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

September 1st, 2016 by

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mindfully 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.

Four Things Mindful People Do Differently

July 10th, 2015 by

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

They Don’t Ride the Emotional Rollercoaster

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

They Keep Calm and Carry On

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

They Pay Attention to Their Bodies

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

They Practice Compassion

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

Tips for Mindfully Working with a Difficult Emotion

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

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

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

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

 

 

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 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.

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)

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