Mindfulness, even when inadvertent, can have powerful effects on your brain. I know because it happened to me. Let me tell you the story.
A while back, I was having breakfast in the backyard, reading the “newspaper” on my laptop. (Actually, there was no paper and very little real news.) I was simultaneously listening to music on my favorite classical music station, KDFC out of San Francisco.
They were playing some sweet piano music (a nocturne by Chopin). It was so enchantingly beautiful that I closed my eyes, savoring it. And, then something strange happened.
It can’t be fully described in words, except to say that I felt “one with the music.” All of my attention was focused on it, on every note, every nuance in the almost imperceptible changes in tempo and loudness.
I had known and loved this piece for many years, but it was that morning, at that very moment that I discovered the tonality of it—the way Chopin arranged the composition around a central note.
What was going on in my brain? I realized that I was unintentionally practicing mindfulness. To some, the very word evokes a smirking dismissal of “new age” psychobabble. I know because I have done it myself.
But that sublime encounter with Chopin profoundly affected me and led me to delve more deeply into the notion of mindfulness.
Simply put, being mindful means being acutely aware of, without reacting emotionally, what is happening now. This is instead of the usual state-of-mind where your thoughts drift into the past or you muse about the future, Mindfulness is the opposite of a wandering mind.
When I listened to that piece of music, I enjoyed it more than I ever had before. I was acutely aware of every note. But at the same time, I discovered the tonality, or the mechanics, of creating the music. This gave me the intellectual satisfaction of discovery but none of the emotional uplift of the music, itself.
Of course, this episode hardly matters in the grand scheme of things. If this is all there is, enjoying music on a deeper level, than it’s really not worth taking the time to read this post. But my Chopin moment is only a metaphor for a much bigger phenomenon. So read on.
What’s the difference between fear and anxiety? Fear is generally elicited by particular cues or contexts. My dog becomes fearful at the sound of thunder. In the context of the African savannah, the image of a leopard is fear-provoking, but in the zoo or on TV, it is just a handsome, powerful cat.
Anxiety, on the other hand, can occur in the absence of triggers. In its chronic form, it can be quite debilitating. How debilitating? PTSD is an extreme example.
Stressful experiences can precipitate acute episodes of PTSD in vulnerable people. The momentary stress we all experience when we hear a car backfire close by can trigger an anxiety attack of devastating proportions in a veteran of the Iraq war.
The natural reaction to attacks of anxiety is to try and avoid them. This can take the form of alcohol and drugs, or cognitively “taking your mind off it.” Both responses are ineffective and tend to accomplish exactly the opposite—that is increasing, instead of decreasing the anxiety.
Mindfulness employs a Jiu-Jitsu approach. Rather than trying to avoid or numb the unpleasant feelings, being mindful means acknowledging the cues that precipitate the response while remaining completely detached. People are taught to do the following:
This is because when you observe and analyze something “clinically”, you rob it of its emotional punch.
Let’s take a look at some studies:
Melissa A. Polusny, Ph.D, of the Minneapolis Veterans Affairs Health Care System, and her colleagues randomly assigned 116 veterans with PTSD to treatment for their disorder.
Half of the group (58 individuals) were assigned to receive nine sessions (8 weekly 2.5-hour group sessions and a daylong retreat) of mindfulness-based stress reduction therapy (MBSR). These sessions focused on teaching patients to pay attention to the present moment in a “non-judgmental, accepting manner.”
The other half received something called present-centered group therapy (PCGT) consisting of nine weekly group sessions focused on current life problems. Outcomes were assessed before, during, and after treatment and at 2-month follow-up. Here are the results:
The results are certainly modest. The main problem is the relatively short duration of the improvement. So it remains to be seen if a more prolonged practice of MBSR would result in a commensurate prolonged effect.
But the study does demonstrate that stress reduction through the practice of mindfulness definitely works.
A lot of research on the neurobiology of meditation and its offshoot, mindfulness, has been done. Unfortunately, the vast majority of it is of poor quality.
Despite that, the anatomy of brain regions that participate in mindful meditation is coming into light through the use of fMRI.
Britta Holzel and her co-investigators, in a study published in the journal Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, measured the gray matter density of the hippocampus. This is an area of the brain that is known to store and regulate memories. It also plays a role in the regulation of emotions.
The researchers found significant increases in the density of the left hippocampus. This study confirmed that structural changes in this region are detectable within 8 weeks following the participation in mindfulness training program. Other areas of interest in the brain that served as controls had no such changes in gray matter density.
The investigators then went a step further. Rather than stop with the pre-selected “areas of interest”, they looked at the whole brain. And, that was quite illuminating. Here is what they found in various brain regions:
Exploratory analysis of the entire brain revealed four clusters with significantly greater gray matter concentration post-training compared with the pre-training time-point in the MBSR group. One cluster was located in the posterior cingulate cortex where an area called the insula is located.
The insula is known to be impacted in interoceptive/visceral (basically, what’s going on in your body) awareness as well as in empathic responses (your ability to know what’s going on physically and emotionally in the other person). More generally, it plays an important role in human awareness or consciousness.
One cluster was located in the left temporoparietal junction (TPJ). It has been suggested that the TPJ is a crucial structure for the conscious experience of the self, mediating spatial unity of self and body.
Impaired processing at the TPJ may lead to the pathological experience of the self, such as disembodiment or out-of-body experiences. Furthermore, the TPJ is also involved in social cognition (a.k.a. social intelligence), i.e., the ability to infer states such as desires, intentions, and goals of other people.
The researchers also identified two clusters in the cerebellum and brain stem. These areas of the brain are associated with the more primitive functions of the brain, such as maintenance of fine movement and balance. So what does it have to do with emotional well-being?
Some scientists suggest that in the same way that the cerebellum regulates the rate, force, rhythm, and accuracy of movements, it also regulates the speed, capacity, consistency, and appropriateness of cognitive and emotional processes. In other words, it modulates behavior automatically around a homeostatic baseline.
Other stories by this author:
Given the importance that the regulation of emotions and cognition play in healthy psychological functioning, the morphological changes in these regions might contribute to the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on the salutary changes in well-being.
Indeed, more recent studies corroborate the initial findings of imaging studies on the neuronal and molecular levels. An excellent summary of these studies can be found in the ” Handbook of Mindfulness: Theory, Research, and Practice.*
The bottom line
It is becoming obvious now that mindfulness is not mere psychobabble gobbledygook. It has a solid neuronal basis and there is increasing evidence of its salutary effect on emotional health and behavior.
So go ahead, and practice some mindful meditation. Ten minutes a day will do you good.
*This link is an Amazon affiliate link. We earn a small commission if you purchase this book through us.
First published in August 2015, this article was reviewed and updated by the author for republication on 9/19/20.
We are living longer and longer. As our lifespans extend to 80, 90, 100 years or more, having a good quality of life during those years becomes increasingly important. How can we stay healthy? And, how can we still do the things we want to do? Finally, how can we feel content and fulfilled until the last moments of our lives? Here are my 8 life-changing tips that will help you age well.
The keys to aging well with health, happiness, and peace lie in training our-
Physical power is a cornerstone of happiness and health. Having enough muscle mass, flexibility, bone density, immune response, cardiac tone, and more, all contribute to being able to do the things that make us happy. It also contributes to having confidence and a positive outlook on the future.
Heart power is the ability to follow our conscience and have tolerant compassionate relationships. Like physical power, the more we use our heart power, the greater it grows.
Close personal relationships, such as those with family and friends and the communities to which we belong, are excellent training grounds for heart power. Having a social support network built on heart power remains one of the cornerstones of healthy aging, according to studies in areas with a high population of centenarians.
Brainpower is creativity. That is the ability to use our insight and wisdom to create something that contributes to ourselves and to the world.
Creativity comes from curiosity, from an interest in and love for ourselves and our surroundings. Being engaged in the world and trying new things stifles cognitive decline. It also provides a sense of excitement for living. It leads to creation and contribution to others that gives us fulfillment and a reason to live.
Building our physical power, heart power, and brainpower can be done with simple changes in our lifestyle and outlook that add up to a big difference.
Here are eight ways to do it from my recent book, I’ve Decided to Live 120 Years.
Staying physically active is essential for developing physical power. However, hectic lives and inertia often get in the way of our staying as active as we need to.
However, exercise doesn’t need to take a lot of time or involve special equipment or clothing to be effective. Recent research has indicated that short bursts of high-intensity exercise can be as effective as longer bouts.
Try exercising for just one minute every hour. If you can, do a strong, high-intensity exercise such as push-ups, plank, sit-ups, or jumping jacks.
But if you cannot, try a gentler exercise such as stretching or breathing. Choose exercises that work for you and make you happy. You can even use exercises from practices like yoga, tai chi, or qigong.
By scheduling your exercise in short bursts throughout the day, you break up the length of time you spend sedentary. Longer periods of uninterrupted sitting is a risk factor for disease and decline.
Related content: Fall Prevention: Why Every Aging Adult Should Learn Tai Chi
Try to fit in one minute at least ten times a day. I believe that mindfully exercising for just one minute every hour will keep your body and mind alert, strong, and flexible.
Dreams and goals fuel your body and mind to move. They motivate you to take care of yourself, grow, and change. No matter how old you are, continue to develop yourself.
Rather than living day-to-day, without something meaningful to work toward, focus on goals that are near and dear to your heart. You will find yourself waking up with excitement each morning, eager to see what lies ahead.
A good attitude is another important part of living a long, healthy life. Change your attitude about getting older, if you have any negative assumptions.
In studies on attitudes toward aging, those with negative attitudes tended to walk more slowly and have worse cognitive abilities than those who had a more positive outlook.
Rather than seeing the wrinkles, stooped posture, or old-fashioned notions, remember all the wisdom and experience you accumulate and can share with others. You can live with hope and dignity at every age.
Sharing and giving are the greatest rewards we can receive. Developing a habit of helping others or contributing to your community forges the social connections aging experts say are important for aging well.
In caring for others, you are more motivated to care for yourself. You might mentor a young one, give money to a charity, or do something fulfilling that supports the next generation. Make sure the cause is something you believe in, and you’ll enjoy your selfless giving in ways that might surprise you.
Visit natural places often, wherever you may be, and whenever you get the chance. You don’t necessarily have to go to distant mountains or the wilderness, or to the ocean. A park or trail near your home is good, too. Go wherever you can feel the sunshine, trees, water, and wind, and wherever you can see the open sky and walk on unpaved ground.
Related content: What is Nature Deficit Disorder and How to Know if You Have It
Being in nature, or doing a nature meditation, helps you let go of your stress and worries. Nature rejuvenates body and soul. Treat nature like a friend and it will heal the wounds you’ve suffered and open your closed heart.
Meditation is a good practice for people of any age. Many studies have confirmed that it is excellent for relieving stress. It can offset some of the cognitive declines that comes with aging, by
Most of all, meditation makes you happier since it promotes a calm state of mind and has been shown to increase serotonin and dopamine, hormones associated with happiness and contentment.
You may also enjoy: How to Help Your Partner Make Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Your brain doesn’t need to grow stiff and forgetful as you age. It has the capacity to make new neural connections any time if you exercise it with new challenges.
Instead of doing the same routines day in and day out, grow your brain power by doing things that are different. It’s even better if they are difficult.
This could be learning a foreign language, taking a challenging class at your local college, or immersing yourself in an art form that’s unfamiliar to you.
Even brushing your teeth with your non-dominant hand each night can help your brain grow in wonderful ways.
Discover your values and what your brain really wants to create by probing your inner wisdom. Sit in quiet contemplation and ask yourself:
Ask until the answers come to you and then trust those answers. They will guide your decisions and actions for a life of fulfillment and inner peace.
This story was first published on Dec. 19, 2017. It has been reviewed and references updated for republication on Aug. 5, 2020.
A 2016 Yoga Journal study shows that 36.7 million Americans practice yoga. This is a massive jump from just over 20 million people in 2012. Almost three-quarters of these people have been practicing for less than 5 years. To help them out, we have compiled some simple tips for beginners to avoid common mistakes that people make in yoga.
Yoga through the ages has been more of a way of life than a simple teaching method. With a philosophy strongly centered around your health and well-being, when you fully embrace yoga, you go beyond simple meditation techniques.
Yoga can extend to healthy, clean eating habits, and even the way you bathe. You can even apply yoga to social or business interactions. Quite simply there are many health benefits of yoga.
Read on and get the very most out of your yoga sessions.
Yoga is a much more delicate discipline than a punishing cardio or weights session.
In many other sports, the old cliché, “No pain, no gain” is fairly accurate. You need to push your limits in order to experience the many benefits of exercise.
In the past, some believed that delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) can be a sign that you’ve trained well. However, we no know that it actually represents a form of mild muscle damage.
With yoga, you should not experience pain. This is not to say you shouldn’t be putting in any effort, just don’t overdo it. If things start to twinge, ease off or stop.
Focus more on the therapeutic benefits of yoga rather than treating it like other forms of exercise and hitting it too hard.
Yoga’s a bit like going to the movie theater…
Your position can mean the difference between a thoroughly enjoyable experience and a sore neck from sitting too close to the screen.
A common error is to place too much importance on being front and center. Sure, you’ll get a great view some of the time. The reality, though, is that the instructor spends a lot of time wandering around. The moment they move, there goes your view.
The optimum spot is the second-to-last row. The majority of the time, you’ll have a clear line of sight on the instructor. On the occasions when you need to conduct moves facing the back of the room, you’ll still have someone to follow.
Not all spots are equal so choose wisely.
If you choose to attend a yoga class, make sure you don’t just passively go through the motions. For standardized courses with no personal touch, it’s easy enough to get DVDs or watch videos online.
When you pay for a class, take advantage of your instructor and interact. Whether you’re pregnant or injured, communicate so you are not unwittingly directed to poses that might do more harm than good.
The whole idea of heading to an organized class is to enjoy a program specifically tailored to your personal requirements. The easy way to achieve this is to overcome any shyness or reluctance and make yourself heard!
Don’t fall into the trap of imagining that all yoga classes are roughly the same.
If you’re looking for a very gentle session, booking a hardcore Bikram class with postures performed in 100°F heat and 40% humidity is not your best bet.
Take the time to read about the different yoga styles at your disposal. Be honest about your requirements and desired outcome. If you do your research and don’t rush headlong into the first class you see advertised, you can find something in line with your needs and ability.
While eating before exercise fuels your body, you don’t want to leave this until minutes before yoga class.
The last thing you want is for your muscles to lose out because your blood supply is busy processing your food. Also, many yoga positions could feel outright painful with a bloated stomach.
You should sidestep food for 1-2 hours before practicing yoga.
If you’re stuck for ideas, check out some suitable snacks here. Whether it’s peanut butter smeared on a banana or some chicken, the key is to eat a small portion and to do so well in advance of the class.
By eating smartly and at the right time, you can make your yoga experience far more comfortable.
Don’t get carried away and immediately aim for advanced poses without mastering the basics.
Getting to grips with some foundational postures will ensure that you’re ready when it comes to more sophisticated positions.
If you try to take a short cut, it’s unlikely you’ll have the balance, flexibility, and strength to master advanced moves right off the bat.
Yoga is about the journey, not the destination. Don’t rush and short change yourself.
Whether you’re practicing yoga at home in front of the mirror or in a formal class, form really is crucial.
If you run into any problems, try chatting with your instructor before or after class to work out what’s wrong with your posture.
Yoga is meant to be a healing art. Don’t use poor form and end up injuring yourself instead.
The keyword here is perfect.
While we’ve just made it clear that you need to focus on correct and proper form, hankering after perfection at the cost of any kind of progress is equally bad.
Like with many things in life, it’s all about balance.
Rather than thinking about the perfect pose, think about the perfect pose for you. If you’re struggling with a part of a posture, get your instructor to break it down and give you a variation you can handle.
It’s funny that such a natural action can seem challenging at times.
Here’s a detailed look at the importance of proper breathing.
Learning to breathe correctly is another learning curve so embrace it if you’re practicing yoga. Failing to do so can lead to impaired performance and possibly even a fall if you get things wrong.
Everyone is busy these days. Even fitting in time for a yoga class can be difficult. It’s tempting to try to save time by skipping your warm-up and warm-down but this is really not advisable.
If you’re just starting out with yoga, we hope you’ve found some useful tips here on what not to do. Take things slowly, embrace all aspects of this versatile discipline and you can reap many health benefits from yoga.
Now go and hit the mats!
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First published on July 17, 2019, it has been updated for republication.
I confess. I am a birder. So is my husband. We like birds…a lot.
The ornamental plum in our backyard looks like a Christmas tree with bird feeders of different sizes and shapes dangling off the lower limbs. I also have three feeders on the deck outside my office strategically placed so I can pause to watch them throughout the day. My binoculars are always on the nearby bookcase on the ready when I hear the call of our resident red-shouldered hawk overhead. Watching him glide effortlessly on the thermals, making his incongruous high pitch call, thrills me to the depths of my soul – although it drives my big Black Lab, Sherman, crazy.
One downside of all these feeders is that it has become quite costly and time-consuming to keep them full as hoards of hungry goldfinches, house finches, and juncos greedily inhale the “no mess” birdseed and our downy woodpecker pounds his beak into the hot-pepper laced suet in the suet holder that I placed nearby just for him. And, that leads me to the other downside – the persistent duel I have with of our resident squirrel who never fails to believe that he can reach the feeder outside my office window that dangles about six feed off the ground.
Our yard is loaded with flowers that hummingbirds love, kangaroo paws and Lily of the Nile, so we have a plethora of Anna’s hummingbirds most of the year zooming from flower to flower, occasionally getting so close that we can feel the air currents generated by their wings. I once had to duck to avoid getting hit by one. It was amazing.
The best thing about having lots of bird feeders is you attract lots of different types of birds feeding on them. And, you have a chance to observe all manner of bird behavior – fighting, flirting, courting, eating, and singing.
The singing is delightful. It always captures our attention. My husband and I have learned the songs of our most frequent feeders – the whistle of the Lesser Goldfinch (my personal favorite), the jabbering of the rosy colored house finches, and, the metallic chink chink chink of the California towhee, the call of the red-tailed hawk. (Are you having fun yet?)
So, a while back, when my husband forwarded me Trish O’Kane’s haunting opinion piece on birds and birding in the 8/16/14 edition of the New York Times, titled “What the Sparrows Told Me,” I read it with a grin.
O’Kane, a former human rights investigative journalist who researched the Rios Montt massacres in Guatemala, is now teaching basic ornithology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She got into birds in a circuitous way…starting with observing a group of small brown sparrows that managed to survive New Orlean’s Hurricane Katrina.
A month or so after Katrina, her father told her that he had terminal cancer. He found peace by watching the birds at his feeder.
“He didn’t know a Mugimake flycatcher from a Hudsonian godwit. But during his last days he loved to watch birds come to his feeders. If watching birds could help my father die, maybe it could help me live and teach.”
She bought two bird feeders and began watching the sparrows every morning. Instead of dwelling on the devastation of her city,
“I started wondering why one sparrow was hogging all the seed. I started thinking about their resilience, their pluck, their focus on immediate needs. If they couldn’t find food, they went somewhere else. If they lost a nest, they built another. They had no time or energy for grief.”
She writes that she knew that birds were teachers when one of her journalism students became obsessed with a pair of mallards, even researching their migration routes. He wrote a paper for the class in which he said,
“These ducks face a difficult and dangerous journey, every year. And they come back here [New Orleans]. They’re like us — tough, like Katrina evacuees. We were scattered all over but we made it back home.”
O’Kane started her essay by scorning the “well-fed, binoculared foreigners” who were counting birds in Guatemala where, she notes, people were still trying to count their dead from the massacres. In the end, she became one of those binoculared people loaded down with expensive equipment and studying birds that migrate to Central America…the very same area where “thousands of children…are migrating north to escape the violence and poverty created by our failed foreign policies and drug wars.”
It should not surprise you to learn that O’Kane teaches an environmental justice course, titled “Birding to Change the World. (Love it!)
She ends her essay by saying that she always tells her students,
“…that birds are a gift to help them get through each day, a way to enjoy the world while we change it so that young people, everywhere, have a chance. I tell them that when the world is caving in on them, just walk outside, listen for a minute, find that cardinal, that woodpecker, that pesky crow, and see what they’re up to. That tiny act, that five-minute pause, won’t save the planet, I tell them, but it might save you, one bird at a time.”
So, my dear readers, when the going gets tough and you think you can’t take it anymore, I hope you will find a bird (or two)…and just observe.
This story was first published on The Doctor Weighs In on 8/20/2014. It has been republished today because it seemed to me that in these particularly troubling times, you just might need it. Enjoy.
Have you been wondering if it is time to make a decision to shed stress and be happier by thinking different(ly)? Sensual thinking connects what you love with what you need in the big picture. It guides decisions that keep long-term priorities in focus so you feel healthy and happy.
Thinking sensually is search engine thinking. Sensuality goes beyond our five senses. We sense courage, dignity, fear, truth, love, happiness, and satisfaction. Our options are endless. Instead of only having one way to reason, we can use the variety of everything we sense to see new ways to solve old problems.
Sensual thinking is the way we understand how things come together, know our self, and connect with others. It is thinking with your senses and feeling with your mind. We do it automatically. It can be simple. Our senses are always present and tuned to what’s real. Thinking sensually brings a liberating perspective of balance and insight to your day.
When you start to think with your senses by noticing what you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, everything changes. You will naturally tune to what pleases you or to a task you have forgotten. Don’t take your senses for granted. Sensing heightens awareness of place and purpose by reconnecting you with the bigger picture. You intuitively tune to what you value, which makes you aware of timing, purpose, and direction. Life is smoother.
Everyone has six senses. They are each part of our survival instinct. Intuition, like our other senses, can easily be ignored, or you can use it to find excitement and satisfaction every day. Everyone uses intuitive tools like curiosity, dignity, tenacity, patience, and gratitude unconsciously. Notice what you notice. Intuitive tools are timeless iconic values that bring us a perpetual source of strength and insight. Every great leader and every survivor depends on them.
When you use intuitive tools to guide decision making, you take your life to a higher level.
Everything you sense creates an inner synergy that your brain naturally responds to. Synergy is when energies come together and a new unified energy is born—like making a baby, or like blending blue and red to make purple. Sensual thinking drives synergy between your senses and your mind to create action. Intuition is a nudge or a gut feeling that always drives action. Example:
Sensuality is the skill of staying present by savoring and integrating what you experience to be your highest potential. Sensual thinking is an inclusive, bigger picture perspective. Sometimes we call it “common sense”.
The intuitive tool of gratitude keeps us tuned to heart. Try it. You will be amazed.
Gratitude is an amazing skill and a natural way to practice sensual thinking. With an attitude of gratitude, ultimately, it’s easy to be grateful and life gets better. Gratitude is not about whether the glass is ½ full or ½ empty, it’s the fact that you have the opportunity to drink life. Be open to what is good in your life, in your environment, and in your heart.
The first step to seeing what you need and having what you want is thinking it may be waiting for you. If you don’t see it immediately, look again. No one has all the answers. You may not recognize it and if that happens:
Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you are right. ~ Henry Ford
When stressed, we ignore the familiar and zero in on emotions to overcome it. Emotional thinking is based on the past. When we lose touch with what’s happening in the present, what really matters is ignored. When we lose touch with the bigger picture, we cannot see how things come together.
Natural sensuality keeps life vibrant. Noticing what you sense organically expands your brain and focuses your mind. It’s never the same twice. Take care of your heart. Every time you make a decision, you have a new opportunity to make life better.
We are born to navigate change by responding to our sense of right and wrong. Don’t think so much. Trust your gut. Take actions that feel valuable and you will find clarity and companionship.
First published on 12/10/17, this post is being republished for your reading pleasure.
Living with and mitigating chronic pain is too often a complicated and frustrating process, whether the underlying pain stems from an injury, autoimmune disease, or other conditions. For many people with complex causes, pain may endure for years. Because traditional physical therapy often fails to produce the symptom improvement that a patient seeks, it is vital to consider other options for managing and preventing chronic pain. Open your mind and body to new types of movement, track how you feel, and realize an invigorating boost towards achieving your healthiest self.
Before experimenting with new styles of movement therapy, it is beneficial to readdress the basics. Two essential processes that often get overlooked are breathing and stretching.
Breathing is the only autonomic physiological function that we can voluntarily control, making it a unique target for conscious control, meditation, and therapy. The problem is that most people have no idea whether they are breathing incorrectly. There seems to be a common misconception that “vertical breathing” (with neck and shoulders rising vertically upon inhalation) corresponds to deeper breathing. As we move away from this misconception, we can train ourselves to breathe more optimally.
To practice breathing optimally (“horizontally”), start by sitting up straight and inhale through your nose. Pay attention to your upper abdomen – it should expand along with your chest, not your shoulders. Breathe slowly and fully in through your nose and out through your nose or mouth.
Pilates is extremely popular today, and one of the core precepts of Pilates is proper breathing, using not only the chest and abdomen but the often-ignored muscles of the back of the rib cage. Various types of yoga (see below) focus on breathing as meditation and teach alternate breathing patterns, such as the Ujjayi breath of fire.
Stretching is commonly associated with pre-workout warm-ups and increasing flexibility. Ballet, barre training and Pilates all incorporate stretches for suppleness and posture. Like breathing, stretching is an innate activity that can be performed with minimal training and equipment. Something as simple as mindfully stretching every morning and evening can improve sleep quality, as well as reduce stress, muscle pain, and joint stiffness.
A key target of stretching is fascia, the densely-woven, soft tissue layer of the connective tissue system. Disruptions in fascia have been linked to various chronic conditions, such as chronic lumbar backache, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and many others. Dr. Robert Schleip, a leading researcher in the field of fascia and movement therapy, has discovered that many stretching techniques positively influence connective tissue and alleviate symptoms associated with joint stability and musculoskeletal pain. Additionally, specialists at Mayo Clinic have found that stretching is connected to stress relief, which is a major contributor to the symptoms of autoimmune conditions. Thus, stretching presents many benefits beyond increased flexibility.
Through trial and experimentation, discover the combination of movement therapies that most effectively minimizes pain and leaves your body (and mind) feeling best.
For those who have tried yoga, you have most likely encountered one of the variants of Hatha (physical) yoga, popularized in the US from the 1960’s-80’s. But there are many yogas: physical, mental and spiritual practices developed over many centuries in India. For example, yoga therapy, which emphasizes practices specifically to manage disease and improve health; pranayama, practices that harness breathing, and kundalini, which combines asanas, pranayama, mantras (sounds) and visualization techniques. With so many different types of yoga to choose from, you can alternate between more physically demanding options and relaxing, meditative styles.
The mind-body practice of Tai Chi stems from ancient Chinese tradition, combining martial arts exercises and meditative practice to achieve harmony of mind, body, and spirit. This practice is finding a growing Western following. Although the practice of Tai Chi looks rather simple, it targets a variety of different muscles, so you may find yourself feeling sore the next day! According to the Mayo Clinic, more than 2.5 million Americans practice Tai Chi to increase energy, stamina, flexibility, muscle strength and definition, and balance.
The Feldenkrais Method has two approaches. Both use focused mindfulness and slow, gentle movements to retrain the body, but one approach is passive (performed by a practitioner on the student’s body), while the other is active (performed by the student). Most people start with a practitioner and then move on to more active practice as they master the techniques. The slow, mindful movements of Feldenkrais have been linked to improved posture and balance, reduced pain, elevated mood, and increased flexibility.
In seeking to promote a culture of optimal wellbeing and reduce the startling statistics of chronic disease prevalence, we must embrace fearless experimentation, find joy in self-care, and keep moving. Together, we can create a new norm for healthier, happier selves and future generations.
Discover more movement therapy options, from underlying research to expectations and potential benefits of each experience, by downloading @DrBonnie360’s ebook here.
According to a recent report by NBC News, America’s youngest generation is facing a serious mental health crisis, including anger, depression, and anxiety. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 1 in 5 American children ages 3 through 17, about 15 million, have a diagnosable mental, emotional, or behavioral disorder in a given year. Only 20 percent of these children are ever diagnosed and receive treatment; 80 percent, about 12 million, are not receiving treatment. Recent research indicates that serious depression is worsening in teens, which can lead to anger management problems, violence, and suicide.
As a teenager, who hopes to grow up and have kids of my own one day, these statistics frighten me. I am concerned for the kids that will grow up in this country now and in the future. Almost every day we turn on the news and hear another story of violence and mass murder. We need to help change the direction this planet of ours is headed in before it is too late. As Gandhi said,
“If you want to effectuate peace, then start by educating the children.”
According to the Merrian-Webster dictionary, depression is marked the following:
There are many types of medications, therapies, and techniques to manage depression. But these superficial solutions do not help erase the cause, especially in this day and age, because depression, anxiety, and anger are such huge problems with youngsters.
We can help kids learn to deal with their emotions, to feel better about themselves and to feel love and inner-peace. We must reach them when they are young and teach them the “off the mat” yogic principles of giving gratitude and thinking well so that it becomes an automatic response to stress.
If we can infuse these kids with yogic-tools that become second nature to them, then hopefully they will handle whatever life throws their way without solving the issue by shooting up movie theaters, concerts, or schools, hurting others, or hurting themselves. I know this is not the only answer, but it is a part of the answer, and I do not ever want what happened in Parkland to ever happen again.
It is more important than ever to teach kids the skills they need to cope with emotions in a better way so they can stop the negative loop in their head and begin focusing on the positive. The effects of living a healthy lifestyle in mind, body, and spirit, including Yoga, meditation, nutrition, positive thinking, and the ability to manage emotions, has been studied by doctors and scientists. Their conclusion is that there is a mind-body connection, and our thoughts have the ability to make us well or make us unwell. Science has shown that Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness can assist in the healing process and that our minds can control our bodies. [See references and links below]
In order to help children grow up healthy and happy, we must reach them when they are young and teach them how to live a mindful life, how to better control their thoughts, and how to live in light.
I created Wuf Shanti, Yoga Dog for Kids to help young people learn how to live a yogic lifestyle. Wuf Shafti videos can be found on local PBS stations, on the Children’s TV Network in children’s hospitals across the country, and on the Wuf Shanti YouTube Channel. There is also a Yoga Fun Machine mindful mobile app. All of these tools help kids learn to practice Yoga, positive thinking, and meditation so that those tools become an automatic response to stress as they grow-up.
Learning to deal with life’s issues in a more productive way will hopefully help kids to be less depressed and anxious teens and happier peace-loving adults. Our curriculum includes a focus on healing, communication, diversity, kindness, gratitude, inclusion, and positive thinking.
By teaching kids to make a Yoga practice a part of their daily routine, even if it is just for 5-10 minutes each day, they will lead a much healthier lifestyle, physically, mentally, and spiritually. Positive effects of a balanced yogic-lifestyle include decreases in depression and anxiety, increased focus, learning, and creativity, reduction of illness, and increased feelings of compassion and empathy.
Mace, C. (2008). Mindfulness and mental health: Therapy, theory, and science. New York: Routledge.
Schreiner, I., Malcolm, J.P. (2008). The benefits of mindfulness meditation: Changes in emotional states of depression, anxiety, and stress. Behaviour Change, 25(3), 156-168.
Singh, N. N., Lancioni, G. E., Winton, A. S. W., Adkins, A. D., Wahler, R. G., Sabaawi, M., et al. (2007). Individuals with mental illness can control their aggressive behavior through mindfulness training. Behavior modification, 31(3), 313-328.
Bortz, J. J., Summers, J. D., Pipe, T. B. (2007). Mindfulness meditation: evidence of decreased rumination as a mechanism of symptom reduction.Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 19(2), 217-218.
Let me state from the outset: Personally, I am not a touchy-feely New-Age kind of guy. Even worse, I have the terrible tendency to insist on evidence, of the good kind, backed by solid empirical data, not the kind based on testimonials that have so thoroughly polluted the web. So when I read about laughter yoga, I didn’t know if I should have been laughing or cringing.
Vishwa Prakash, a laughter therapist and coach, who runs a laughter yoga group that meets at 40th Street and Broadway in New York City says,
“There are some simple rules. Let’s be as joyful as we can. Let’s look at each other directly in the eye. And, if you don’t know what’s happening, fake it ’til you make it.“
Although the group does not use traditional asanas, laughter yoga practitioners liken it to mainstream yoga in the mental and spiritual sense.
40th and Broadway? Ah, I think, midtown Manhattan, the theater district. Would such BS fly in Iowa, Ohio, or even in the neighboring Bronx? I bet not. Not that I have anything against laughter—I love to laugh—and I am well aware of its great therapeutic effect on body and soul. Having said that, I can’t imagine an authentic Indian Yogi having such a frivolous attitude to his craft.
Knowing something about physiology also leaves me cold about Hot Yoga, another Western fad. You sweat, your heart pounds (are you getting dehydrated?), and you feel like you are doing High-Intensity Training (HIT in fitness parlance). You are not! Your feeling of well-being is more akin to the exaltation you feel when the wind is blowing in your hair, driving a convertible at high speed. You sweat out a lot of water and some salt, no toxins there. And, if you have a heart problem, “talk to your cardiologist” as they say in the commercials.
So what is Yoga good for? It’s good for a lot. Let’s start with the breathing. Breathing slowly and deeply has many proven physiological effects. First, a short detour.
The brain is bathed in a liquid known as cerebrospinal fluid (CSF). It circulates about four times a day and disposes of brain tissue metabolites. To investigate how CSF flow is regulated in humans, investigators applied a novel real-time magnetic resonance imaging technique in healthy human subjects. They found something very interesting.
Significant CSF flow occurred exclusively with inspiration, in particular during forced deep breathing. High CSF flow was elicited during every inspiration, whereas breath holding suppressed it. Only a minor component of flow could be ascribed to cardiac pulsation. These results unambiguously identified inspiration as the most important driving force for CSF flow in humans. Conclusion: Breathing deeply helps the brain get rid of waste products.
The breathing centers (there are 4 of them, each with its own function) are located in the brainstem, the most ancient part of the brain. But don’t confuse ancient with primitive. This part of the brain receives signals from the blood, reporting on its pH. If it’s too low, it means the CO2 concentration is too high. That signals that it is time to blow it off by accelerating the respiratory rate. And vice versa, low CO2 normally results from hyperventilation; time to slow it down.
The respiratory centers get signals from other brain regions as well. When we are anxious, a wave of noradrenaline and adrenaline reaches the respiratory centers, signaling a need to increase respiratory rate so that more oxygen reaches the muscles active in the fight-or-flight response. All these responses are so-called involuntary; they occur automatically.
The respiratory centers can also be under voluntary influences. For instance, doing yoga calls for slower and deeper breathing. Several studies documented the influence of such a voluntary pattern on the brain: It causes the appearance of theta waves, which are characteristic of deep relaxation and sleep states. How can this happen? Because the brain connections to the brainstem are not one-way. The brainstem can exert its own influence on brain regions that control our sense of well-being, and even our cognitive functions. So deep, slow breathing can affect the reward system (ah, dopamine!) and un-clutter the areas that participate in rational thinking and decision making.
Stiffness is almost a hallmark of aging. The gait, the involuntary grunt getting in and out of a car, the feeling of stiff and achy joints getting out of bed in the morning—they all bespeak the same thing: Age.
So, why do we get so stiff with time? There are many theories, none completely satisfactory. Here is what I think is the most common explanation for joint stiffness that makes anatomical sense.
The most common joints affected by the affliction of stiffness are the knees, back (the vertebrae), and the feet. The cause is the erosion of the cartilage pads that prevent the grinding of bone-on-bone. Alas, with age, these pads erode and thin. Furthermore, the membrane that surrounds the joint, called the synovium, secretes less and less of the lubricating fluid (synovial fluid) that makes the bone ending glide over the cartilage. So when we sleep or sit for a long time, the synovial fluid pools rather than staying evenly distributed over the cartilage. It takes about 10-15 minutes of moving to achieve an even distribution of the fluid, and that’s when the stiffness melts away.
There is an additional cause of stiffness. As we age, the tendons and the ligaments that anchor the muscles to the bones are getting shorter and stiffer in a biochemical process called cross-linking of collagen.
The Yoga asanas that make us move our joints and stretch those aging tendons and ligaments counteract all the processes that cause stiffness. It’s that simple.
Personally, I can’t start my day without a series of Yoga stretches. That’s how I manage my own disc problems and stiffness related to aging.
Flexibility is not just “cosmetic”, affecting the grace with which we move. It plays a crucial role in natural selection. A wonderful paper published in Nature looked at lions preying on zebras and cheetahs preying on impala. To see natural selection in all its dramatic force, you have to go to the Savannah in Africa, and Botswana’s Etosha National Park is one of the least affected by humans. The animals there are free to roam for miles essentially without impediment. If you are lucky, you can witness the hunt.
To study this act of natural selection in action, you can’t rely on observation and luck. You’ve got to collect data on hundreds of hunts and thousands of data points. The authors, Alan M. Wilson of Structure & Motion Lab, Royal Veterinary College, University of London, and his colleagues, accomplished something of a breakthrough in the field.
They temporarily immobilized animals and fitted them with lightweight collars containing technically sophisticated, custom-designed, miniature electronic and Global Positioning System (GPS) devices. The devices monitored the animals’ location, movement, direction, and acceleration patterns.
Wilson et al. tracked 9 lions, 5 cheetahs, 7 zebras, and 7 impala, and recorded 2,726 high-speed runs for lions, 520 for cheetahs, 1,801 for zebras, and 515 for impala. After collar placement, a tiny biopsy of hindlimb muscle was taken from the animals for subsequent state-of-the-art laboratory testing of single-muscle-fiber contractility. What this remarkable data-set showed was astonishing.
Wilson and colleagues’ acceleration and GPS recordings indicated that, during hunts, the predators and prey regularly achieved their maximal turning performance but ran at speeds well below their athletic capabilities. Running at speeds slower than maximum capacity during a pursuit enhances maneuverability, which improves the prey’s probability of successful escape. It also enables predators to better track their prey’s movements, thereby increasing the number of successful hunts. In other words, flexibility trumps big muscles that allow greater speed. In fact, the animals, both predator and prey, utilize less power (speed) to optimize maneuverability, which in turn depends on the animal’s flexibility.
I remember watching a large herd of impalas grazing in Botswana totally unperturbed by the leopard strutting at the edge of the meadow. How can they be so nonchalant with their mortal enemy so close, I remember wondering. Now we know: They are a lot more flexible.
Our own flexibility will probably never save us from a cheetah or a lion. But, one thing’s for sure, it will make our lives much more enjoyable. And that is worth a lot.
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What do we know about acupuncture? The short answer: Very little. The longer answer: Not much, but the potential is intriguing.
Clinical studies, especially the well-designed RCTs (Randomized Controlled Trials) by definition deal with populations, not with personal anecdotes. So please, read the article to the end and spare me the poison pens, the likes of “are you a real doctor?“, “This treatment/supplement saved my life“, or “Shame on you. You sold out to the medical-pharmaceutical conspiracy!” “It made my semen thicker since I started taking it.” These are not made up quotes; I have actually received such comments.
Acupuncture is a technique in which practitioners insert thin needles in the skin at specific points in the body. The practice originated in China, most likely around 100 BC.
Early acupuncture beliefs relied on concepts that are common in traditional Chinese medicine, such as a life force energy called qi. Qi was believed to flow from the body’s primary organs (such as the heart, liver, GI tract, kidneys) to the “superficial” body tissues of the skin, muscles, tendons, bones, and joints, through channels called meridians. Acupuncture points where needles are inserted are mainly (but not always) found at locations along the meridians. Acupuncture points not found along a meridian are called extraordinary points and those with no designated site are called “A-shi” points.
Interestingly, the belief in qi and the practice of acupuncture slowly died out in China, not so much because of lack of scientific proof, but because it was associated with the lower classes and its practitioners were in less prestigious occupations such as alchemy, shamanism, and midwifery. But then politics came to the rescue. The popularity of acupuncture rebounded in 1949 when Mao Tse Tung took power and sought to unite China behind traditional cultural values, including traditional Chinese medicine.
When you examine the meridians of the different schools of thought of acupuncture, you find absolutely no neurological basis for them. There are no nerves that follow the meridians. What about the muscular system? It provides no anatomical basis for the practice either.
In a way, looking for a scientific basis for ancient theories is a bit unfair and certainly irrelevant. The ancient Chinese, just like the ancient Greeks, did not have the concept of empiricism in science. In fact, the circulatory system was discovered by William Harvey only in the 17th century. Until then, it was believed that the blood was moved by the lungs. Why? Because Galen, a second-century physician to the gladiator school in Pergamum said so—and for 1,500 years nobody bothered to check!
How about Qi? In the 18th and 19th centuries, vitalism was discussed by various biologists. There were arguments between those who felt that the known mechanics of physics would eventually explain the difference between life and non-life and the vitalists who thought that life could not be reduced to a mechanistic process. So is vitalism finally dead? If you read or listen to New Age-speak you realize that the concept of “life-force” or “energy” is still alive and well.
Before digging into the scientific literature on the clinical benefits of acupuncture for specific conditions, let me insert a word of caution: consider the source. A review of studies on acupuncture found that trials originating in China, Japan, Hong Kong, and Taiwan were uniformly favorable to acupuncture, as were ten out of eleven studies conducted in Russia.
The same study found that, methodologically, Chinese studies were inferior to Western trials. And lest you believe that “fake news” was invented by president Trump, scientist and journalist Steven Salzberg identifies acupuncture and Chinese medicine generally as a focus for “fake medical journals”</a,> such as the Journal of Acupuncture and Meridian Studies and Acupuncture in Medicine.
Nature magazine, a top-tier biomedical journal, described acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine in general as “fraught with pseudoscience” with the majority of its treatments having no logical mechanism of action.
Are there any pearls to be found in the garbage?
I am not going to deal with conditions that the Cochrane Reviews, the gold standard of clinical knowledge, found to be ineffective, such as Alzheimer’s disease, insomnia, obesity, irritable bowel syndrome, whiplash, dry eyes, tinnitus, among many others. The main use of acupuncture has to do with specific causes of pain.
The Acupuncture Trialists’ Collaboration (not exactly a disinterested group) published the results of their meta-analysis, an update of a previous analysis. They found acupuncture to be moderately superior to sham acupuncture for non-specific musculoskeletal pain, osteoarthritis, chronic headache, and shoulder pain. They also found that the effects of acupuncture decreased by about 15% after one year. A review in Autonomic Neuroscience, among several other reviews, failed to show a difference between sham and real acupuncture.
Related Content: The Best Ways To Treat Back Pain Without Drugs
Some positive reports are showing up and the good news is that they are of good quality.
Dr. Dawn Hershman of Columbia Medical Center in New York and her colleagues ran a well-designed (probably the best so far in the acupuncture field) study, narrowly focused on hormone receptor-positive (HR+) early stage breast cancers. HR+ tumors rely on estrogen to fuel their growth. To reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, patients take aromatase inhibitors after surgery. These drugs, which block estrogen production, are also used to prevent breast cancer in postmenopausal women at high risk for the disease and to treat HR-positive metastatic breast cancer. In a statement to the National Cancer Institute blog, Dr. Hershman described the problem: “About 50% of patients on these medications complain of some joint pain or stiffness, and about half of those patients describe the pain as severe.”
The 226 women in the trial were all taking a third-generation aromatase inhibitor—anastrozole (Arimidex®), letrozole (Femara®), or exemestane (Aromasin®) after surgery for early-stage HR-positive breast cancer. They were randomly assigned to receive true acupuncture, sham acupuncture (placebo), or no treatment. Sham acupuncture involves shallow insertion of short, thin needles at non-acupuncture points.
Roughly half of the study participants (110) received true acupuncture twice a week for 6 weeks, followed by once-a-week maintenance sessions for 6 more weeks. The other half were in one of two control groups: 59 received sham acupuncture on the same schedule as the true acupuncture group, and the remaining 57 received no treatment.
Study investigators followed the women for another 12 weeks after treatments ended. Patients reported on their pain before, during, and after treatment using various methods, including a questionnaire on which women could indicate a rating of “worst pain” on a scale of 0 to 10.
And the results: The NCI blog quotes Dr. Hershman saying,
“After 6 weeks, we saw a mean two-point reduction of worst pain [in the true-acupuncture group compared with worst pain before treatment], which is a major reduction, and these effects were maintained after 12 weeks.”
Moreover, she added that “even at 24 weeks, women in the true-acupuncture group had less pain overall than women in either [control] group.”
A 2-point drop may sound trivial, but in fact, it is clinically very significant. It may make the difference between patients “not taking it anymore” and discontinuing the treatment, and being able to tolerate the pain and staying on the life-saving drug.
So now we have objective evidence of the efficacy of acupuncture over and above the placebo effect. But what’s wrong with placebo in the first place? There is ample evidence showing that neurohormonal changes occur in the brains of patients who react to a placebo treatment. So why does it matter to a clinician whether the effect is due to a painkiller affecting pain pathways in the brain, or due to endorphins generated by the brain and accomplishing the same effect? It doesn’t.
In fact, I would propose that it is time to “re-litigate” many of the negative trials that showed no significant effect over placebo. If the patients felt better, why deprive them of relief? Instead, let’s investigate why they got pain relief. It may turn out that they are more prone to releasing endorphins, or dopamine, secondary to activation of the somatosensory cortex, which is known to ‘light up’ due to any skin stimulation, being light touch or a needle stick. The somatosensory cortex has extensive connections to various regions in the brain, including the limbic system (aka the reward system). If you enjoyed a massage, or just a hug with a loved one, you activated your limbic system via the somatosensory cortex. If this is “just” a placebo effect, I’d still take it.
Contrary to what intuition tells us, we don’t only eat when we’re hungry.
The American Psychological Association reports that “27% of adults say they eat to manage stress and 34% of those who report overeating or eating unhealthy foods because of stress say this behavior is a habit.”
Meals can easily become a kind of self-medication for dealing with negative emotions. Often without us realizing.
The question then is, “How can we change our relationship with food to stop emotional eating?”
Research has shown that the Buddhist practice of mindfulness helps transform food from an escape into a pleasure.
Harvard’s Dr. Lilian Cheung and Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh offer the following summation in their book Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life: “Mindful eating means simply eating or drinking while being aware of each bite or sip.”
A simple solution. One that’s easier said than done, as many things are.
But before we can explore exactly how mindfulness helps people gain control of their habits, we have to accurately understand how emotional eating develops.
The Mayo Clinic offers a succinct definition of emotional eating:
“Emotional eating is eating as a way to suppress or soothe negative emotions, such as stress, anger, fear, boredom, sadness, and loneliness.”
It’s a consequence of daily hassles, the negative emotions that stick to us in our day-to-day lives. To deal with those uncomfortable feelings, we turn to food.
There are a few questions you can ask yourself to discover if you’re eating emotionally:
Emotional eating develops over the course of a lifetime, making it a difficult relationship to recognize. In turn, that means typically offered solutions rarely work.
The most common misconception about emotional eating is that a diet would solve the problem. But dieting doesn’t tackle the underlying issue.
A Finnish study found that whether we’re eating pizza or a nutritional drink, opioids release in the brain as a result, leading to feelings of euphoria, pleasure, and safety. Eating leads to a physiological emotional response.
Melinda Smith, M.A., Jeanne Segal Ph.D, and Robert Segal, M.A, writing for HealthGuide: “Diets so often fail because they offer logical nutritional advice which only works if you have conscious control over your eating habits. It doesn’t work when emotions hijack the process, demanding an immediate payoff with food. In order to stop emotional eating, you have to find other ways to fulfill yourself emotionally.”
So, for many people who eat emotionally, food becomes their only pleasure—a means to bury negative feelings. Breaking the habit is tough because overcoming it means tolerating difficult emotions, ones previously suppressed by food.
As stated earlier, mindfulness eating proposes to bring our attention fully to not just the taste of food but our reasons for eating it. Too often we eat without thinking. We can easily see ourselves eating a Greek salad while our eyes glaze over emails, Facebook messages, and the news of the day.
Eating is often an automatic activity, almost zombie-like. Before we know it, the bowl is empty and we wonder where all that food went.
Mindfulness aims to bring attention to every aspect of food, from making a purchase at the grocery store to sitting down for a meal. According to Harvard Health Publishing, Psychologist Jean Kristeller found that “mindfulness helps people recognize the difference between emotional and physical hunger and satiety and introduces a ‘moment of choice’ between the urge and eating.”
By bringing awareness to eating, we can make substantial changes to our attitudes and bodies.
A study published in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that mindfulness eating leads to “statistically significant decreases in weight, eating disinhibition, binge eating, depression, perceived stress, physical symptoms, negative affect, and C-reactive protein.”
Mindfulness is more than a buzzword—it’s a practical solution.
As with any skill, developing mindfulness takes time and practice. It helps to start slow, to recognize that the process isn’t going to be easy.
Because mindfulness involves drawing attention to your emotional state, it means acquainting yourself with the negative emotions that have been stuffed by food.
Emotional eating expert Allison Dryja writes, “Tell yourself that it’s OK to feel sad, mad, scared, tired—you name it. Welcome your negative emotions with kindness and curiosity, and ask them what they want from you. This includes those intense feelings of guilt or anger that tend to follow an emotional eating episode. Approach your feelings with kindness, and your body will begin to understand that it no longer has to overeat to protect you from your feelings.”
With each day, you can become better acquainted with your emotions and they no longer play as large of a role in your choices. You begin to reassert your autonomy when it comes to food.
The USDA found that Americans spend on average 67 minutes each day eating and drinking, oftentimes while engaged in another activity.
Mindfulness practice aids you in devoting your attention completely to the meal. And paying attention to the food you eat begins before you lift the fork.
The following are a few tips to practice mindfulness eating:
Remember, mindfulness is a skill. It’s impossible to appreciate its full benefits without dedicated practice, just as practicing mindfulness meditation increases grey matter over time.
At the heart of mindfulness, eating is transforming your relationship with food from a coping reaction for stress into a pleasurable experience. Because food should be treated as a pleasure, not a narcotic.
Of course, practicing mindfulness eating isn’t easy and sometimes it’s not enough. Practical solutions may involve therapy as well. After all, each person is unique and deserves individuated attention.
However, the lessons learned from the Buddhist practice of mindfulness offer a sound starting point for developing a positive relationship with the foods you eat.
For more information about emotional eating and strategies to tackle it, please visit my food and fulfillment ultimate guide.
The National Academy of Medicine estimates that 100 million Americans now have some form of chronic pain. Just to put this number into perspective, around 25.8 million Americans have diabetes, and another 11.9 million suffer from cancer. Yes, you read that correctly; there are more chronic pain sufferers in the USA than cancer and diabetes patients combined.
Unfortunately, many chronic pain sufferers seek relief through legal and illegal opioids. Medical authorities now believe 90 people die of an opioid-related overdose every day in the USA. These staggering figures prompted President Donald Trump to declare the opioid epidemic a national health emergency.
So, how did this problem start and, more importantly, what can be done to reverse this troubling trend? Most experts believe the roots of the opioid crisis can be traced back to the 1990s. During the 90s, doctors started prescribing opioids more often to chronic pain patients. A study in the 80’s stated that “the development of addiction is rare in medical patients with no history of addiction”. Ever since the 90s, however, the rate of opioid-related deaths has only increased, and more evidence shows that these drugs are indeed habit-forming. We also now know that people who misuse opioids are far more likely to transition to harder drugs like heroin. About 80% of people who try heroin today have first misused prescription opioids.
While there has been a steady flow of new research on the dangers of opioid addiction, there’s also a surge of research being published on effective alternative treatment techniques for chronic pain sufferers that are safe and non-invasive.
One of the most influential doctors in bringing mind-body techniques to pain treatment was Dr. John Sarno. Dr. Sarno, who worked as a doctor at New York University until his death in 2017, is perhaps best known for his book, Healing Back Pain. In this book and others, Dr. Sarno developed the theory of tension myoneural syndrome (TMS) to explain and treat chronic pain conditions. Sarno believed that a majority of chronic pain cases in the USA were psychosomatic in nature and caused primarily by emotional blockages. He went on to develop this theory in works such as The Divided Mind and The Mindbody Prescription.
Since Sarno believed back pain had as much to do with the mind as with the muscles, he told the majority of his patients to become more aware of their thoughts, journal every day, and continue their daily activities despite the physical sensations of pain. Sarno never said the pain his patients experienced wasn’t “real”. Instead, he believed the brain created the pain in another area of the body as a distraction from consciously processing strong emotions.
Perhaps Sarno’s greatest contribution to modern medicine was the re-evaluation of the important role emotions play in our physical well-being. And while Sarno’s ideas were met with some skepticism early on, there are many doctors, such as Srini Pillay, MD, who agree that people with chronic back pain often have psychological issues linked to their pain rather than physical abnormalities. Research published in the Journal of General Internal Medicine also shows that a mind-body approach to chronic pain results in “an immediate decrease in pain level, similar to what one might expect when using opioids.” Again, Sarno’s approach doesn’t mean that nothing is related to biomechanics, but it certainly highlights the importance of the brain’s role in the treatment of chronic pain.
In addition to Sarno’s research, scientific studies have consistently shown the effectiveness of treating chronic pain with “mind-body therapy”, which is the name for a treatment approach that combines cognitive behavioral therapy techniques with education on the science of pain, journal writing, mindfulness meditation, and other “brain training” techniques.
In one study published in The Journal of Pain, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), which focuses on behavior change instead of pain reduction, showed positive results and improvements in about 65% of study subjects who suffered from chronic pain. Another study published in Advances in Psychiatric Treatment showed that expressive writing resulted in many beneficial effects in both physical and psychological health.
In chronic pain research conducted with patients at both Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and Wake Forest School of Medicine, doctors showed that meditation reduces pain signals sent to the brain without relying on the pathways used by opioids. Interestingly, when doctors gave meditators a drug to block opioid receptors, mindfulness meditation still worked to reduce pain signals in the meditator’s brain, suggesting that there are natural ways of affecting these pain pathways that are still not fully understood.
In light of all this new research, pain management clinics across the nation have started to integrate mind-body therapy into their practice. And while historically, mind-body therapy has been an expensive proposition requiring a specialist and the reading and re-reading of guidebooks, easy to find resources and technology are now making it more accessible than ever.
Keeping a pain journal or writing about your pain, in general, can be beneficial to both your doctor (if you’re being treated by one) and in managing your pain on your own. Check out how to keep a pain journal here. The American Chronic Pain Association has also developed some tools for Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) on their website, including free video lessons, which aim to help you change your thoughts and behaviors towards pain, and if you’re interested in meditation, the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center offers a number of free guided meditations as well.
Curable, a guided mind-body pain therapy app, combines education, journaling, brain training, and guided meditation into one package, and offers a free guided session on their website.
It’s important to incorporate all aspects of mind-body therapy so it is critical to be educated on all the different exercises chronic pain sufferers can practice. Having a good well-rounded program is essential for the improvement of both physical and psychological symptoms.
There’s no denying the healing benefits of mind-body therapy for treating conditions like chronic pain. While opioid medications have their place in the medical establishment, we can now see that overusing and over-prescribing these drugs can have disastrous effects on both individuals and society. Mind-body healing techniques like journaling, talk therapy, and meditation will increasingly become more mainstream as patients seek more affordable and effective alternatives to drug therapy. As more information on mind-body therapy becomes available, public health officials are hopeful that the rates of opioid addiction will begin to decline for good.
The opioid epidemic has been a growing problem in the U.S. for over a decade. However, recent allegations by whistleblower and former head of the DEA’s Office of Diversion Control, Joe Rannazzisi, paint an even more sinister picture, complete with backroom deals and conspiracies. He says that Congress and lobbyists alike have knowingly derailed DEA efforts to get the problem under control. According to a story about the Washington Post/60 Minutes investigation,
“[Rannazzisi’s] greatest ire is reserved for the distributors, some of them multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 companies. They are the middle-men that ship pain pills from manufacturers, like Purdue Pharma and Johnson & Johnson, to drug stores all over the country,” explains 60 Minutes correspondent Bill Whitaker. “Rannazzisi accuses the distributors of fueling the opioid epidemic by turning a blind eye to pain pills being diverted to illicit use.”
Rannazzisi claims that the pharmaceutical industry allowed the distribution of millions of drugs to doctors and pharmacies that had no legitimate need for them. These distribution companies are required by law to look into suspicious shipments but turned a blind eye in the name of profit.
“You know the implication of what you’re saying, that these big companies knew that they were pumping drugs into American communities that were killing people?” asks 60 Minutes’ Bill Whitaker.
“That’s not an implication,” responds Rannazzisi, “that’s a fact. That’s exactly what they did.”
In response to Rannazzisi’s interview on 60 Minutes, President Trump vowed to declare a national emergency to combat the opioid epidemic. He made the same declaration in August, but unfortunately, he never followed through with it. But a report from the New York Times shows that he is set to declare a public health emergency of the situation. Julie Hirschfeld Davis reports:
“The move falls short of Mr. Trump’s sweeping promise to declare a national emergency on opioids, which would have triggered the rapid allocation of federal funding to address the issue, and does not on its own release any money to deal with the drug abuse that claimed more than 59,000 lives in 2016… But it would allow some grant money to be used for a broad array of efforts to combat opioid abuse, and would ease certain laws and regulations to address it.”
As the battle against opioids rages on, the search for a solution continues as well. Patient education has long been deployed as one solution, as well as alternative treatment options. Regis College’s Online MSN Program lists at least 10 types of alternative pain treatment and rates of prescription:
While these are great alternatives for pain management, the proof is in the pudding. Rates of opioid addiction and abuse have been steadily rising for the past decade. Nevertheless, there are those who think that the most commonly prescribed alternative pain management technique, “natural products”, could change the game, were it not for its hazy federal legal status.
Between 1999 and 2010, only about 13 states had medical marijuana laws in place. Interestingly, researchers began to see a correlation between medical marijuana states and rates of fatal opioid overdoses. In 2010 alone, medical marijuana states showed fewer opiate-related deaths than states without said laws.
“We found there was about a 25 percent lower rate of prescription painkiller overdose deaths on average after implementation of a medical marijuana law,” lead study author Dr. Marcus Bachhuber says in an article via DrugAbuse.com.
Even treatment centers are beginning to look into the merit of cannabis-based treatment. The Recovery Village, based in Umatilla, FL, has a post on their website titled “Can Marijuana Be Used as a Treatment in Drug Addiction Recovery?” in which they acknowledge the potentially addictive nature of cannabis but also take a look at its benefits. From their blog,
“What some studies are finding is that the use of prescribed marijuana for some medical conditions, especially for pain issues, can help prevent an opioid addiction from developing in the first place. Many addicts begin their addiction with a prescription for painkillers, and medical marijuana might be a suitable and safer substitute… It bears noting, however, that there are no scientific or long-term studies to back up these methods.”
The biggest problem that the legitimacy of medical marijuana suffers is indeed the same problem that recreational marijuana faces: A lack of well-designed scientific studies, either for or against. Public perception against marijuana can be strong at times, flying in the face of the actual numbers that support an opposing viewpoint. For example, the University of Reno Nevada (UNR), writing on cannabis’ relation to drugged driving, points out that approximately 44% of self-reporting respondents to a survey claimed they’d driven under the influence of marijuana in states that have legalized it, many of them unaware that they’d been breaking specific ordinances. This sounds bad because our gut reaction tells us: “Driving under the influence is bad.” However, the same article from UNR states that “the perception of danger is at odds with the number of accidents that can be attributed to the drug.”
UNR cites the American Public Health Association website that proclaims that they were unable to find causality between legal marijuana and fatal traffic accidents. The Washington Drug Policy Alliance issued a similar report with similar findings, echoing that traffic accident fatalities have not increased, but have, in fact, remained flat in states with recreational marijuana. This indicates that even when we think we know quite a bit on a topic, there’s usually still more to learn. Hopefully, this type of work will foreshadow a time when we are able to overcome the stigmas and stereotypes attached to marijuana use.
As time goes on, we’ll no doubt see more studies that lend credence to the use of medical marijuana as a tool for harm reduction in the opioid crisis. The Recovery Village post even mentions that the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) is currently funding several projects to investigate the use of synthetic THC for the treatment of addiction. For now, we’ll have to wait, but the future looks bright.