Mind over matter
Practicing mindfulness techniques can help ease stress.
Traffic jams. Job woes. Visits from the in-laws. Life is full of stress, and more often than not, people feel it physically as well as mentally.
Although the stress response begins in the brain, it is a full-body phenomenon. When someone encounters a threat — real or imagined — the brain triggers a cascade of stress hormones. The heart pounds, muscles tense, and breathing quickens.
One of the best ways to counter stress is to pay attention to what is going on. That may sound counterintuitive, but paying attention is the first step toward cultivating mindfulness — a therapeutic technique for a range of mental health problems (and physical ones).
The opposite of multitasking
Multitasking has become a way of life. People talk on a cell phone while commuting to work, or scan the news while returning e-mails. But in the rush to accomplish necessary tasks, people often lose connection with the present moment. They stop being truly attentive to what they are doing or feeling.
Mindfulness is the opposite of multitasking. The practice of mindfulness, which has its roots in Buddhism, teaches people to live each moment as it unfolds. The idea is to focus attention on what is happening in the present and accept it without judgment.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, developed a mindfulness-based stress reduction program for people with major depression (since adapted for other disorders). Another adaptation of mindfulness to clinical practice is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which combines mindfulness techniques with cognitive behavioral therapy.
However it is practiced, mindfulness is a powerful therapeutic tool. Studies have found, for example, that mindfulness techniques can help prevent relapse in people who have had several past episodes of major depression. Other research suggests that mindfulness techniques can help alleviate anxiety and reduce physical symptoms such as pain or hot flashes.
Watch a video
For more information about the health dangers of stress — and how mindfulness can help people relax — watch this video of a talk by Dr. Michael C. Miller, editor in chief of the Harvard Mental Health Letter, at www.health.harvard.edu/MillerStress (/MillerStress).
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One of the best things about mindfulness is that it is something people can try on their own. Here's how to get started:
Center down. Sit on a straight-backed chair or cross-legged on the floor. Focus on an aspect of your breathing, such as the sensations of air flowing into your nostrils and out of your mouth, or your belly rising and falling as you inhale and exhale.
Open up. Once you've narrowed your concentration, begin to widen your focus. Become aware of sounds, sensations, and ideas. Embrace and consider each without judgment. If your mind starts to race, return your focus to your breathing.
Observe. You may notice external sensations such as sounds and sights that make up your moment- to-moment experience. The challenge is not to latch onto a particular idea, emotion, or sensation, or to get caught up in thinking about the past or the future. Instead you watch what comes and goes in your mind, and discover which mental habits produce a feeling of suffering or well-being.
Stay with it. At times, this process may not seem relaxing at all, but over time it provides a key to greater happiness and self-awareness as you become comfortable with a wider and wider range of your experiences.
You can also try less formal approaches to mindfulness by trying to become more aware while you are doing activities that you enjoy. Playing the piano, juggling, walking — all can become part of your mindfulness practice as long as you pay attention to what is happening in the moment. Listen to the sounds of the music, feel the weight of the balls as they fall into your hand, or really look at what you are walking past.
Practice makes perfect
Mindfulness is something to cultivate and practice, on a regular basis.
Make a commitment. Aim for doing 20 to 45 minutes of mindfulness practice, most days of the week. (If that sounds like a lot, remember that a key part of mindfulness means letting go of expectations. Just commit to trying to become more mindful, and do the best you can.)
Make small changes. It's hard to make big changes. It's better to start slow and build gradually. The famous Alcoholics Anonymous motto is "one day at a time." Mindfulness involves taking it less than one day at a time — aim for one moment at a time.
Mindfulness really does not have to be more complicated than learning to pay attention to what is going on around you. But this "simple" advice is often hard to sustain in a busy world. Try making the effort to become more mindful — and you may find the results make it worth it.
Chiesa A, et al. "Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy for Psychiatric Disorders: A Systemic Review and Meta-Analysis," Psychiatric Research (May 2011): Vol. 187, No. 3, pp. 441–53.
Rapgay L, et al. "New Strategies for Combining Mindfulness with Integrative Cognitive Behavioral Therapy for the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorder," Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy (June 2011): Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 92–119.
Source: https://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletters/Harvard_Mental_Health_Letter/2011/October /mind-over-matter
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"To the extent that one's medical condition and/or symptoms are caused or made worse by stress, we can help." Herbert Benson, MD, Director Emeritus
About the benson-henry institute for mind body medicine
The Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine is a non-profit scientific and educational organization dedicated to research, teaching, and clinical application of mind/body medicine and its integration into all areas of health. It accomplishes these objectives by:
Documenting and furthering the understanding of mind/body medicine through research
Providing treatment for patients each year with stress-related illnesses through the Institute
Teaching medical students and training post-doctoral fellows and health care professionals to integrate mind/body interactions into their work through the Center for Training in Mind/Body Medicine
Fostering the establishment of clinical and research programs in health care institutions through the Benson-Henry Institute Affiliate Program
Teaching students and educators life management skills through the Education Initiative
Improving the health and productivity of the American workforce through the Center for Corporate Health
MIND BODY MEDICINE HISTORY
When Herbert Benson, MD started medical practice as a young cardiologist more than 35 years ago, the term "mind/body medicine" was unknown. In the late 1960's his work linking stress to physical health was contrary to existing medical thought. It is quite gratifying today to be advancing this now scientifically-validated field at a time of unprecedented interest in the unity of mind and body.
Proving the mind/body connection
Dr. Benson's work in establishing the mind/body connection started when he noticed that his patients had elevated blood pressure during regular check-ups. To test his hypothesis that stress was the cause, he returned to his alma mater, Harvard Medical School, to try to establish a model for stress-induced hypertension. He and his colleagues trained squirrel monkeys to either raise or lower blood pressure using operant conditioning technology. They found that the monkeys who were "rewarded" for higher blood pressure went on to develop hypertension, basically due to their own behaviors.
While this study was underway, Dr. Benson was approached by young practitioners of Transcendental Meditation who asked him to study their blood pressure. They believed they had lower blood pressures as a result of their meditation practice. This type of study was virtually unheard of at the time, but he did consent, after much deliberation. Robert Keith Wallace and Dr. Benson measured metabolism, blood pressure, heart rate, brain waves, and rate of breathing - both when the subjects sat quietly for 20 minutes and when they meditated for 20 minutes. And what they found was striking.
Through the simple act of changing their thought patterns, the subjects experienced decreases in their metabolism, rate of breathing and heart rate, and had slower brain waves. These changes appeared to be the opposite of the commonly-known "fight-or-flight," or stress, response and Dr. Benson labeled it the "relaxation response." The relaxation response is the foundation of mind/body medicine as practiced at the BHI.
The relaxation response
Dr. Benson noted that the relaxation response can be elicited by a variety of meditative techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, repetitive prayer, chi gong, tai chi, yoga, progressive muscle relaxation, jogging, even knitting.
The necessary two basic steps, which he found to be present in practices in almost every culture, are: the repetition of a sound, word, phrase prayer, or movement, and the passive setting aside of intruding thoughts and returning to the repetition. From the earliest studies to the present, the BHI's work shows that by using your mind in a certain way - to elicit the relaxation response - measurable, predictable, and reproducible physiological changes occur that can be useful in countering the unhealthy fight-or-flight or stress response.
A healing tool
Over the past 25 years, Dr. Benson and his colleagues have treated thousands of people for medical problems poorly addressed by conventional medical practice. He views medicine as a three-legged stool: pharmaceuticals are the first leg, surgery and procedures the second. Mind/body interactions - the relaxation response, nutrition, exercise and spirituality - is the third, "self-care", leg. Since roughly 60 to 90% of doctor visits are for conditions related to stress, the mind/body or self-care approach is a vital component of effective health care.
The Benson-Henry Institute's clinical programs treat patients with a combination of relaxation response techniques, proper nutrition and exercise, and reframing of negative thinking patterns, in conjunction with the beliefs of patients. Clinical studies over the years have shown the effectiveness of these interventions on a wide range of medical problems caused or made worse by stress, such as hypertension, cardiac arrhythmias, pain, insomnia, allergies, pms and menopause symptoms, and infertility, among many others. Practicing the relaxation response daily can enhance the immune system and make one more resistant to the harmful effects of constant stress.
Today, highly-successful clinical programs exceeding 9,000 patient visits per year are offered at the Benson-Henry Institute and affiliate sites in the United States and Taiwan. In addition, the Institute continues to bring relaxation response-based programs to classroom teachers and students, the corporate sector, and the general public, and training to health care professionals from the U.S. and around the world.
New research vistas
The BHI has produced scientific evidence that the relaxation response is effective. With a grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Institute continues to investigate the basic scientific components of the relaxation response as well as its clinical application.
The BHI has also extended a previously published study that utilized brain imaging to examine the ways the relaxation response influences the brain and, hence, the body.
Centers & Services
Benson Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine
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