Mindfulness: Changing my brain

Last week, I was excited to see a link to a study which found that mindfulness practice (specifically the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program) actually changes the brain.  Turns out that the study is old news (from 2011), but it was the first I had read about these specific findings, which used before and after MRIs to look for changes in specific regions of the brain.

The analysis of MR images, which focused on areas where meditation-associated differences were seen in earlier studies, found increased grey-matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, compassion and introspection. Participant-reported reductions in stress also were correlated with decreased grey-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.

The use of imaging just adds to the already large body of evidence that supports mindfulness practice for both mental and physical health.

My Practice
I can’t believe it’s been over a month since my last mindfulness class!  At that class, the instructor invited us to set short- and long-term goals related to our practice.  My short term goal was to make/find a journal to record my ongoing practice, since I suspected the accountability of recording my practice would be important.  I went with functional over fancy: a two-pocket folder with prongs and some lined notebook paper.

With my short-term goal accomplished, it was time to tackle my long-term goal:

For the next three months, I will engage in formal mindfulness practice for at least 25 minutes per day, 5 days per week.

I finished the class having logged six weeks of regular mindfulness practice.  It was important for me to set a goal that would keep that momentum going and increase the chances that this would be a lifestyle change and not simply a phase.

Five weeks into that three month goal-period, I am happy to report that I’ve been sticking sticking with it, which included maintaining the practice over the holiday weekend (so important!).   I am averaging 25-30 minutes per day, six days per week (I almost used six days per week as my goal, but in the interest of making sure the goal was realistic and achievable, and increasing my chances at feeling successful, I stuck with five days).

I rotate between simple seated meditations (just focusing on the breath), with or without guidance; the body scan; and mindful [guided] yoga.  I’ve also branched out a bit, incorporating some of Tara Brach’s guided meditations in some of my sitting practices.

Even on the days when making time to practice is a challenge, it is always worth it.  Some days, I feel fairly calm and centered throughout the practice.  Other days, those 25-minutes feel like a constant effort of bringing my mind “to heel.”  Such is mindfulness practice.

While not one of my official, written goals, I would very much like to build on my half-day mindfulness retreat experience (and my practice, overall) by participating in a longer retreat.  To that end, I am investigating nearby weekend-long mindfulness retreat options.

While a bit belated, I would like to give thanks [again] for discovering mindfulness, for my mom’s gentle encouragement, for Matthew’s support, and for the resources (money, time, transportation) to participate in Masterpeace Studios’ Mind-Body Stress Reduction Program.

 

 

Mindfulness training

So, back in June, I wrote this post about stress and health.  I know what I can do to reduce stress and support mental (and physical) health: eat well, get enough sleep, exercise . . . .  I’m pretty good at all of those things (except for when the stress is interfering with sleep).

But what about the mind-body connection, and practices such as meditation and yoga?  I know there’s research backing it’s importance, but this is a weak link for me.

A year-and-a-half ago, when I was struggling with depression (a follow-up to my post-partum depression), my mom (who’s a licensed clinical social worker) sent me Jon Kabat-Zinn’s The Mindful Way through Depression.  She has quite a bit of experience with mindfulness practice and recommends it highly.  I’d like to say it changed my life, but that wasn’t quite what happened.

The book lays out an 8-week program, with readings and suggested practice for every day of the eight weeks.*  I had good intentions, and I stuck with it for two or three weeks (practicing most days), and then, I don’t know, life happened, and I put mindfulness practice on the back burner.

While talking with my mom last month, she once again encouraged me to look into mindfulness practices, specifically Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) workshops.*

A quick internet search turned up two main options in St. Louis.  The first local MBSR course that came up is one offered at UMSL.  It is primarily for UMSL employees (and their spouses/partners), but the site says they have a limited number of seats for the “general public.”  However, the next session doesn’t start until January, and driving out to UMSL once a week in [possible] winter weather didn’t sound that appealing.

The second option was the Mind-Body Stress Reduction program offered by Masterpeace Studios.  Held in Webster, the location of these classes was much more appealing, and there was a fall session about to start.  Convenient location, reasonable cost, and workable dates.  (The course offered at Masterpeace is a condensed 6-week version of what is normally an 8-week program.)

I went to their free intro class/info session on September 8th.  I turned in my registration paperwork that night, for the session to start the following week, but held off on writing a check.  Once I wrote that check, I would be committed, and I was still on the fence.  Did I really want to do this?  Could I make the commitment to practice every day for six weeks?

Even though it meant I would be out one night a week for the next six weeks (leaving Matthew solo with G at bedtime), Matthew was very supportive, and really encouraged me to go through with it.

I went into it unsure if mindfulness would “work” for me.  What if my brain just couldn’t do it?

Bridget, the instructor, told us from the beginning that the mind is a muscle.  If you want to be reap the benefits of mindfulness you have to practice.  When practicing, your mind will wander, and you just have to keep bringing it back, over and over again.  (Bridget uses the analogy of training a puppy to heel.)

With those things in mind, and with the motivation of being part of a class (that I paid good money to take) plus a log to record our daily practice sessions, I’m now into the third week of the course, and I’ve devoted time to practicing every day.

It’s not always easy, and I’m not “good” at it, but I’m doing the work, building that brain muscle.  I have to bring my mind “to heel” constantly — thoughts of decisions I’m trying to make are particularly intrusive.  Mindfulness practice won’t make the hard things go away, but it can lessen their negative effects.  No matter what was happening prior to practicing, I almost always feel calm and centered after practicing, ready to take another stab at life’s challenges.

I’ll check in again here in a couple of weeks with an update on my practice, challenges, observations, etc.

If you’re struggling with stress (and who isn’t?), anxiety, chronic pain, and/or depression, I’d highly recommend looking into Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.  If you’re not lucky enough to have a nearby program, you can try it on your own, using the book I mention below.  The University of Missouri Mindfulness Practice Center has some guided mindfulness meditations that you can listen to or download to help you get started.

 

*The original 8-week program, as practiced in Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, is described in his earlier book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of the Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness.  There is very strong scientific evidence for the benefits of mindfulness practice, and specifically the 8-week, which is explained well in the book.

Practicing gratitude

It seems that everywhere I turn these days, I get messages about gratitude.

“Cultivating Gratitude and Joy” was one of the main guideposts in Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection, which I read in May as a homework assignment for counseling.  Within days of reading that chapter on gratitude, and noting that it was perhaps something I should practice, I was on a flight home from D.C. and noticed the young woman next to me on the plane pull a small journal from her bag with something like, “Today’s Gifts,” written on the front.

When I relayed this to my counselor, she suggested that every night, I write down [at least] three good things that happened to me that day in my planner (i.e., something I already had — no need to go buy a special book).

I maintained this practice for about a week, and then it fizzled.  Until Monday, that is, when I saw a Facebook link to this article: Stop Glossing Over the Good Stuff.  The author received a wake-up call when a colleague challenged him with the question, “Are you really complaining right now?”

He goes on to relate the conversation and the psychology behind focusing on the negative and glossing over the positive, which is the default position for many of us.    Fortunately, anyone can shift this balance, though it does take practice.

On the same day I found the above-mentioned post, “Practice gratitude” was one item on this list of “Ten Simple Things You Can do Today that will Make You Happier.”  Hmm.

The idea of, and psychology behind, “training” your brain for positivity was explored further in “How to Rewire Your Brain for Positivity and Happiness.”

Since it appears I can’t escape this gratitude thing, I’m going to embrace it.

Three good things about this morning:

  1. A lovely bike ride to Local Harvest Grocery
  2. Gabriel looking forward to going to Mrs. L’s
  3. 10% off at the store

I will record at least three positive things in a journal (I already had one, and my planner was just too small) every day.  It’s a small step — the links above have more suggestions and ideas, but it’s a start.

I may or may not institute a weekly gratitude post here — not sure yet.  I also like the idea of stopping yourself every time you (or someone else) catches a complaint and listing three good things on the spot.

I have no illusions that making the shift from a negative focus to a positive one will be easy.  No, it will require work.  Practice.  Training.  But the benefits seem well worth the effort.  Will you join me?

Blue green mama

In a recent post, I mentioned the possibility of starting another blog, one entitled Blue Green Mama.  While I don’t intend to start another blog, the title is worth a post, because it alludes to postpartum adjustment issues.

Ironically, I started reading blogs, and later writing my own, because of a blogger who wrote very openly about her own struggles with postpartum depression.  Yet, when my blues set in 2-3 weeks postpartum, my initial reaction was denial.  I’ve taken psychology classes, my mom’s a social worker, I’m somewhat familiar with the depression screening inventories – nope, not me.  Sure, there are some pretty low lows, but sometimes I feel okay, and I’m still getting out of bed in the morning, and semi-functioning, and I’m an exhausted new mom . . . this is normal, right?

Normal only in the sense that many women experience some form of “baby blues,” but not in the sense that it’s okay, or just something I had to struggle through on my own.  However, in my denial, struggling through it on my own is more or less what I did for several weeks.

Gabriel’s smiles finally snapped me out of my denial.  He started smiling around nine weeks, this adorable little grin, yet I found myself so emotionally drained that I often couldn’t return those smiles, and that made me feel even worse.  Until that point, I didn’t think my problem affected anyone other than me, but now it limited my ability to interact with my baby.

I contacted Mother-to-Mother, a local postpartum adjustment resource, and started to realize that maybe I didn’t have to feel this way – I only wish that I’d made the call earlier.  After calls to various counselors, wading through insurance coverage issues, and some deliberation, I settled on seeing an “out-of-network” counselor who came highly recommended.

I’m pretty sure (and this is not just the denial speaking) that I don’t have full-blown postpartum depression, but some degree of postpartum adjustment disorder.  Either way, there is help available — I don’t have to feel this way.  I started counseling last week, and while it won’t happen overnight, things ARE going to get better.