Finally — Spring!
Last week while preparing for a co-op radio interview, I came across some interesting research on how meditation affects the amygdala. Nothing like a deadline to have me cramming at the last minute… and priming my own amygdala! (The amygdala is that part of the lower brain that is always scanning for danger and is hyperactive when we are under stressed conditions.)
When Brett and I arrived at the radio station, we were energetically greeted by one of the hosts. However, we were soon thrown when we realized his sole purpose was to “debunk” mindfulness meditation. After all, this was a show about critical thinking and scientific skepticism and, as far as he could see, there was no sound research to back meditation practice. As he was unfamiliar with mindfulness meditation, he lumped us in with all forms of meditation, including something called “yogic flying.” He warned us that he would be ”hostile(!)” during the interview, but fortunately appeared to soften somewhat once we went on the air and realized that we were not so far out there after all. The cohost was familiar with the research and had actually participated in one of our MBSR programs. He said that he himself found the program beneficial, but that his wife loved it when he meditated as he was so relaxed! All in all, it was a wonderful learning experience for us.
If you would like to listen to the podcast, you can find it here (link currently unavailable). The show is called “Think for Yourself” (March 22 episode). The first 18 min. is entertaining banter between the hosts. Our interview runs after that (from the 18 min. mark to the 60 minute mark.)
Once the interview was over, I found myself thinking about all the things I wished I had said or remembered to say (not unlike the feeling I had walking away from many a university exam!) But as many of us have experienced, when we are stressed, our capacity for higher thinking is inhibited. The mind goes blank and we are unable to take in and process new information as easily. Our thinking is not so much reflective as reflexive! Under the stress of being expected to prove something, on live radio yet, I couldn’t remember some of the information I had wanted to share…Such as what had initially attracted me to mindfulness meditation. I really appreciated that it didn’t require me to believe in anything. I was encouraged to be a scientist of sorts and see for myself what value, if any, the practice held for me. Meditation practice itself is a practice of inquiry toward a deeper understanding of one’s own experience and of the nature of reality.
Thankfully, not long after the interview ended, I think my amygdala returned to its usual dimension. (Which I fervently hope is not the size of a grapefruit.)
But what if we are living in a state of prolonged arousal?
If we are living in a state of prolonged arousal, a sense of vigilance can become chronic. This hypervigilance can manifest in a cycle of negative emotions and distorted perceptions and put us at risk for depression and anxiety disorders. Difficulty regulating emotion is thought to be an essential component of mood and anxiety disorders.
The good news is that several researchers (Ramel & team, 2004; Segal & team, 2000) have shown that participation in an MBSR program decreases the habitual tendency to emotionally react and ruminate about transient thoughts and physical sensations. They think that positive changes in the ability to regulate our emotions happen through the skillful use of attention.
Shrinking the amygdala, self-regulating emotion
A 2010 study out of Stanford (by Goldin & Gross) looked at the effects of MBSR on people with social anxiety disorder.Those who completed the program showed improvement in four areas, including in anxiety and depression symptoms as well as self-esteem. They had less emotional reactivity in response to negative self-beliefs and an fMRI showedreduced activity in the amygdala.
A 2009 study out of Massachusetts (by Holzel & others) actually showed that the amygdala gets smaller in size with mindfulness practice, even after only eight weeks. I was skeptical as to whether this change in the brain would actually translate into any noticeable change for the meditators. However, people’s self-report of decreased anxiety equated with the decreased size of their amygdala. Very cool! I find this research particularly motivating for keeping up the practice.
AFTER the MBSR…or MBCT: Working with Difficult Emotions
Despite experiencing positive effects from taking part in an MBSR or MBCT program, you may still find yourself being taken over at times by certain difficult emotions. This doesn’t mean that you are doing anything wrong or have “failed” in some way. A full range of emotion is part and parcel of life, for all of us. It’s a matter of having a range of tools for working with challenging emotions, especially when they threaten to overwhelm.
Just as a long-distance swimmer may alter her stroke and tack when confronted with very choppy water, as meditators, we benefit from having different strategies to call upon when caught in mental storms, to keep from being pulled under. Often it is hard to know whether to plunge into an emotional wave, surf it or head to shore!
For instance, dealing with a difficult emotion such as anger can be confusing. Many believe that we need to “get it out” because we’ve heard that keeping it in is unhealthy. But “keeping it in” versus “letting it out” is based on a false dichotomy. Modern research has shown that expressing anger can be as unhealthy as suppressing it. And the response perpetuates itself. The more frequently we raise our voice at someone, the more frequently we are likely to do so in the future.
We seldom consider a third way. In a mindful approach, we neither suppress nor express anger, but clarify it. We bring anger into our meditation, sit or walk with it; watch our thoughts and feel the sensations in our bodies until we clearly see and feel what is underneath it: Fear–and pain. Thich Nhat Hanh calls this process “cooking potatoes.” Once we have clarified the anger, we can address the issue with the other person or take appropriate action. In this way, we relate from a centred and non-reactive position. We bring awareness to what is motivating us and relate to the other with compassion, or at least non-hatred.
In the poem, “The Guest House,” Rumi suggests we meet emotional difficulties at the door “laughing, and invite them in,” even though we would prefer to tell them to go away. But before we can realistically let them in for an extended stay, we may need some additional skills for relating. To paraphrase psychiatrist R.D. Laing, we need to know we can protect our heart before we can open it wide.
Thanks and be well,
Marian & Brett