Saturday, March 3, 2012

Mindfulness and Chronic Disease

In March, I explore the various components of my handout “Healing the Whole Person: Ways to Increase Well Being.” This week’s focus is on mindfulness and the impact it has on living with a chronic condition.

Most of us spend our lives obsessing about what’s happened and/or worrying about what could happen. While there are lots of quotes about not living in the past or fearing the future- “Be Here Now” (Ram Dass), “The Power of Now” (Eckart Tolle)- the tools to living mindfully aren’t necessarily the first things we think of.

In the late 1970’s, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn developed one of the first successful strategies to help people deal with chronic pain. Called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, MBSR is an 8-week intensive training in mindfulness meditation, based on ancient healing practices, which meets on a weekly basis. Mindfulness practice is ideal for cultivating greater awareness of the unity of mind and body, as well as of the ways the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and behaviors can undermine emotional, physical, and spiritual health. The mind is known to be a factor in stress and stress-related disorders, and meditation has been shown to positively effect a range of autonomic physiological processes, such as lowering blood pressure and reducing overall arousal and emotional reactivity. In addition to mindfulness practices, MBSR uses martial arts to help reverse the prevalence of disuse atrophy from our culture's largely sedentary lifestyle, especially for those with pain and chronic illnesses. The program brings meditation and yoga together so that the virtues of both can be experienced simultaneously .

Two decades of published research about MBSR, which is offered in many medical centers worldwide, has found the following The majority of people who complete the MBSR Program report lasting decreases in physical and psychological symptoms. The studies report:
• Dramatic reductions in pain levels and an enhanced ability to cope with pain that may
not go away
• Dramatic decreases of anxiety, depression, hostility and the tendency to somatize
• More effective skills in managing stress
• An increased ability to relax
• Greater energy and enthusiasm for life
• Improved self-esteem
• An ability to cope more effectively with both short and long-term stressful situations

MBSR is being used quite successfully to help people with a variety of chronic conditions. Why it works is pretty straightforward. Obsessing and ruminating cause stress, which is not good for the brain and body. By focusing on the present-often just on your breath-you stop the cycle that creates the anxiety and stress that compounds whatever else you have going on in your life.

The other component of the program is exercise. Whether it’s doing Qigong, a 30 minute walk or taking a zumba class, it helps to get our body moving and in touch with how our body feels and functions.

Research shows that connecting to the present activates those parts of the brain that prevent stress, anxiety and depression and in fact increases those parts of the brains associated with learning, memory and empathy. Think of a day where you spent it doing something you enjoy, yet requires your attention-e.g. gardening, cooking, painting or making something. How do you feel while you are doing it and immediately afterward? Do you feel content, relaxed, less anxious? Chances are you do.

If you can afford to take an MBSR course, click here to find the one closest to you. If it’s not feasible to attend the course, there are a number of ways to help you be mindful:

Practice S.T.O.P: This is from the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Workbook. When you find yourself worrying, Stop, Take a Breath, Observe and Proceed

Follow the MBSR Workbook blog. The MBSR Workbook website has a wealth of information.

Take Kripalu Yoga Breaks throughout your day or whenever you feel stressed. These are generally no more than five minutes.

Meditate. The Mindfulness Awareness Research Center offers a variety of meditations, which you can listen to on-line or download to your MP 3 player for free. One of my favorite meditations is loving kindness, which I practice throughout the day as I find it stops me from ruminating about things I have no control over. My favorite is Sylvia Boorstein. Maybe it’s the tone of her voice, but I enjoy listening to her. Her Dharma talks at Spirit Rock are on-line and available for free

Mindfulness: The Basics

Take a Break: Every Wednesday is Take a Break day at Healing Whole. There are literally hundreds of activities to help focus your attention to the present and give you an enjoyable few minutes or hours of contentment.

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