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The Life-Changing Magic of Meditation

How paying attention to the present moment can be the key to emotional well-being.

young woman sitting cross legged on a yoga mat while meditating

This is the fourth article in a series by Kate Rope, an award-winning journalist who specializes in self-care. Please check back each month for more insight and advice on ways to take care of you.

Last summer my family and I were poised for a vacation of a lifetime—two weeks in France, one of them spent in the very same town where my husband had purchased our engagement ring over a decade ago, the other in Paris, where he proposed to me on the Eiffel Tower. It was to be a magical time showing our daughters a new country and the birthplace of their family. It also came a month after I published my second book and was supposed to be the relaxing reward for a year of writing, revising, and publicizing. 

But a week before we were to leave, I was handed a plum assignment for a dream publication, writing about the latest research on mindfulness. I couldn’t say no. So, I researched like mad, crammed in interviews, and was working up until an hour before we were supposed to leave. I hadn’t packed. I couldn’t find my passport for a hair-raising 30 minutes. But I did. We made the plane. 

Two days in, red bumps appeared on my lower back. Very itchy red bumps that spread to my stomach and blossomed into a band of little clear blisters that brought with them alternating episodes of burning, searing, or stabbing pain and unremitting itching. That afternoon we hiked up the Eiffel Tower to revisit that magical moment with my kids, the sweat traveling down my skin made me want to scream. I spent that night standing naked in the middle of our Airbnb so nothing would touch my skin. The next morning, a French doctor taught me a new word—la zona. Shingles. I white knuckled the plane ride home and spent the next month on the couch, full of painkillers and nerve modulating drugs, lying on ice packs, and binge-watching ER while my kids ran feral. 

At 45 with a strong immune system, the only explanation for my outbreak was stress. Ironically, the mindfulness writing assignment had probably been the proverbial straw on the back of my yearlong stress camel. It was also a gift. Researching the piece sparked enough curiosity in me to consider trying meditation. The shingles were proof that I should. 

I signed up for a mindfulness-based stress reduction course and it changed my life.

What is mindfulness-based stress reduction?

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is the most studied mindfulness practice in the U.S. Created by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, in 1979 to help patients with chronic pain, MBSR is an eight-week course combining mindfulness meditation, some yoga, and body awareness to learn how to “pay attention, on purpose, to the present moment without judgment.” In the course you learn how to notice the feelings in your body, your breath, the sounds around you, and, eventually, your thoughts, and to return to the present when your mind inevitably brings you away from it. 

Research shows that in eight weeks (with accompanying home practice), participants are able to reduce the symptoms of several chronic pain conditions as well as anxiety and other mood disorders

Why do our brains need help calming down?

Our minds are designed to be in constant motion. We are busy planning what comes next, worrying about what might come next, or rehashing the past in a vain effort to change history. “We are so focused on the future that we are not able to enjoy the present. Or we are so stuck on things in the past we don’t even realize that those things are not happening anymore,” says Allison Tebbett-Mock, PhD, a staff psychologist in the adolescent inpatient unit at Northwell Health’s Zucker Hillside Hospital on Long Island. And then we get all wrapped up in emotions about things that are not even happening.

The other thing our brains are evolutionarily programmed to do? Spin tall tales. We want to size up any potential threat to our safety and immediately make sense of it, so our brains have gotten really good at trying to come up with stories to make sense of things. Unfortunately, they are not that good at comprehending what is actually a threat, and their propensity to see threats everywhere means they often get it wrong. 

“Mindfulness puts your brain where your body is.”
Dr. Tebbett-Mock, psychologist

So we falsely conclude that the brevity of a friend’s text means she’s mad at us, that our toddler’s tears at nursery school drop off are proof that he will struggle all day. We confuse feeling nervous about a work presentation with the certainty that we will botch it. We get caught up in these hypotheticals and respond to them with misplaced stress and anxiety. When, in reality, for most of us, we are OK (or even more than OK) in the present moment.

“When the mind jumps from one thing to another it leads to a lot of emotional suffering,” says Dr. Tebbett-Mock. “Mindfulness puts your brain where your body is.”

How does listening to our bodies help?

“Our bodies are giving us information all day long,” says Nicole Lippman-Barile, PhD, a clinical psychologist and certified nutritional therapist consultant with Northwell Health Physician Partners CBT Practice. “Your heart racing could be telling you you’re anxious, and you’re not paying attention to it. A headache could be telling you that you have a lot of stress. We often feel our emotions in our bodies, but we ignore it.”

The practice of meditation gives you a designated time when you are checking in with the sensations of your body, so you can receive these signals and better understand what you are feeling.

In the first few weeks of the MBSR class, I learned how to do “body scans,” in which I lay down in a comfortable position and listened to a guided meditation that had me tune in to each part of my body to see what sensations were there. “As we meditate, the mind-body connection grows,” says Stephanie Swann, PhD, owner of the Atlanta Mindfulness Institute and my teacher for the eight-week MBSR course. “Signals that are received through the body are better known by the mind and vice versa.” 

Those results bear fruit in everyday life. Over time, you begin to notice the tightening in your chest that happens when anxiety is creeping in or the headache that comes right before a big meeting at work. You start to recognize the signals from your body that let you know it is time to work on releasing your stress.

“The goal of meditation is to practice returning your awareness to the present moment every time you notice your brain time-traveling.”

How can we stop the stories in our heads?

The next step is observing the thought storms raging in our heads. “We have a crazy amount of thoughts throughout our day,” says Dr. Lipmann-Barile. “Meditation slows down our thinking and the noise happening in our minds.”

The goal of meditation is to practice returning your awareness to the present moment every time you notice your brain time-traveling. The more often it strays, the more practice you get, and the faster you become aware that your brain writes many elaborate storylines that have nothing to do with the here and now. 

“Over time, our reactivity is reduced, and we begin to understand the difference between the stories the mind creates and the actual life that is happening,” says Dr. Swann. “So that we can differentiate between the past and the present.”

As I developed my practice, I noticed that I was able to focus on the present moment even when I wasn’t meditating. During conversations with my kids I would feel my mind wander into what I was going to cook for dinner or whether I returned an email, and then I’d gently bring my focus back to the story my seven-year-old was telling me about her day. 

Can meditation treat mental health disorders?

“A regular meditation practice can actually decrease the activity—and even the size—of the amygdala, the part of our brain that responds to emotions,” says Dr. Tebbett-Mock. “Well-conducted, rigorous studies show that mindfulness decreases depression and anxiety. And there is also some data to support that mindfulness reduces the incidence of post-traumatic stress disorder.”

“We know that when the mind is in the present moment, anxiety is unable to exist,” adds Dr. Swann. “Anxiety is a result of being just even slightly out of the present moment—that’s where worry develops.”

In her work with adolescents who have been hospitalized because they have harmed themselves or are at risk of doing so, Dr. Tebbett-Mock uses a treatment called dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). A core component of DBT is “putting your mind where your body is in the present moment to figure out what is important to you and make good decisions for yourself,” says Dr. Tebbett-Mock. “Being aware in the present moment gives us more control over our behaviors and we are less likely to be impulsive and act on emotions.”

That can be the difference between life and death for someone who is contemplating suicide.

“We know that when you look at a sample of 50-year-old meditators versus 50-year-old non-meditators, the meditators have more similarities in their memory capacity to 25-year-olds rather than their non-meditating peers.”
Dr. Stephanie Swann

How meditation can actually help you live your best life

Functional MRI research shows that meditation can enrich our lives in less dire, but no less important, ways. Meditation can increase the activity and size of the hippocampus—the part of our brain involved in learning and memory. “We know that when you look at a sample of 50-year-old meditators versus 50-year-old non-meditators, the meditators have more similarities in their memory capacity to 25-year-olds rather than their non-meditating peers,” says Dr. Swann. In my case study of one, one of the first benefits I noticed was remembering people’s names again, a skill I thought went the way of step aerobics in the ‘90s. 

I can also report these preliminary findings: losing my cool way less often with my kids (almost never), a sharp decline in my anxiety, the capacity to feel sadness and know that it may go as fast as it came, increased focus during conversations, improved listening skills, a general resistance to the stress of deadlines, more empathy for others, and enhanced enjoyment in life.

Facebook recently resurfaced a post from two years ago in which I talked about how I was “leaking frustration, overwhelmedness, and sheer exhaustion.” It was shocking to be reminded of my level of stress back then, the stress that laid me vulnerable to shingles. I can’t remember the last time I felt that undone by life. 

That is not to say that life is perfect. 

But I feel the spaces between the deadlines and the meltdowns. I feel myself go slowly even as things speed up. When the pressure bubbles, if I work at it, I can adjust my inner thermostat and return things to a comfortable temperature. And I do that again and again, strengthening my skills each time I practice. 

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Published June 4th, 2019