Meditation? Being still? Who has time to sit around! These are some of the reactions I hear from clients who want peace and calm in their life and their hormones, but the treadmill of life keeps them running a million miles an hour.
Let’s pause before this busy holiday season revs up and get into a pre holiday mindset on how to go into the holidays armed with knowledge on
practicing self-care. Getting your head into the game now will set you up and support you for a happy, healthy holiday season.
You may have heard of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs, which have been shown to reduce stress and promote optimal health. MBSR is a method of using meditation and yoga to cultivate awareness. Mindfulness derives from Buddhist meditation practices and is fundamentally concerned with developing and open and unbroken awareness of the present; that is, being fully alive and fully present to the richness of each moment of our life. In more scientific terms, it is a present moment cognitive-effective and sensory experience.
Through gentle regulation of attention, mindfulness empowers us to cultivate a new relationship with internal and external experiences that does not encourage avoidance, over engagement, or elaboration. (1) Within this awakening, we gain access to our deepest inner resources for living, healing, and coping with stress.
So how do you put a mindfulness program in place? Well, if waking up 20 minutes early for seated meditation or dragging yourself to yoga class has been a challenge, join the crowd. Here’s the great thing about mindfulness. You don’t need a formal program to put it into action. There are ways to find peace and calm by training our minds to hold our attention during routine daily activities, and shifting our dial from the Go-Go-Go setting to Relax, Calm, and Aware.
In The Hormone Cure, I recommend some techniques to regulate cortisol imbalance by moving the body from the fight-or flight response (increased heart rate, blood pressure, and stress hormones), to a state of physiological relaxation (your ideal normal state). (2) Here are some ways you can rewire your parasympathetic nervous system (that is, your “peace and calm” center) by training your mind in some new techniques.
1. The Surprise in Your Surroundings
Have you ever noticed new growth on a plant or gazed deeply into a pet’s eyes? Did you ever look out the window to find something new in your view? Slowing our actions and focusing on what might be new creates an opening to stay in the present moment and cultivates our ability to focus. Studies have shown that an increased state of mindfulness allows one to more fully engage in making conscious, intentional life choices and promotes self-efficacy. (3)
Connecting to our environment can take us out of our overactive thoughts and can foster a new sense of awareness. According to Elliott Dacher, MD, a physician-turned-mindfulness trainer, sustaining awareness to what is actually occurring in the present moment develops a new habit—from mindlessness to mindfulness.
Exponents of mindfulness meditation promote the therapeutic effects of “bare attention:” a non-judgmental, non-discursive attending to the moment-to-moment flow of consciousness. (4)
Give it a try yourself. While going from task to task, expand the depth of field of what you SEE from the habitual narrowed, horse-with-blinder mentality. Allow yourself to let your eyeballs wander, not necessarily looking for something in particular, but simply scanning. SEE the details and use your senses: texture, sound, smells, and the contextual nature of your surroundings. Can you look at something without attaching a story to it?
By practicing non-judgment or non-striving, settling into stillness of mind will follow. The effects of training the mind will overflow into daily life with less reactiveness, more patience, and ease. (5)
2. The Mystical Mundane
Those everyday chores of washing dishes, folding laundry, and cleaning up can have a whole new meaning if we use the time to focus our attention and being fully present with each activity. (6)
Imagine you are driving across town to meet a friend or a client and there’s unexpected traffic. Your heartbeat quickens. Adrenal glands get activated. Cortisol starts flowing, fueled by your emotions. Well, there’s not much you can do about your situation. It’s not like you can park your car and grab a helicopter to get to your destination. Why let negative thoughts send you into an emotional spiral? Loosen the grip on the steering wheel. Focus on the road ahead of you. Soften your shoulders. Notice that you’re in a machine taking you from one place to another so you don’t have to walk such a long distance.
Mundane moments like this—driving, dishes, laundry—is where our mind tends to wander and we start fretting about the future or replaying the past. With no filter, our mind kicks into overdrive. To counteract all that excess activity, keep coming back to what is happening now. Let go of the memories or projections, shift into being, (7) and unwrap the present (no pun intended).
3. Task-Master Demotion
Does your day begin with cross-sectional stimulae? There’s talking, eating, dressing, listening, television, podcasts, driving, and texting (I shall not mix the last two!) There are those times when we’re hopping around with one shoe on, toothbrush in mouth, looking for our cell phone. I get it. But is there a way to just do one thing at a time?
What if some of these tasks could be delineated into individual ceremonies of appreciation? Eating without looking at texts or emails. Listening without talking. Doing one thing at a time.
Rick Hanson has a treasure chest of ideas about slowing down in his book Just One Thing. One suggestion, in particular, is to take a break during the day. Even if it is one or two minutes, Hanson says, the cumulated effects add up.
Here’s my favorite:
Take lots of Micro breaks:
Many times a day, step out of the stream of doingness for at least a few seconds: close your eyes for a moment; take a couple of deep breaths; shift your visual focus to the farthest point you can see; repeat a saying or prayer; stand up and move about. (8)
Create a Ritual
One of my clients ceremonially prepares her morning tea and then sits on the couch in her living room, savoring the flavors, and appreciating the foliage into her backyard or an exchange with her pets. This is a great example of creating a mindfulness ritual to help you focus on the here and now.
Spending more time in the calm state, the parasympathetic or “rest and digest,” promotes healing beyond the physical body. It also strengthens
how we respond to stressful situations and helps build interpersonal relationships and hones our ability to deal with others.
Health and Mindfulness
Evidence suggests that depression and focusing on distress (“rumination”) affects both cognitive mechanisms (impaired ability to process negative information) and neurobiological mechanisms (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis over activation and higher rates of cortisol production). In fact, there is growing scientific interest in assessing the biological correlation of non-drug-based interventions such as mindfulness to overall health. Rather than avoiding distressing feelings and thoughts by engaging in ruminative thinking and/or self-defeating behaviors, mindfulness encourages people to objectify dysfunctional thoughts by seeing them as passing phenomena. (1)
This really supports the view that MBSR/meditation can positively influence the biomarkers of stress regulation, such as cortisol secretion and sleep. (9)
Mindfulness meditation lowers the cortisol levels in the blood suggesting that it can lower stress and may decrease the risk of diseases that arise from stress such as psychiatric disorder, peptic ulcer and migraine. (10)
Here’s another way that mindfulness can play an important role in our well being. At the ends of our chromosomes are stretches of DNA called telomeres. These have been compared with the plastic tips on shoelaces, because they keep chromosome ends from fraying and sticking to each other, which would destroy or scramble an organism’s genetic information. (11) Patients with cancer run a risk of telomere shortening, which can bring on a higher risk of death.
There’s a new study that suggests it is possible to influence telomere length in cancer survivors through the use of psychosocial interventions—including stress reduction and mindfulness mediation. (12) By reducing stress, breast cancer survivors were able to influence their cortisol levels, creating a trend towards telomere maintenance.
Research has also shown that mindfulness leads to a greater awareness of our own suffering and psychological distress, and this helps to instill a greater appreciation of the suffering of others. Also, greater levels of compassion can increase our tolerance of negativity because we’re better able to assign greater levels of perspective to our own emotional and/or somatic pain. (1)
Mindfulness meditation can also be a very effective tool to control binge eating and emotional eating. As the body’s biological stress response intensifies, we can experience increased feelings of hunger, a preference for high fat and high sugar foods, and increase the deposit of abdominal fat. If you’re trying to lose weight, consider adding mindfulness meditation to your psychological toolkit. Awareness and acceptance of transitory moments—saying to yourself, “This, too, will pass”—helps you replace automatic thoughts and reactions with conscious and healthier responses. (13)
This holiday season, we will be continuously providing blogs, articles and recipes to help us all not just survive but thrive during the holidays.
I love this brief TED Talk by Andy Puddincombe, creator of headspace.com, who designed an intelligent, approachable online meditation practice that anyone can use. There’s an app for it as well:
- Compare, Angelo, and Cristina Zarbo. “Emotional Regulation and Depression: A Potential Mediator Between Heart and Mind.” Psychiatry Neurol. 2014, no. 324374.
- Gottfried, Sara. The Hormone Cure. New York: Scribner, 2013.
- Oberg, Erica, Margaret Rempe, and Ryan Bradley. “Self-Directed Mindfulness-Training and Improvement in Blood Pressure, Migraine Frequency, and Quality of Life.” Global Advances in Health and Medicine, 2013, 20-25.
- Sharf, R.H. “Is Mindfulness Buddhist? (and Why It Matters).” Transcult Psychiatry Pii: 1363461514557561. [Epub Ahead of Print] (20014).
- Elliott Dacher. Aware, Awake, Alive: A Contemporary Guide to the Ancient Science of Integral Health and Human Flourishing. St. Paul: Parragon House, 2011.
- Brian Seaward. Essentials of Managing Stress. Sudbury: Jones and Bartlett, 2011.
- Kabat-Zinn, Jon. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion, 2005.
- Hansen, Rick. Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time. Oakland: New Harbinger, 2011
- Turakitwanakan, WI, and C. Mekseepralard. “Effects of Mindfulness Meditation on Serum Cortisol of Medical Students.” J Med Assoc Thai.96 Suppl 1:S90-5. (2013).
- “Are Telomeres The Key To Aging And Cancer?” Learn.Genetics Web. 13 Nov. 2014.
- Brand, S., E. Holsboer-Trachsler, JR Narajo, and S. Schmidt. “Influence of Mindfulness Practice on Cortisol and Sleep in Long-term and Short-term Meditators.” Neuropsychobiology65, no. 3 (2012): 109-18.
- Carlson, LE. “Mindfulness-based Cancer Recovery and Supportive-expressive Therapy Maintain Telomere Length Relative to Controls in Distressed Breast Cancer Survivors.” Cancer [Epub Ahead of Print] (2014).
- Corsicaa, Joyce A, and N. Shawn. “Mindfulness Meditation as an Intervention for Binge Eating, Emotional Eating, and Weight Loss: A Systematic Review.” Eat Behav.15, no. 2 (2014): 197-204.