John M. Talmadge, M.D.

A Blog Covering Many Topics

Mindfulness in 8 Weeks

My friend and colleague Kay Colbert is starting a mindfulness group based on her extensive training in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. I'll be joining her for the sessions!

From The Harvard Gazette: Participating in an eight-week mindfulness meditation program appears to make measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy, and stress. In a study in Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, a team led by Harvard-affiliated researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) reported the results of their study, the first to document meditation-produced changes over time in the brain’s gray matter.

“Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day,” says study senior author Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology. “This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.”

Previous studies from Lazar’s group and others found structural differences between the brains of experienced meditation practitioners and individuals with no history of meditation, observing thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration. But those investigations could not document that those differences were actually produced by meditation.

About the study:
Magnetic resonance (MR) images were taken of the brain structure of 16 study participants two weeks before and after they took part in the eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Program at the University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness. In addition to weekly meetings that included practice of mindfulness meditation — which focuses on nonjudgmental awareness of sensations, feelings, and state of mind — participants received audio recordings for guided meditation practice and were asked to keep track of how much time they practiced each day. A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Be Positive in 3 Ways

Some intriguing research suggests that positive psychology can help you weather the routine ups and downs of life and also build resilience for times of greater difficulty.

Here are three ways to capture the benefits of positive psychology.

Express gratitude. Speaking (or writing) our appreciation means that we have taken action. Acknowledging the good defends us against circumstances or situations that are not so good. As the research scientists at Harvard say, "When you acknowledge the goodness in your life, you begin to recognize that the source of that goodness lies at least partially outside yourself. In this way, gratitude helps you connect to something larger than your individual experience — whether to other people, nature, or a higher power."

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Language experts refer to a declaration as "a speech act," meaning that by stating something authentically and clearly, we have taken action. A thought, after all, is simply something inside your head, inside yourself. Putting it out into the world can make a difference. Last year I received a handwritten note in the mail, and the writer thanked me for something we had done together almost thirty years ago. She described how our work together had influenced her life, and she added that after that crisis she turned things around and accomplished great things. I remembered how things were, and what happened. What was wonderful, though, was knowing that the time was well invested. Her appreciation certainly made my day. She expressed gratitude.

Set aside a few minutes every day and think about aspects of your life for which you are grateful. "Write them down if you like," say the Harvard experts. "Be specific and remember what each thing means to you."

Leverage your strengths. To maximize the payoff regarding your strengths, you first need to identify them. Professor Martin Seligman of Penn calls these "signature strengths." These are the assets that you count on when the chips are down, when life really matters most. Research shows that many of us lack a useful understanding of our strengths. "If something comes easily to you, you may take it for granted and not identify it as a strength," they say. For example, you may be "good with people," or "a compassionate listener," or "really sharp when it comes to numbers." If you are not sure of your strengths, you can identify them by asking someone you respect who knows you well, by noticing what people compliment you on, and by thinking about what comes most easily to you.

Strengths are closely linked to happiness: gratitude, hope, vitality, curiosity, and love. These strengths are so important that they’re worth cultivating and applying in your daily life, even if they don’t come naturally to you. Our strengths—again according to Professor Seligman—count in five important areas.

  • Positive emotional experiences
  • Engagement in life
  • Relationships
  • Meaning, and the significance of our lives
  • Accomplishment or Achievement
If you're looking for areas of life where gratitude may be appropriate, these five are a good start.

Savor the “good.” Most people are primed to experience the pleasure in special moments, like winning a ballgame or getting an "A" on an exam. Simple pleasures, on the other hand, can slip by without being noticed. Savoring means placing your attention on pleasure as it occurs, mindfully enjoying the experience in the moment. Appreciating the treasures in life, big and small, helps build happiness. (Mindfulness is a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience.)

Multitasking is the enemy of savoring. Try as you might, you can’t fully pay attention to multiple things. If you’re reading the newspaper and watching TV during dinner, you’re not getting the pleasure you could from that meal — or the newspaper or television program. If you’re walking with a friend on a beautiful path but staring at your cell phone, you’re missing the moment.

We need to live more in the moment. Living in the moment is a state of active, open, intentional attention on the present. When you become mindful, you realize that you are not your thoughts; you become an observer of your thoughts from moment to moment without judging them. Mindfulness involves being with your thoughts as they are, neither grasping at them nor pushing them away. Instead of letting your life go by without living it, you awaken to experience.

Cultivating non-judgmental awareness of the present generates great benefit in terms of health. Mindfulness reduces stress, boosts immune functioning, reduces chronic pain, lowers blood pressure, and helps patients cope with cancer. By alleviating stress, actively focusing on living in the moment reduces the risk of heart disease. Mindfulness may even slow the progression of other diseases as well. And science shows clearly that mindfulness is one of the best antidotes for physical pain.

Research on Mindfulness suggests that learning the skill of "Being in the Now” can actually change the way our brains process information so that there is more activity in brain centers involved with processing positive emotions, and more interconnections between right and left hemispheres and the cortex and limbic systems. Mindfulness training results in improved relationships, life satisfaction, and pain relief.

Mindful people are happier, more exuberant, more empathetic, and more secure. They have higher self-esteem and are more accepting of their own weaknesses. Anchoring awareness in the here and now reduces the kinds of impulsivity and reactivity that underlie depression, binge eating, and attention problems. Mindful people can hear negative feedback without feeling threatened. They fight less with their romantic partners and are more accommodating and less defensive. As a result, mindful couples have more satisfying relationships.

Being grateful and being mindful go hand in hand.