Don't Worry, Be Mindful

Doing nothing but focusing on your breath can help you face stress, pain and medical problems

Costs are up, jobs are down, and the headlines are filled with news of strife and economic uncertainty. It’s enough to make anyone feel stressed.

Stress isn’t just an annoyance; it’s a significant contributor to many major health problems — obvious ones, like heart disease and hypertension, and less obvious conditions including autoimmune disorders and cancer.

In the face of all this bad news, the healthy response may well be to do… nothing.

Nothing but meditation, that is.

In a recent study, reported in September 2008, a team from Emory University showed that people experienced in Zen meditation were able to refocus themselves much more quickly after distractions and interruptions than a control group of non-meditators. That’s exactly the kind of result that Spokane psychologist Mary Gentile would expect to see.

“That ability to come back to the baseline — that’s what you do with meditation,” she says. “You go off, you come back. It’s the nature of the mind to wander. But it’s the ability to come back … to know when you’re getting knocked off [center], alerting you, then taking a deep breath and responding to it.”

Gentile has meditated for many years, starting with Transcendental Meditation (TM) in the 1980s, and now she leads clinics in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), a program developed by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and featured in the Bill Moyers series, Healing and the Mind, in 1993. The program is best known for helping people who suffer from chronic pain, but Gentile says her clients bring a variety of life experiences and medical conditions to their sessions.

“I’ve had people come in who are running the marathon of caring for an elderly parent or a special needs child. Or both,” she says. She’s seen cancer patients, people with heart disease, people recuperating from accidents and those with chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia. But, she says, “Ultimately what gets treated, even in the chronic pain people, is their anxiety.”

Anyone facing chronic pain or a serious medical condition — or simply the stressors of modern life — will have anxiety over the perceived loss of control, Gentile contends. And the Eastern underpinnings of mindfulness meditation can help.

“The Western way of dealing with pain is to pretend it’s not there and push it down,” she says. “And that’s effective when you have a broken arm or something that is going to get better. But when you have in-your-face, not-going-away kind of pain, and that pain ebbs and flows, you have to treat it differently. The Eastern approach is to go into the middle of the pain … It’s almost like you go in there with a truce flag and just hang out and see what’s there and start working around the edges. As Jon [Kabat-Zinn] says, it’s like you learn to dance with it.”

Mindfulness meditation focuses on the breath. When the mind wanders and thoughts occur, a meditator will take note of the distraction, then let it go and return focus to the breath again. The distractions are normal; meditation is about learning how to refocus on the breath and become centered again, over and over.

“When you’re a meditator, you go from being the actor or actress in your own life to being the director,” Gentile says, “because when you take that breath, you’re sort of pausing the action, saying, ‘OK, let’s play this scene this way.’ What you are doing when you meditate is practicing your muscle of attention and focus. You’re definitely tapping into the creative mind.”

Meditation helps reduce stress and anxiety by calming thoughts. “We have an average of 60,000 thoughts a day, with 90 percent of them being the ones we had yesterday,” she says. “Meditation is learning to be aware of those thoughts, because you can’t change anything you’re not aware of.”

Gentile’s MBSR clinics run for eight weeks. The group meets once a week for two hours (three hours the first week), and then they are given “homework” in the form of daily meditation sessions to practice what they’ve learned. Over the course of the clinic, clients learn three forms of meditation: a body-scan meditation, a sitting meditation and a series of gentle yoga movements. There is time during the weekly meetings for people to share about their experience of meditation. At the end of the eight weeks, Gentile asks the group participants questions about what has changed in their lives. It may not be a double-blind study, but she stands by the results.

“People say their anxiety is down, their pain level is down, they’re taking fewer medications,” she says. “Maybe they got their blood pressure down. Often they get rid of their sleep meds. But people also say they have an increased sense of meaning, a sense of spirituality — they’re becoming more aware, more grateful. They talk about spending more time with their kids and being present in their lives. They’re actually living.”

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