Updated: Nov 6
If humans are mostly creatures of habit, as noted in the acclaimed book, “The Power of Habit”, and much of our health and wellness (and success and relationships and everything else) are determined by habits, how do we change those habits when they are hurting, instead of helping, us? It is typically not that we do not ”know better,” or a “knowledge gap,” although we tend to say things like we want to “learn to eat better”. Is it motivation? Do we need to just “get motivated?” Is it a “mental block?” Can old dogs learn new tricks, or are we destined to continue to same behaviors chains that got us here in the first place!
As it relates to health, many habits related to food, drink, activity, sleep, stress, or recreational activities are linked to much of the excess health risks and well-being issues. It is normal human nature to know what one “should” do and do another. There are many sayings to this effect, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks;” “Do as I say and not as I do,” for example. Specifically, people have in their minds different foods or eating patterns, exercise goals, sleep habits, to stop smoking, go on their phones less, and feel frustration if not put into practice. Lately, there are many factors causing increased stress that are beyond one’s control and an epidemic of mental health signs and symptoms. Are we truly irrevocably tied to our habits and routines or obliged to exert almost super human effort to overcome them that can not be sustained? Are we obligated to buy expensive medications, programs, devices and tools to come to our rescue? Or, is there an evidence-based method to using that same power of our brain for our own good?
“Mindfullness” is to “pause, and consider other options” rather than acting on the autopilot of usual patterned behaviors. Acting on autopilot is easy and fast. Blazing a new trail takes a lot more energy, is slow-going, and likely takes you outside of your comfort zone. It is like bushwhacking through quicksand with a pack on your back and weights on your ankles. But, it does get you somewhere new. Mindullness meditation may be the mental exercise required to create the psychological fitness required to do this and do it in those crucial moments that make or break turning points. With rehearsal, you can make new neural pathways. The brain is the most powerful organ in the body, as it controls the rest of it, so, why don’t we exercise it?
Research over the past two decades broadly supports the claim that mindfulness meditation has beneficial effects on physical and mental health, and cognitive performance. Why is that?
Think of mindfulness as the ability to be an oil tanker in a sea of waves, rather than a sailboat. Your environment does not have the power to toss you about. You are in control of your vessel, hitting the waves head on, but they crash over your bow and you slice through them and keep your heading, leaving a beautiful wake in your path as evidence you were there. Mindfulness is associated with the following benefits:
Increased sense of well-being. “I feel well.”
Reduced cognitive reactivity. “That does not affect my thinking.”
Reducing behavioral avoidance (moving away from things that cause pain and towards things that cause pleasure.) “I eat for emotional coping rather than feeling the sadness, anger, grief, or regret this situation causes.”
Enhance immunity. (Less colds?)
Diminish autonomic reactivity. (Less feelings of anxiety or stress.)
Enhances quality of life from chronic pain. (Arthritis?)
Symptom improvement in chronic fatigue, insomnia, stress related hunger, diminished cravings in substance abuse (sugar addiction?)
Does this sound too good to be true? Studies show actual structural changes in the brain from meditation practice. Research has drilled down into the mechanisms of action which lends credence to a cause and effect relationship by linking effects to the relevant areas of the brain. actions on the following areas of the brain. The neurobiological mechanisms include effects on the following:
the default mode network that generates spontaneous thoughts, contributes to the maintenance of the autobiographical self and is associated with anxiety and depression
the anterior cingulate cortex that controls alertness and attention
the anterior insula associated with the perception of visceral sensation, the detection of heartbeat and respiratory rate, and the affective response to pain
the posterior cingulate cortex which helps to understand the context from which a stimulus emerges;
the temporoparietal junction which assumes a central role in empathy and compassion; the amygdala implicated in fear responses.
Does it sound too good to be true? Well, unlike pharmaceuticals, there is no list of possible side effects or contraindications with meditation. Think of this as a treatment with close to zero risk and nearly 100% beneficial response rate- and it is free. As always, if you have thoughts of hurting yourself, call 988 (Suicide and Crisis Lifeline), and/or get evaluated by a licensed mental health professional or licensed medical provider before changing any coping mechanisms or engaging in any potentially uncomfortable thoughts or situations. If you would like an appointment with me, we are here.
Here is a link to try it: 10 minute Dailly Calm mindfullness meditation
Take Back Your Mental Power,
Valerie Hope-Slocum Sutherland, MD