Meditation has become increasingly recognized as a powerful tool to calm the mind and reduce the activation of stress hormones in the body. There is quite a bit of good research that indicates its usefulness. It has been linked to "decreased anxiety, improved immune function, better emotional regulation, enhanced empathy, increased feelings of happiness and contentment, decreased stress effects and relapse prevention for depression. ( Ladner, July/Aug 2005) I suggest meditation to many of my patients as a way to reduce the noise in their heads and produce a calming effect for both mind and body. It can be helpful for people who have anxiety disorders, mild depression, some obsessive compulsive disorders, somatic disorders and chronic illness. It is usually not very helpful during periods of extreme crisis or in major depression when a person is unable to still the mind. It also may be improperly used by some patients as a way to avoid interaction and intimacy. Others may latch on to it as a panacea and become obsessed with reaching enlightenment. So I try to help people form realistic expectations of its usefulness. Mindful meditation can actually change brain function. It shifts activity in the prefrontal cortex from the right hemisphere to the left. The brain becomes reoriented from a fight or flight mode to a deactivating and calming mode that increases contentment and reduces the release of stress hormones.
Jon Kabat Zinn has been teaching patients with chronic pain and chronic illness to meditate in an eight-week course known as the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He calls his program an intensive self-directed training program in the art of conscious living. He suggests several exercises to begin the process of learning to meditate by focusing on the rising a falling of the breath and staying with the present moment. It is important to emphasize that learning to meditate is the process of continuing to bring the focus back to the breath. Our minds always wonder back to thoughts because that is the way our minds work. It is the constant refocusing on our breath that trains the mind to calm down and reduces the noisy mind chatter. So it is important not to become discouraged.
Here is the first exercise Dr. Kabat Zinn suggests for a beginning meditator:
I also suggest that patients find meditation groups and teachers to help them obtain deeper levels of concentration. It is a very useful technique that brings patients a whole new awareness of their mind and body which can include a more compassionate understanding and acceptance of themselves.
Ladner, Lorne, Bringing Mindfulness to Your Practice: When Meditation Helps and When It Doesn't, Psychotherapy Networker July/Aug 2005, pp19-20.
Kabat-Zinn, Jon, Full Catastrophe Living; Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, Dell Publishing, New York, New York, 1990.
The author of this article, and founder of the Therapyinla.com website, Joyce Parker, passed away in 2011. To honor her we are keeping her articles posted at this website.
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