How to Make Mindfulness and Compassion Your Automatic Response to Stress

In “A Basic Meditation to Strengthen Neural Connections,”[1] Dr. Christopher Willard gives us a peek into his upcoming book Growing Up MindfulHe notes that just as we take care of our bodies with nutrition and exercise, we can also “change our brain, boosting concentration, flexibility, and intelligence and building new neural pathways and networks, by working out our brain” with mindfulness practice.

Are you skeptical that this could work? Why not try Dr. Willard’s simple exercise:

Before you begin, adopt a posture that is both comfortable and sustainable for a few minutes, and then set a timer for three minutes.

  • First, bring your awareness to an anchor: sensations or movement in your body, the breath, ambient sounds, counting, or even an image you found powerful or calming. Anything can be the anchor for your attention. Just invite your mind to rest there.
  • Pretty soon, you will notice your mind begin to wander. That is completely normal. Each time you notice it wandering, notice where it goes and then gently guide your awareness back to your anchor.

Pretty simple, right? So simple, in fact, that it might seem like you’re not doing very much. But don’t be fooled. Every aspect of this practice is building the muscles of your mind. In fact, one of my patients even likes to use the image of his brain getting a little bit bigger with each moment of mindfulness.[2]

Dr. Willard explains why this simple mindfulness practice works:

  1. Each time you focus on or return to the anchor, you are building your concentration
  2. Each time you focus on the anchor, you detach from your thought stream. This is a practice of letting go in the moment, which translates to letting go in the rest of the world.
  3. Each time you notice that the mind is wandering, that is the moment of mindfulness—not a moment of failure.
  4. Each time you are kind to yourself when your mind wanders, instead of criticizing yourself, you are exercising and strengthening your self-compassion for challenging moments in the rest of your daily life.
  5. Each time you notice where the mind is wandering, that is an opportunity for insight into your mind’s habits and patterns—what we might call wisdom or self-understanding. ?[3]

I hope you will try mindfulness practice and discover its benefits! Over time, you’ll find it becomes almost second nature. As Dr. Willard states so well, “each of the mental actions in this practice strengthens neural connections that, with practice, rewire your brain, over time making mindfulness and compassion the automatic response to stress.”[4]

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

[1] Christopher Willard, “A Basic Meditation to Strengthen Neural Connections,” Mindful, May 2016.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Return to Happiness with Mindfulness

Elisha Goldstein’s good article in this month’s Mindful magazine reminds us to avoid 5 common traps that can get us stuck in a depression loop and keep us from attaining happiness:

  1. Doubt
  2. Emptiness
  3. Irritation
  4. Sluggishness
  5. Restlessness[1]

It’s natural to feel these things occasionally, but when they keep us from enjoying life, mindfulness practice can get us back on track.

Do you struggle with voices of doubt that prevent you from trying new experiences? Do you feel that you can’t do enough or be enough? Do minor irritations grow into resentments? Are you too tired, busy, or distracted to do the things you like to do or to be with the people you’d like to spend time with?

If you answered yes to these questions, I encourage you to read Mr. Goldstein’s article “The 5 Major Mind Traps that Hinder Happiness” and consider mindfulness practice.

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

[1] Elisha Goldstein, “The 5 Major Mind Traps that Hinder Happiness,” Mindful, March 18, 2016

Eight Weeks to a Better Brain

Meditation changes brain regions associated with memory and stress

Mindfulness meditation practitioners have long reported a greater sense of relaxation, peace, and wellbeing—that alone is reason to try it. But some people need reassurance that mindfulness is not simply a “mind over matter” placebo. We now have reason to believe that meditation produces changes over time in the brain’s gray matter to improve brain health.

Research findings in the Harvard Gazette report that an an eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress.[1]

This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing. [2] —Sara Lazar, MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program

The researchers used magnetic resonance (MR) images of the brains of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program. They compared those images to a set of MR brain images of a control group of non-meditators.Bottom of Form Analysis of the meditators’ images found increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion, and introspection. They also observed decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. [3]

The importance of these findings is well stated by neuroscientist Amishi Jha:

These results shed light on the mechanisms of action of mindfulness-based training. They demonstrate that the first-person experience of stress can not only be reduced with an eight-week mindfulness training program but that this experiential change corresponds with structural changes in the amygdala, a finding that opens doors to many possibilities for further research on MBSR’s potential to protect against stress-related disorders, such as post-traumatic stress disorder. [4]

 

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

 

[1] Sue McGreevey, “Eight Weeks to a Better Brain,” Harvard Gazette, January 21, 2011.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

Kindness Curriculum Improves Students’ Grades

What if we taught kindness in schools?

Researchers recently tested a 12-week curriculum in six schools in the Midwest where pre-kindergarten kids were introduced to stories and practices for paying attention, regulating their emotions, and cultivating kindness. Results of the study suggest that this program can improve kids’ grades, cognitive abilities, and relationship skills.[1]

Described in detail in the February 2016 issue of Mindful magazine, the curriculum used creative methods to teach the students the “ABCs” of mindfulness and kindness:

  • Attention
  • Breath and Body
  • Caring
  • Depending on other people
  • Emotions
  • Forgiveness
  • Gratitude

The researchers found that

“Students who went through the curriculum showed more empathy and kindness and a greater ability to calm themselves down when they felt upset, according to teachers’ ratings … They earned higher grades at the end of the year in certain areas (notably for social and emotional development), and they showed improvement in the ability to think flexibly and delay gratification, skills that have been linked to health and success later in life.[2]

Mindfulness and kindness practice isn’t just for adults, but can clearly benefit all of us from a very young age.

Peace,

Dr. Pamm

[1] Laura Pinger and Lisa Flook, “What if Schools Taught Kindness,” Mindful, Feb. 9, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

A Healing Response to Pain

Mindfulness Practice and Pain

When you’re in emotional pain, do you resist it, ignore it, or try to push it away? Those are all very common reactions to pain, but as Cindy Ricardo explains in this month’s Good Therapy blog, there’s a more healing and compassionate way to respond to our pain.[1]

The author explains how the pain itself isn’t the worst thing?rather, it’s the way we react to the pain that can rob of us our energy and distract us from responding in ways that could actually help. Without mindfulness and compassion for ourselves and the pain we’re experiencing, we can blow it out of proportion, worry, obsess about what happened, and futilely try to figure out how to make it go away.

If these ineffective reactions to pain go unchecked, they can morph into more serious problems such as addictions, distractions, or unhealthy mind state, which will add to the pain and create deep suffering.[2]

I encourage you to read the article for yourself and learn to become aware of when and how you’re reacting to or resisting pain, which is the first step to responding to it. The author gives several good tips on using simple mindfulness techniques that can transform your relationship to pain, and help you stay present to the both the challenges of life and all of life’s joys and sorrows.

Peace,

Dr. Pamm

 

 

 

[1] Cindy Ricardo, “A Healing Response to Pain: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion,” GoodTherapy.org, Feb. 9, 2016.

[2] Ibid.

Manage Stress by Listening to Your Body

As Mark Bertin says in his excellent Mindful article, “Stress—it’s not all in your head. The body acts as an early warning system, and people who pick up on its signals are more resilient.”[1]

It’s true that people with better body awareness tend to feel less stressed. One way to have more body awareness is to practice mindfulness. The concept is simple, really: mindfulness practice develops our attention. For example, if we do a body scan, observing sensations from our toes and gradually moving up to our head, we take time and become focused on subtle physical shifts that occur in our bodies. We notice the beginning sensations of stress and can choose to step out of the cycle of anxious thoughts and emotions before they escalate.

I encourage you to read Mr. Bertin’s article and to consider beginning a mindfulness practice. As the author notes, “catching the cycle of stress early, we can more easily adapt and redirect it.”[2]

Peace,

Dr. Pamm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Mark Bertin, “Manage Stress by Listening to Your Body,” Mindful, Jan. 20, 2016

[2] Ibid.

How Meditation Reduces Pain

Time magazine this month previewed the results of an exciting study on the efficacy of mindfulness practice in pain management. The study by Dr. Fadel Zeidan, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center, will soon be published in the Journal of Neuroscience. Dr. Zeidan has studied mindfulness for 15 years and has observed improved health outcomes as a result.

“But what if this is all just a placebo?” he wondered. “What if people are reporting improvements in health and reductions in pain just because of meditation’s reputation as a health-promoting practice?” He wanted to find out, so he designed a trial that included a placebo group.[1]

In the study, one group was the control, one group received a placebo pain cream, one group learned a fake mindfulness practice, and the fourth group learned real mindfulness techniques.

“People in all of the groups had greater pain reductions than the control group. The placebo cream reduced the sensation of pain by an average of 11% and emotional unpleasantness of pain by 13%. For the sham mindfulness group, those numbers were 9% and 24% respectively. But mindfulness meditation outperformed them all. In this group, pain intensity was cut by 27% and emotional pain reduced by 44%.”[2]

Considering that opioid morphine reduces physical pain by 22%, the mindfulness numbers are impressive, indeed. But Dr. Zeidan was even more surprised by the MRI results, which showed that the mindfulness practitioners appeared to be using different brain regions than the other groups to reduce pain.

“There was something more active, we believe, going on with the genuine mindfulness meditation group,” Zeidan says. This group had increased activation in higher-order brain regions associated with attention control and enhanced cognitive control, he says, while exhibiting a deactivation of the thalamus—a structure that acts as the gatekeeper for pain to enter the brain, he explains. “We haven’t seen that with any other technique before.”[3]

As a mindfulness practitioner, I’m not surprised to hear this news, but I’m delighted to see good studies supporting what many of us have experienced. I look forward to upcoming studies that will help us to understand more about the process and under what circumstances mindfulness practice can be of most benefit to pain sufferers.

Peace,

Dr. Pamm

 

[1] Mandy Oaklander, “Meditation Reduces Emotional Pain by 44%: Study,” Time, Nov. 12, 2015.

 

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Achieve More by Doing Less

Is it really possible to achieve more by doing less? How do we know when we’re doing too much and could benefit from examining our habits for trouble spots? As Christine Carter notes in her excellent article in Mindful Magazine,

We so often wear our busyness as a badge of honor. We see our ability to withstand mounting levels of stress as a sign of character.

The author and mindfulness practitioner exposes that myth and shares several “truths” and “turnarounds” in a helpful infographic. Check out the full article for “three myths, three truths, and three ways to do things differently.”

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

5 Tips for Practicing Mindfulness at the Office

When I mention to new acquaintances that I teach mindfulness practice and briefly explain what that means, they sometimes say, “but how could I possibly add one more thing to my already jam-packed day?”

I love Janice Marturano’s response to that question in her article “5 Tips for Practicing Mindfulness at the Office.” She says,

Mindfulness training is about your life. It isn’t about the time you meditate on a cushion or chair. It is about learning to be awake for each moment of your life. So bringing your training into the moments in the day is a necessary requirement.

Her 5 Tips are based on the concept of “purposeful pauses.” Why not take a few minutes to read them and begin your own mindfulness practice?

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

Let It Go

Is there something that you need to let go? There is for most of us. It might be a belief about ourselves that makes us feel unworthy of receiving life’s bounty. It could be a desire for success in some endeavor that isn’t likely to be realized, in spite of our best efforts. Perhaps we hold onto a feeling or a behavior that drags us down or holds us back. It might even be an attempt to control someone else’s behavior or feelings.

Using a poker metaphor in his article “Let It Go,” Dr. Rich Hanson asks “when is it time to fold ‘em?” He shows us how to discover what we need to let go and gives us methods to unclench our hands, heart and mind to be free of the burden we have carried too far and too long.

Dr. Hanson notes two categories of problematic attachments:

  • Things that we know about with only a little reflection, such as self-critical thoughts, obsessions or compulsions, defensiveness about our issues, or drinking too much. These things are relatively straightforward to deal with, even though it could be difficult.
  • The hard things are the ones that make sense, that have good things about them, that would be good for us and others if they could work out – like longing for love from someone, or wishing more people would come to our store, or hoping that we’re free of cancer – but are either not worth the price or it’s sadly clear that we just can’t make them happen.[1]

How do we begin to let go? I urge you to read Dr. Hanson’s good article in it’s entirety, but here’s an overview of the process:

  1. Take a clear look at yourself. Are you stressing yourself for little gain, plus wasting time, attention, and other resources that could be better invested elsewhere?
  2. Step back from your situation and get some perspective. Pretend you’re sitting comfortably on a sunny mountain looking down on a valley that contains this thing you’ve been holding onto. Exhale and relax and listen to your heart: What’s it telling you about this attachment? Are the conditions right for it come true? Is it worth its costs? Is it out of your hands, so that your own striving just can’t make it so? You get to decide whether it’s best to keep trying, or time to let it go.
  3. Try making it concrete. For example, put a small stone or other object in your hand and imagine that it is the thing you’ve been attached to. Hold onto it hard; let your desires and thoughts about it flow; feel the costs related to it; and when you’re ready, open your hand and drop it. Be open to any sense of relief, freedom, ease, or insight.[2]

Try it, it works! You may still have the desire that something works out, but you won’t be stuck in it. You’ll be able to accept the way it is and use your energy for other thoughts and feelings that are more fruitful.

Letting go of that burden will give you clarity and energy to let good things come into the space you’ve opened up.

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

 

[1] Rick Hanson, “Let It Go,” eusophi, December 30, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

Learning Emotional Intelligence, Meditation, and Yoga in Schools

There’s been a lot of research and discussion of late on the state of education in America. Many parents and educators express concerns that students are subjected to too much stress. It’s easy to see how full schedules during and after the school day, combined with frequent SOL tests, limited or nonexistent recess periods, and the absence of “soft” subjects such as music and art could make any student suffer from worry, confusion, and fatigue.

That’s why I’m encouraged to see many schools introducing meditation and yoga programs to help children build stronger relationships, do better in school, and manage their emotions. A recent article in Mindful magazine describes some of these programs that are taking place all over the country. For example:

  • One curriculum in Harlemhas kids lead each other in meditation and sit for about 10 minutes a day. The teachers have been trained in the RULER program, designed at Yale University, with the goal of helping children develop emotional intelligence. The results of this program reflects the research on emotional intelligence: “They’re doing better in school. They have more positive relationships and on top of that, they have better physical and psychological well-being,” says child development expert Denise Daniels in an article from the Time Warner Cable News.
  • Another program similar to the one in Harlem is the program in Baltimore created by the Holistic Life Foundationthat aims to help kids living in some of the toughest parts of the city. The average dropout rate for high school students in Baltimore is 50%, yet 19 of the first 20 boys who participated in the program graduated, and the other got his GED.[1]

I encourage you to read the entire article for yourself. It’s more proof that Mindfulness Practice is for everyone, kids and grownups alike.

 

Peace,

 

Dr. Pamm

[1] “Learning Emotional Intelligence, Meditation, and Yoga in Schools,” Mindful, July 6, 2015.

Learn to Forgive Others No Matter What

In a recent edition of Mindful magazine, Elisha Goldstein reminds us about the need to forgive those who’ve hurt us—no matter what.[1] It’s a concept that people beginning a recovery journey, mindfulness practice, or therapy may find difficult to embrace. Surely, one might be justified to expect the other person to make the first move and to rectify the wrong that was done before forgiveness is granted? Of course that would be a desirable outcome, but it’s not something we can expect. Nor can we control another person’s thoughts, feelings, or actions. Instead, when we continue to carry the burden of a grudge, we’re the ones choosing to suffer under its weight.

As Mr. Goldstein explains, “forgiveness … is simply the act of letting go of the burden that you carry from another person who has hurt you out of their own pain, ignorance, or confusion. It’s a practice of freeing up your energy to focus on things that incline toward your own health and well-being or the health and well-being of others.[2]

In other words, forgiving others isn’t simply a moral imperative or recommendation for making peace in our relationships. It’s also vital to our physical health! As the author explains, “There’s a saying: ‘Not forgiving is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to get hurt or die.’ The reality is holding onto resentment literally keeps our cortisol running and makes us sick.”[3]

How then, do we make a choice to let go of resentment and release our suffering with a practice of forgiveness? If you’re open to letting go of the resentment habit and opening up to a better future, I encourage you to read Mr. Goldstein’s article in its entirety. He provides a brief outline for doing forgiveness practice and he’s even given us a video to watch and try for ourselves:

[1] Elisha Goldstein, “Learn to Forgive Others No Matter What,” Mindful, May 11, 2015

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

Dan Harris Explains Why “Meditation is not Baloney!”

Dan Harris reveals the top 3 misconceptions about meditation and explains why anyone – even you! – can benefit from it.

Meditation – It’s like a bicep curl for your brain!

Meditation 101: A Beginner’s Guide Animation

Mindfulness and meditation are really not that hard! Sometimes we bring misconceptions and expectations to the experience that complicate what is really a simple process. Please enjoy this fun, animated meditation instruction:

Kindergarteners Talk About Mindfulness in “Just Breathe” Short Film

Mindfulness Practice is Beneficial for All Ages