Posted by HCGH_CL on Feb 10, 2015 in Mental Health | 0 comments
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Meditation . . . mind, body and soul
In today’s busy world, there is often too little time to step back and reflect—on our lives or on the moment in which we’re living. Devices that were designed to help us manage our lives too often end up controlling them, and busy schedules eat up time we should take for relaxation and quiet contemplation. All of this is taking its toll, as more and more people suffer today from stress- and anxiety-related disorders. Meditation is one way we can take back some quiet time, to center our lives and enhance our sense of well-being.
Meditation and Religion
Meditation has been practiced throughout the world for thousands of years, most often as a component of religious beliefs and traditions, and usually involves an effort to regulate the mind in some way.
In the Bahá’í faith, meditation is a tool for spiritual development and a way to reflect upon the words of God. For Buddhists, meditation is part of the path toward enlightenment and nirvana. Christian meditation is used to reflect upon God. Hindus have practiced mediation for tens of thousands of years and the Buddha is believed to have been a Hindu prince who attained wisdom through meditation. In Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, remembrance of God is interpreted through various meditative techniques.
Meditation and Health
More recently, the Western world has adopted many meditative practices, including New Age meditation, which has its roots in the social revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, when many young people rebelled against societal rules and traditional systems of belief. During this era, several secular meditation practices emerged, bringing the realization that meditation can improve health. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), a U.S. government entity that is part of the National Institute of Health, notes, “Meditation may be practiced for many reasons, such as to increase calmness and physical relaxation, to improve psychological balance, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall health and well-being.”
Biofeedback is one form of meditation that involves becoming more aware of physiological functions such as brainwaves, muscle tone, skin conductance, heart rate and pain perception. Using instruments that provide feedback, the goal is for the individual to eventually be able to manipulate their bodily functions at will to improve their health and conditions such as high blood pressure, depression, anxiety, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia, headaches and migraines.
“…in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.”
Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine
There are many types of meditation, but most have four elements in common:
- A quiet location with minimal distractions
- A specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying or walking)
- A focus of attention that sometimes includes a specially chosen word or set of words (a mantra), an object, or a focus on breathing
- An open attitude that allows distractions to come and go without judgment.
Meditation and the Brain
Today, we can look into the brain with instruments such as MRI and EEG to see how an individual’s body and brain change after meditating regularly, and research suggests that meditation may physically change the brain and body to improve certain health problems. A 2012 study indicated that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain, a process that may increase the brain’s ability to process information. Clinical studies have also suggested that meditation may slow, stall or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging. Results from a 2012 NCCAM-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the part of the brain that processes emotions, and that different types of meditation can have different effects. While studies about the ability of meditation to reduce pain have had mixed results, some have shown that meditation can activate certain areas of the brain in response to pain.
Madhav Goyal, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor in the Division of General Internal Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, led a study that was published in the JAMA Internal Medicine online magazine. He noted, “A lot of people use meditation, but it’s not a practice considered part of mainstream medical therapy for anything. But in our study, meditation appeared to provide as much relief from some anxiety and depression symptoms as what other studies have found from antidepressants.” Goyal stated that further studies are needed to clarify which results are the most influenced by meditation.
While meditation has been practiced throughout history for many purposes, studies seem to indicate that it holds considerable promise for the field of medicine.
I have bonded with many people throughout my life; building a lot of different relationships of varying degrees, some lasting longer than others. I have friends that I have known since elementary school that I still make a point of seeing, even if it’s not as often as we’d all like. The great thing about it is that we always fall right back into rhythm and savor that comforting familiarity. I also have close friends that I get to see more often and enjoy spending the majority of my free time with them because they bring me a tremendous amount of joy. However, this doesn’t mean that everyone I have met so far has been a “keeper.”
As we all start a new year, it’s important to set goals for ourselves, try something new, change a bad habit, or create any other sort of resolution that we need in our lives. This year, I decided to skip the fad diet that I won’t stick to. Instead, I want to continue to explore what defines my own happiness so I can make the necessary changes. A big part of this has to deal with eliminating the people in my life that are bringing me down.
It’s important to evaluate all of your relationships and ask yourself how each one affects you and your happiness. It’s never easy to cut people out of your life, but in many cases it may be for the better. Maybe someone is holding you back or isn’t willing to make the necessary changes in their own life to grow and mature. You must respect yourself enough to say “no” to those toxic people who are demanding of your time and energy.
It’s not easy to admit, but I’ve allowed toxic people to be an important part of my life for longer than they deserved. I gave them too many chances and then, gave them “one more” so they could prove to me that I wasn’t making a mistake in doing so. Sadly, it was a mistake. Those chances only left me confused. How could a person I cared about disregard all of my kindness and continue on with their selfish and inconsiderate pattern? Once I realized that the problem didn’t come from my end, I was able to accept that sometimes a person needs to reach a certain point in their life on their own. Sure, I could have kept being supportive, but to what end? What difference did it make if I wasn’t really getting through to the person? I didn’t want to be disappointed anymore. I realized that my own happiness was more important. I decided that instead of being ever-so-willing to do favors for others that I needed to do the biggest favor of all for myself: take care of me. Allowing myself to let go of someone that I loved and wishing them nothing but the best was tough, but necessary.
Digging deep and coming to the conclusion that I needed to follow through with a difficult decision didn’t make me any less of the genuine person I have worked toward being. It didn’t make me stop being kind to others or even discourage me from helping those who need it. Instead, I felt like I had gained a new level of respect for myself. This year, I hope you not only succeed in all of the goals that you have set for yourself, but also take the time to really look at who enhances your happiness and simply let go of those who aren’t on that list.
I have always been a person who appreciates the idea of meditation and its benefits more than the act itself. Having many friends who practice meditation, I have heard it all: “You should really try meditation.” (or the more direct) “You NEED to meditate!” That turned me off (somewhat) from the whole practice. I feel like meditation is a spiritual and calming journey that one must come to on their own terms. While I appreciate others wanting to offer their insight, I couldn’t force myself to be someone who meditates on a regular basis.
Don’t get me wrong, I have had pleasant experiences with meditation. For example, I participated in a guided meditation in one of my college classes and found it to be very enjoyable. The instructor had the entire class close their eyes and simply focus on the words she was speaking. After being lead across an open field until we saw a forest in front of us, we discovered our spirit animals. Mine is an owl. This form of meditation was very successful for me because I had someone telling me what to focus on. I have always felt as if I wasn’t meditating the right way because my thoughts would be scattered and unorganized. I’d jump from one thing to the next and couldn’t “turn my mind off.” However, this isn’t necessarily the goal of meditation. It is perfectly all right to acknowledge all thoughts as they surface as long as you don’t get caught up on them and lose focus.
I recently completed a meditation course through Gale Courses. These free courses can be accessed through the research section of Howard County Library System’s website. Just enter your library card number and you can access a variety of subjects. This course in particular explored the origin of meditation, the health benefits, as well as various techniques. Mindfulness meditation was especially interesting to me. It involves focusing on your breath or bodily sensations, acknowledging distracting thoughts in a non-judgmental manner, and then returning to the present moment. After completing the entire lesson on mindfulness meditation, I was familiar with the seven key factors of the practice. They include: Non-judging, Patience, Beginner’s mind, Trust, Non-striving, Acceptance, and Letting go. As a whole, mindfulness meditation is about being in the now. You are to release the need to judge or change thoughts and not get caught up on the past or future. You are to be open and accepting about what occurs during meditation and trust your awareness. In addition, you have to be able to “just be” and realize in that particular moment there is nowhere else for you to be and nothing to be attained. You are then able to allow things to naturally unfold and “let go” of expectations. I was drawn to this technique because it’s basically saying that you are allowed to acknowledge thoughts as they arise as long as you don’t let them consume you. It encourages the one meditating to place their focus where it needs to be; in the present moment.
Practicing mindfulness is something I try to do in everyday life. I take note of the colorful leaves on the trees and each foot step as I walk up to my apartment building. I keep a non-judging attitude in daily interactions and stay aware of my moment-to-moment experiences. Learning about the various ways to meditate has allowed me to find a technique that will work for me. I am looking forward to mindfulness meditation becoming a part of my regular routine and seeing all the ways that it enhances my life and well-being.
Winter is a time when the days get shorter, the nights get longer, and temperatures dip to their lowest. However, winter is also a time when some dealing with the “winter blues,” and are overcome with tell-tale signs of depression– a medical condition that affects a person’s thoughts and feelings as well as the body, and can be associated with various physical problems in areas such as sleep, appetite, energy, libido, and thinking (Albrecht/Herrick16). The feelings and sensations, or lack thereof, associated with depression may be experienced by a person for any number of reasons specific to the individual and their circumstances. However, depression, which occurs regularly during certain times of the year, and which most typically affects people during the cold, dark, months of winter, is known as Seasonal Affective Disorder or SAD.
According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI, “the classic characteristics of recurrent winter depression include oversleeping, daytime fatigue, carbohydrate craving and weight gain. Additionally, many people may experience other features of depression including decreased sexual interest, lethargy, hopelessness, suicidal thoughts, lack of interest in normal activities and decreased socialization.” One might ask why is it that a person becomes more prone to these feelings of depression during winter versus other times of the year. While the onset of SAD symptoms “usually begin in October or November and subside in March or April, in a minority of cases, symptoms occur in the summer rather than winter. There are certain factors (circadian rhythm, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels) that have been identified as influencing the occurrence of SAD and its symptoms, but a specific cause has not yet been identified.
In order to better understand how SAD affects individuals, let’s take a closer look at the three influential factors mentioned above: circadian rhythm, serotonin levels, and melatonin levels. Exposure to decreased light may disrupt the body’s internal clock, or circadian rhythm, which helps us time our wake and sleep cycles, and determines when various important biological processes (ex: sleep, appetite, digestion, etc.) will take place. For instance, most of us are acclimated to how the presence or absence of sunlight influences when we wake up (in the morning), when we are at our most productive (during the day), and when we go to bed (in the evening after the sun has set).
Serotonin, aka “happiness hormone,” is a monoamine neurotransmitter biochemically derived from tryptophan, which regulates intestinal movements, as well as mood, appetite, sleep, and muscle contraction. The less light there is, the lower the production of serotonin, which disrupts the way the neurotransmitter effectively communicates with nerve cells, and leads to symptoms of SAD.
Melatonin is a hormone produced by the pineal gland when it is dark, in order to make us feel sleepy. On the other hand, when there is light, the hypothalamus inhibits production of this hormone, which causes us to feel awake.
In conclusion, the darker days of winter cause the circadian rhythm to be affected by the lowered levels of serotonin, as well as the increased levels of melatonin. The body responds as if it were in pseudo-hibernation mode, and the SAD sufferer feels sleepier, increasingly tired, has less energy, appetite decreases, and mood is dampened. In order to curb and combat the symptoms of SAD, there are effective forms of treatment available, which consist of antidepressants, light therapy, and psychotherapy.
If you or anyone you know may be experiencing SAD, talk with your health care provider, or a qualified professional. For more information regarding SAD, and/or available treatment options, the following local resources are just a phone call away: NAMI (410-884-8691); Howard County Mental Health Authority (410-313-7350); Thrive Center (410-740-3240); Congruent Counseling Services (410-740-8066).
Have you ever told yourself, “Just one more potato chip,” and then proceeded to finish off the entire bag? Or have you bought a box of cookies with the intention of eating them in reasonable portions – and later, finding yourself stressed, eating the entire box in one sitting? I have and you are not alone.
It has been proven that women, more so then men, particularly stress about what and how much they eat. Why do we feel so guilty when we overeat? Personally, some of the reasons I find myself eating more to soothe feelings of anger, boredom, loneliness, and stress (and as a result, end up feeling guilty too). This is something I struggle with on a regular basis and it becomes a vicious cycle. Once I have overeaten for the day, I feel guilty and continue to overeat thinking, “What’s the point? I’ve already eaten poorly today.”
According to Lisa Elaine Held from an article that was published in Prevention magazine in May 2012, “Media messaging doesn’t help. Women’s magazine headlines are full of “guilt-free” burgers, snacks, and desserts. The underlying message is clear: If the foods in this article are guilt-free, then those others you’re eating are guilt-y.” So, how do we distinguish between eating as a source of nourishment and emotional eating?
Another important question to consider is, “Are certain foods physically addictive?” According to The Blood Sugar Solution 10-day Detox Diet by Mark Hyman, MD, “Foods that spike blood sugar are biologically addictive. So yes, food addiction is very real. It’s the root cause why so many people are overweight and sick. They are stuck in a viscous cycle of cravings.” I know that once I’ve gotten a taste of something sweet, there’s no doubt in my mind that the phenomenon of craving is overpowering and hard to shake.
“For some people giving up certain foods proves as difficult as it may be for an addict to give up alcohol or drugs. The same components of addiction are present and the brain may be affected in the same way. For many people their relationship with food is comparable to that of a drug user’s with drugs,” states Kimberly Steele, who is a bariatric surgeon at The Johns Hopkins Center for Bariatric Surgery.
What can we do to separate food with emotions? Ask ourselves some honest questions. I think the best question to ask yourself is, “Am I physically hungry or am I trying to fill some emotional need with food?” What has worked for me, is maintaining a daily food diary. I’m honest in my reporting, even when I feel I have “messed up” that day with overeating or eating junk food. This helps me see just how food and my emotions are intertwined. I know that this may not work for everyone, but maybe we should cut ourselves a break and try to separate food and guilt.
As we approach the holiday season, many of us experience extra stress in our lives. Some of our stress is due to the hectic schedules that we endure, family situations, staying healthy and eating well, or traveling. So, what can you do to lessen your stress and enjoy the holidays this year?
For stressful family situations, I recommend Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin and A is for Attitude by Patricia Russell-McCloud.
If staying fit and eating well are bothering you, check out: Breaking the Food Seduction by Dr. Neal Barnard, 50 Ways to Soothe Yourself Without Food by Susan Albers, Psy.D., Crave by Cynthia M. Bulik, Ph.D., and Eating Well for Optimum Health: The Essential Guide to Food, Diet, and Nutrition.
If travel is a concern (or while you’re waiting at the airport), try some of our new services at hclibrary.org. Zinio is great for reading magazines, while Hoopla has music, audiobooks, television, and movies available. What a stress-free way to enjoy those long hours at the airport or while riding in a car! I love getting my favorite magazine through Zinio to read on my tablet.
Lastly, try journaling. Journaling is a wonderful way to relieve stress. I keep a gratitude journal beside my bed. Every night, I write five things in my journal that I am grateful for that day. I found that it helps me to sleep better at night, reduces my stress while making me more gracious for many of life’s blessings that I experience every day.
Remember, enjoy the upcoming season while building those memories to cherish with friends, family, and loved ones. Until we meet again, happy trails!