness having been profiled in both Time magazine and on 60 Minutes, people want to learn how to practice mindfulness (yes, it takes regular practice), and how to make practice more convenient. Dozens of mindfulness apps have emerged in the past few years that include guided meditations, information for beginners, timers, and reminders to become “present” throughout the day. The trick, I’ve discovered, is to find an app that is straightforward yet dynamic enough to facilitate mindfulness practice for both beginning and seasoned meditators without too many distracting bells and whistles. Below are three rock-star mindfulness apps to consider trying, as well as a few other recommendations if apps feel too fussy for you.

Apps

Insight Timer for Android, iPhone, and iPad is my personal favorite! As a meditation timer, it allows you to set your practice time for however long you like. In addition, it has many other features that make it really special. Among these is a selection of beautiful Tibetan bell tones. Select your favorite to not only alert you when your session is over, but also as an “interval timer” to alert you during your session to bring your attention back “to the present” if it has wandered). You can set the duration for your session for as few as 5 minutes up to several hours. You can meditate in silence, or listen to one of eighty guided meditations led by internationally noted teachers (including several of my teachers).

What I love is the app logs the duration and frequency of my practice sessions, and gives me “milestones” that show me the number of accumulated sessions and days practiced. The app rewards you for consistency, and seeing your stars accumulate is great encouragement to continue your practice (not to mention all the quality of life and health benefits you’ll be noticing!)

Another great feature is seeing a real-time world map that displays everyone across the globe meditating with the app. You can also join groups based on mindfulness traditions, location, and interests, or create your own group and invite “friends”. If you want a simple, elegant app that will guide you into the practice of mindfulness, keep you motivated, and connect you with the worldwide community of mindfulness meditators, this is the app for you! Free.  InsightTimer.com

Stop, Breathe, & Think is an app for iPhone and Android offering several basic meditation exercises that vary in length and type, including a mindfulness mediation, loving-kindness meditation, and body scan practice. There is also an emotional awareness component that prompts you to input your emotions and then makes relevant suggestions for meditation practices. Free.  StopBreatheThink.org

The Mindfulness App for iPhone and Android made it on a few Best Mindfulness App lists for 2014 thanks to its no-frills format and dynamic session options. It offers guided meditations spanning anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes as well as silent meditation sessions that the user is alerted to begin by the sound of gentle bells. The user can, of course, set reminders for guided meditation sessions as well, and can even personalize his session. $1.99 Mindapps.se

For those looking for brief, consistent guided meditation sessions, Headspace (on-the-go) is a convenient option. The app provides 10-minute meditation sessions starting with a short body scan and then a guided meditation focusing on the breath. Animated explanations of the inner workings of the mind, as well as mindfulness tips, are included as well as reminders and tracking options. $7.99/month Headspace.com

If apps aren’t your thing, many local libraries offer audio books and e-book downloads. Many mindfulness teachers like Jon Kabat-Zinn, Pema Chodron, the Dalai Lama, and Thich Nhat Hahn have wonderful mindfulness books whose audio versions are easy enough to find at your local library or on Amazon.

 

 

 

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.

HEALTHY Mind Matters: Sometimes Unplugging From the World Helps You Connect With Yourself

July 31st, 2014 by

It’s always difficult to explain to friends and acquaintances why I go away each year for an extended silent meditation retreat. For the past five years I’ve traveled to Barre, Mass., home of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS), for 10 days of intensive mindfulness practice: sitting, walking, eating and yoga—all in an environment of silence. Approximately 100 other yogis (the word “yogi” is used generically to refer to both male and female practitioners of yoga and meditative practice) gather here from across the country and around the world to immerse themselves in this unique experience —to strengthen our capacity to be “present” with life, moment to moment.

Above the massive front door at IMS, the word “Metta” is inscribed. In Pali, the ancient language of the Buddha, this word is sometimes translated as “unconditional loving kindness” or “unconditional friendliness.” It’s an openhearted welcome. As I step into the foyer, I feel the unmistakable sense of coming home.

Settling In
Upon arrival, each yogi is invited to choose a space in the meditation hall—a huge, tranquil space with large windows, dozens of meditation cushions arranged in rows, and chairs for those with less-flexible limbs—where he or she will meditate during the five to six formal meditation sessions we will have over the next 10 days. I find my spot and arrange what I’ll need—a blanket and a “zafu” or meditation cushion that will become my home base or “mind central” during my stay. As a symbol of our “renunciation” of the complexities and trappings of modern, daily life, we’re invited to voluntarily relinquish our cell phones, which will be locked in the main office—safe from temptation—until the end of the retreat.

The retreat center is set up entirely to support the community of practitioners. In the large dining hall, we share our (amazing) all-vegetarian meals in silence, except for the occasional sound of a chair sliding across the floor, or footsteps. During the retreat, I completely slow down and begin to savor every meal. After all, there’s nothing else I need to do, and nowhere else I need to be. Good food is even more delicious when you slow down and pay attention.

Sharing Rituals
In addition, every person is given a “yogi job.” We all contribute to the operation of the center while on retreat as a practice of mindfulness, interdependence, and generosity. On this retreat a woman, who I subsequently learn is an attorney, runs load after load of dishes through the steamy dishwashing machine as silent yogis line up after lunch with their plates, bowls, and cups. A surgeon sweeps the floor and wipes-down tables after the dinner period. My yogi jobs over the years have included vegetable-chopper, pot-scrubber, and dining room-cleaner. Shared work creates a sense of community during the retreat. Everyone is equal.

For the first few days of silence, my mind/body system seem to be in withdrawal—from the usual bombardment of sensory input I occupy day after day. I notice my mind wanting to fill up the silence with many thoughts. As a regular meditation practitioner, I’m quite used to letting my thoughts go and returning my attention to the present moment by linking it to an “object of attention” such as the breath or sensations in the body. But now the barrage of thoughts seems unstoppable. I find myself annoyed, thinking, “These thoughts are interrupting my meditation!”

Over time, I realize it’s my relationship to my thoughts that is the problem. Once I begin to cultivate Metta—that is, an openhearted friendly relationship with the activity of my mind—the thoughts slow down. The space between thoughts expands. My mind becomes quiet and peaceful, for the most part.

Finding Peace
On retreat, my body and mind have the opportunity to process experiences and feelings that I never deal with in “normal” life. Most of us live largely unaware of what lies beneath the surface of the mind and heart, as we rush through the busy and distracting momentum of life. When you become still and receptive for a while, whether it’s a few days or a few months, in an environment of safety and tranquility, the mind and heart can begin to reveal things you haven’t looked at in your life—and process them with Metta, that loving kindness that we all need and all possess.

I wouldn’t describe a retreat as “fun,” but it’s definitely healing. I go on retreat to discover and become receptive to the truth of my human experience: the fear, joy, sorrow and awe lying just beneath the surface waiting for my kind and openhearted attention. My job is to stop and feel what’s really here. With each retreat, I become more comfortable with the peaks and valleys of my own inner landscape, and more at ease just being me. I depart knowing that this retreat has been time well spent.

photo credit Stuart Miles via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

 

 

 

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.

Mindfulness: A Foundation for Personal Transformation

June 20th, 2014 by

More and more people want to know about mindfulness as the scientific evidence for its benefits grows stronger. Mindfulness is a process of bringing attention to moment-by-moment experience. It’s a combination of “the self-regulation of attention with an attitude of curiosity, openness, and acceptance toward one’s experiences.” Through a regular mindfulness meditation practice, the mind gradually becomes quiet and shifts away from the thinking process into a state of restful awareness. Over time you can begin to shift from “automatic pilot” to present moment awareness during whatever you may be doing or experiencing. Mindfulness during your daily activities leads to an expanded perspective and understanding of oneself. As you practice, you’ll begin to observe thoughts and feelings with the same quality you observe any sensory experience, without habitually reacting to them, as many of us do. As we know, most of us spend our lives not present and habitually reactive! This is important because the mind tends to take on the qualities of the things we (habitually) pay attention to. One of my teachers describes this phenomenon by saying, “we are always practicing something,” and “whatever we practice we get good at.” For example, if we habitually rehash things that make us angry, we unconsciously get very good at being angry and unhappy. If we unconsciously pay attention and react to worrisome thoughts, we become very, very good worriers.  However, if we intentionally cultivate the quality of patience (as we do toward the fluctuating nature of our own mind in mindfulness practice) we get good at being patient with ourselves and others. If we practice cultivating qualities of non-judgment and kindness (especially toward ourselves) we become kind and less judgmental. By learning and practicing being “present” in the  “moment” (rather than on “automatic pilot”) we can wisely influence what unfolds in this moment, and the next, and thus the rest of our lives.  This is a foundation for transformation and the development of our human potential.

Scientific research demonstrates the numerous health and quality of life benefits associated with having a personal mindfulness practice: less stress, reduced anxiety, improved sleep, benefits for people with high blood pressure, chronic pain, diabetes, fibromyalgia, prostate cancer, breast cancer, and depression. But mindfulness doesn’t stop there. Regular practice can also propel you on a journey of personal growth and transformation. In my work with people who come to study mindfulness to reduce stress, as well as in my own life, I’ve seen how a difficult life situation, even what some might call a physical or emotional “breakdown”, typically signals a transformation – the emergence of something new.  For example, several years ago my own cancer, insomnia, unhealthy weight loss, chronic pain, anxiety and depression signaled the serious need for change in my life. There were things I needed to pay attention to, feel, and release to make room for the new me that was emerging. It was only through a regular meditation practice that I came to understand the underlying origins of my physical and emotional stress. It was a time for undeniable truth with myself. This was a difficult but healing process. By practicing being open to my inner turmoil with compassion, without judging it as good or bad, but simply the truth that was emerging through me at the time, and allowing that pain to be fully felt, I discovered I already had everything I needed – inside –  to face the scary monster within. The anxiety, depression, insomnia, and chronic pain were telling me to look within and to pay attention. The emotions at the root of these symptoms were demanding to be known and felt. Only then did these symptoms and emotions stop running my life. In their place came spaciousness and the possibility for something new to enter. This is transformation and it’s available to you too!  Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a course in which you’ll learn how to practice mindfulness skills and make them a natural part of your life. You’ll begin to respond rather than react to the difficulties of life. This new way of being opens you to the possibility of transformation.

Paying attention to the breath is one of the primary ways to draw the mind back into the present when you notice you’re running on automatic pilot or habitual thinking and behavior.  Try associating several objects you encounter in your everyday life with mindfulness. Make them “mindfulness reminders”.  One of my reminders is the emblem on the steering wheel of my car. When I notice it as I’m driving, I take a few conscious breaths and shift from thinking to being. I note the sensations in my body, sense into the experience of moving through space, and look at the sky and surroundings. Identify several mindfulness reminders in your home and office. Try to make this a new habit and notice how it makes you feel.

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