Most people can benefit from improving their health in some way. A great way to improve your health is to apply mindful meditation to your life. To help understand what mindful meditation is and how mindful meditation can help improve your health, I have interviewed psychotherapist Cindy Foster, LCSW, ACSW, NBCCH.
Tell me a little about yourself.
“I am a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist with 29 years of clinical and administrative experience. I am also a national board certified clinical hypnotherapist. I am a graduate from both the Professional and Advanced Integrative Medicine Training Programs, under the direction of James Gordon, MD (former Chair of the White House Commission on Complimentary Medicine Policy). I have also completed intensive Professional Training on Mindfulness Stress-Reduction and Meditation, under the direction of nationally recognized authors Saki Santorelli, Ed.D and Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD (Current and Former Directors of The Center For Mindfulness In Medicine, Health Care, and Society, University of Massachusetts Medical School). I received my Masters Degree in Social Work from Wayne State University, Detroit, Michigan in 1982. I have been combining traditional “talk” psychotherapy along with self-empowering mind/body stress reduction techniques in clinical practice, since 1983. In addition, I have published articles and facilitate stress reduction retreats for professional organizations, companies, and conferences. And of course, I continue to be a long time student of mindfulness and continue my own daily, individual practice.
Currently, I am the founder and program director of the Mind Body Stress Reduction Programs, an integrative medicine clinic in Augusta, GA. In my private practice, I incorporate mindfulness, dialectical training, cognitive behavioral therapies, biofeedback, autogenic training, active and quiet meditations, guided imagery, energy work, hypnotherapy, (including heart-centered regression hypnotherapy), and many other self-awareness and stress reduction techniques into my practice. I also provide psychodynamic, interpersonal, and family systems psychotherapy, weaving mindfulness awareness into each modality, as appropriate. I have had the privilege of working with people from a wide range of ages, ethnicity, problems and strengths.”
What is Mindful Meditation?
“Mindful Meditation is the formal practice of experiencing mindfulness within oneself. As we continue with daily mindful meditation practice, we begin to utilize mindfulness into our daily interactions, relationships, and in all other aspects of our lives.
Recorded, guided mindful meditations allow us to begin or deepen meditation practice. Listening to guided meditation CDs gives us a starting place that brings structure and focus. Many listeners of the CD that I have developed — entitled “Brief Meditations for the Workplace or Home” — comment on how useful the recording is for beginners of meditation. I have also had long time mindfulness meditators state that the recording has given them new perceptions and experiences to help strengthen their meditation practice. Perhaps I hear both comments due to the fact that there are various short but powerful meditations to choose from and experiment with on this particular CD. Many people also choose to receive formal training in mindfulness and mindful meditation from an experienced teacher and/or licensed psychotherapist trained in mindfulness. As you gain experience in practicing, you will be able to increase your meditation time on your own without any structured guidance for longer and longer lengths of time.
It may also be helpful to briefly describe what Mindfulness is, and perhaps what it is not.
Simply put, Mindfulness is consciously paying attention to what is happening in the present moment. Mindfulness provides a foundation to “let go” of unhealthy preconceived and habitual thoughts and behaviors that keep us “stuck” in a fear-based and limited way of being and living. It is a systematic way of ending needless suffering by developing awareness and bringing more clarity, acceptance, balance and ultimately more contentment and joy into one’s life. As we pay attention on purpose in any given moment, we can observe what is occurring within us and around us in a non-judgmental way. We gain more clarity and focus by being in the present moment. By becoming aware of what is happening within us and around us, we can begin to “let go” as we sort out our own difficult mental and emotional preoccupations. Mindful awareness broadens our perspective, leading us to a greater appreciation of life. Mindfulness or mindful meditation does not mean having a “blank” mind or escaping problems. It is quite the opposite.
Mindfulness has roots in Eastern philosophy and Buddhism, however within Western civilization we find that many influential and humanistic individuals have embraced mindful concepts (though not necessarily calling it mindfulness) throughout history. For instance, Henry David Thoreau refers to “The Bloom of the Present Moment.” There is no religious component to incorporating mindfulness in one’s life. Anyone can learn mindfulness, with any belief system, and delight in the health benefits obtained from it.
Words can only describe Mindfulness to a limited extent. Mindfulness becomes clearer and much more understandable through experiencing it. Mindful meditation is the open door that invites us in to understand ourselves better, and improve our lives and those we share our world with. Mindfulness allows us to quiet the mind, and body and open the heart, which brings us freedom of mindbodyheart.”
How can mindful meditation improve health?
“We now have decades of research data verifying the health benefits of mindful meditation and mindfulness training within a wide range of health issues and conditions.
As a licensed psychotherapist, I have seen patients with various stages of anxiety, depression, life transitions, relationship conflict, grief, chronic and acute physical and emotional conditions, trauma, sleep disorders, eating disorders and substance abuse benefit from mindfulness based interventions and treatment.
When speaking of health issues, we need to address the impact that stress has on our lives. It is impossible to avoid all potential stressors, but we should note that not all stressors are necessary harmful. Whatever kind of stress we are feeling, the crucial factor is how we choose to deal with the stress in our lives. There is now more scientific evidence that chronic stress causes premature aging (Time Magazine, Health Section, The Ravages of Stress, Chronic Emotional Burdens Can Make Your Cells Age Prematurely, December 13, 2004). Higher numbers of accidents and injuries at work and home are reported when people are feeling chronically stressed (employee surveys and stats from various companies). Health care expenses are about 50 percent higher for workers who say they have high levels of stress (Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine). When we are feeling stressed, our thoughts tell the brain to send warning signals to the nervous system, then our body begins to prepare itself for survival by sending a rush of biochemicals, including cortisol, throughout the entire body. When this mechanism is activated, we experience elevated blood pressure, faster heart rate, rapid breathing, and increased metabolism. Our muscles tighten, and hands and feet get colder as blood flows away from the extremities and toward major muscle groups needed in fighting or fleeing the perceived danger. The “fight or flight” mechanism is our innate survival response. However, if left on when not needed, it leaves us feeling anxious, exhausted, and wreaks havoc on our entire nervous system as well as all major organs and systems within the body. When the emergency mechanism “fight or flight” is left on, these biochemicals (cortisol and other stress hormones), are released within the body, slowing down or halting tissue repair, reproduction, growth and the effectiveness of the immune system. A decrease in digestive functions of the stomach, intestines and pancreas also occurs. Anxious feelings initially appear as our entire being prepares to physically either flee or fight, but if these anxious feelings are left on, they can worsen and may eventually turn into anxiety and or depressive related conditions. If these stress hormones continue to be released and are not turned off, they most likely will also cause adverse physical symptoms, which can lead to chronic physical and emotional distress. It should be noted that stress that goes unchecked is related to many health concerns, conditions and diseases.
Scientific studies overwhelmingly support both mindful meditation and imagery as practices to reduce stress, reduce or prevent certain diseases, and improve overall health. The studies also document increased sleep quality, self-awareness and self-control, as well as reduction of anxiety and depressive symptoms. Mindful meditation is frequently in combination with more standard medical treatment, used to help treat a variety of physical illnesses — such as hypertension, heart disease, headaches, insomnia, fibromyalgia, arthritis and other auto-immune and inflammatory conditions, asthma, diabetes, digestive disorders, chronic fatigue, and various types of cancer.
An increasing number of physicians and health care professionals recommend meditation as a way to prevent, slow down, or control pain and chronic diseases. By allowing time to concentrate inward in a mindful way, we can use our breath and awareness to help restore health.
Let’s focus on what recent brain imaging research shows us regarding what is happening with the brain as we work with the mind. When you think of work out training for the body, think of mindful meditation practice as a work out for the brain. Mindful meditation practice allows each individual to encounter each moment as a new opportunity for awareness. Viewing things as if for the first time allows us the opportunity to release old ways of perceiving and doing that hold a limited conclusion. The mental activity of meditation activates specific regions of the brain (Hebb,1 949/Siegel, 2007). It has been demonstrated that brain areas associated with introspection and attention enlarge with years of meditation practice (Slazar, 2005). This is why we see improvement with concentration, emotional regulation, memory and focus as we continue mindful meditation practice.
We rewire the brain and build new cells when we learn new things. The medical definition of this is called neuroplasicity, which is the brain’s ability to reorganize itself by forming new neural connections throughout life. Neuroplasticity allows the neurons (nerve cells) in the brain to compensate for injury and disease and to adjust their activities in response to new situations or to changes in their environment. We also can change stuck, limited thought and behavioral patterns. Neurogenesis is the process by which new nerve cells are generated. With Mindfulness Training the individual will notice distress signs, distractions, and negative thoughts — and will allow these sensations to pass through the mindbody, releasing the tension without clinging to certain limited or self-critical thoughts. By better understanding how neuroplasticity and neurogenesis work, we can target our interventions toward actually creating new brain pathways and new habits of mind. Both the hippocampus and amygdala are activated when we are in our emergency, alert mode of “flight or fight,” sending cortisol and other stress hormones to every organ and system within the mindbody.
Brain science research indicates that mindfulness approaches can be effective in quieting the amygdala within the brain. And when that happens, both learning and social attachments are strengthened into more positive neural pathways, even in the aging brain.
By interrupting the unhealthy, conditioned way we physiologically react when we perceive a potential threat or stressor, memory, or pain, patients can learn to reprogram those conditioned pain pathways into health promoting thoughts and behaviors.
It has also been found through research that increased activity can occur in the left prefrontal cortex following only eight weeks of mindfulness training (Davidson et al., 2003/Lutz et al.,2003). The left prefrontal cortex allows for feelings of well-being. Increased activity in this part of the brain also may contribute to strengthening immune system response.
Several scientific studies show that daily meditation can help boost the immune system function, helping the body to ward off sickness and disease and lower blood pressure. (See Dean Ornish’s work with heart disease and Herbert Benson regarding stress and the relaxation response). Meditation can also boost such mental functions as memory, learning and concentration. Other research studies indicate that people who practice some form of meditation outlive those people who do not practice meditation (Time Magazine, The Science of Meditation, August 4, 2003.) Around 1960 through the 1970s, due to the various research endeavors by George Solomon at Stanford, Robert Ader at the University of Rochester, and Candace Pert at John Hopkins, lead to the belief in the high probability that mental attitudes and emotional responses could indeed affect physical functioning and create illness. In 1960, studies on immune system regulation suggested that the part of the brain called the hypothalamus was the “main control mechanism” for the immune system. This work revealed even further that the thoughts of the mind were taken in by the hypothalamus, affecting immune activity. Research data suggested that brain cells do communicate to the immune system via peptides. More recently, Dean Ornish’s work at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute showed that a comprehensive group program consisting of regular meditation (quiet and dynamic) cardiovascular exercise, and a low-fat diet could actually reverse certain heart conditions. “The various tests performed, including scans, showed that more blood flow was going to patients’ hearts, and coronary arteries that were severely closed were now open enough to permit close to normal functioning.”` Dr. Ornish’s findings also indicate that the reduction of stress hormones does help improve the immune system functioning, decrease chronic pain and improve mood/emotional well-being.
The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society also reveals research findings on mindfulness-based stress reduction. The University of Massachusetts Mindfulness Stress Reduction Program has been involved in various research endeavors over the past twenty years. These studies have shown consistent and solid examples of clinically appropriate reductions in physical and psychological symptoms throughout a diverse range of medical and psychiatric diagnosis. These findings include different emotional and physical chronic pain conditions (Kabat-Zinn, 1982; Kabat-Zinn, Lipworth and Burney, 1985; Waldrop, 1988); and other medical diagnosis (Kabat-Zinn and Chapman-Waldrop, 1988); medical patients with a secondary diagnosis of anxiety and/or panic (Kabat-Zinn et al, 1992: Miller et al, 1995). The research was based on the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program experience, and demonstrated a continuance of these changes in some cases for up to four years of follow-up. More recently, the New York Daily News and The Week Health & Science report that researchers at Yale used MRIs to scan the brains of 20 people who meditate for 40 minutes a day, comparing their brains to a group of people who did not meditate. The scans showed that the meditators had thicker gray matter in the cerebral cortex and in an area of the right brain linked to emotions and attention. By focusing inward, the meditators even develop the ability to control such unconscious processes as breathing and heartbeat. “The study participants were people with jobs and families,” says researcher Jeremy Gray. “Meditation can change anyone’s gray matter. You do not have to be a monk. Daily meditation actually creates physical changes in the brain, growing new cells in regions responsible for concentration and making sense of the world.” Meditation, the study suggests, could be especially helpful for elderly people who want to keep their minds fit and alert.
In summary, there is now scientific fact that the mind and body are closely interrelated and can work in concert to improve health, or work against each other to slow down or even stop the healing process. Changing the mind changes the brain itself (Begley, 2007), which can affect both our emotional and physical health. By changing our thought process and behavior through mindfulness training and meditation, we can experience physiological changes to better overall health and well-being.”
What would a typical mindful meditation session be like for someone that wants to improve their overall health?
“It would depend on what direction one decides to take to begin practice. Some individuals will seek out a mindfulness-based teacher/psychotherapist, some may begin by listening to guided mindful meditations or a combination of both. Still others may wish to try meditating on their own and then reach for guidance if they so desire.
In my clinical practice, patients are coming in with specific conditions, and along with mindfulness meditation they may also be utilizing other stress reduction methods. In between sessions, they may be given reading materials, mindful homework, instructional and guided recording resources, — sometimes utilizing customized recordings prior to beginning a meditative practice, if extremely overwhelmed by current issues. It is extremely important to carve out actual time for mindful meditation in one’s busy schedule and daily routine. For many of us, this can be one of the most challenging aspects in the initial phases of meditation practice. Next is finding a quiet place to meditate. Many business and companies have established designated rooms for meditation to help reduce stress levels within the workplace. Then the individual will begin to settle into a comfortable meditative posture, typically either in a straight back chair or on a cushion on the floor.
Everything begins with the breath. In mindful meditation we begin with breathing awareness. We bring our attention to the natural rhythm of the breath and observe how it enters and flows through the mindbody. Breathing awareness is the foundation and anchor in the present moment. When the mind has drifted off into constant streams of thoughts, we use breathing awareness to let go of wherever we have been pulled to, as the mind returns to the present moment. We let the world rise and fall around our breathing. Breathing is also the doorway to controlling and self-regulating the automatic nervous system. We can use breathing awareness to turn off the “fight or flight” emergency response mechanism when not needed.
As we continue our mindful breathing during meditation practice, we find that around the flow of our breathing we begin to notice thoughts, sounds, memories, feelings, body sensations and so forth. As we continue to observe, we become aware that the mind is usually busy in habitually judging almost everything, and placing life experiences in one of two limited categories, either “good” or “bad.” We see that the mind often jumps from past to future to judgments, memories, planning, expectations and so forth. As we observe further, we see that as human beings we tend to cling or grasp and hold tightly onto certain thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, even when they can be limiting and even crippling to us. Or perhaps we find ourselves spending much time numbing, avoiding, or fighting certain thoughts or feelings or physical pain. This internal conflict, if we observe it for a while, is often projected outward — whether it be expressed intentionally or unintentionally onto other people or situations. We can also begin to notice a sense of being lost or out of control with the seemingly endless racing stream of thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations that emerge. If we are not paying attention and understanding how our own mind functions and how to work with it for health and wellness, the mind can flip-flop back and forth from past to future in a whirlwind of confusion, fear, expectations, sadness, etc. We may feel the stress of these thoughts, feelings and the physical symptoms that manifest and how they often intensify within our mindbody. You can see if unaware and unattended, how this unconscious thought process removes you from where you are right NOW in any particular moment, missing the richness and connection available in that moment.
As we hold each situation gently in awareness — every situation no matter how emotionally, mentally or physically charged in pain and suffering, can become workable from a mindfulness perspective. If we cannot be present with ourselves through the longing, the loneliness, the fear, and the physical sensations, then we can never stop chasing after something outside of ourselves for temporary satisfaction. As you practice mindfulness, you begin to quiet your own inner dialogue. You accept yourself for who you are in each moment whatever state of mind you are in at the time.
As we compassionately observe and breathe with whatever emerges or doesn’t emerge within us, we begin to naturally remove emotional charges attached to certain thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms. We do this by simply being present with whatever is occurring within us, without judging, criticizing, analyzing, ignoring, fearing, fighting against, clinging or reacting to the thought or whatever it is in any way. We are just observing whatever we experience, like a curious, compassionate explorer. As we practice we find that observing without automatically judging and reacting to something is not so easy to do! We may experience buried pain as it begins to surface and the mindbody may attempt to distract away from it in different ways. The mindbody may be fidgeting, for example, since the mindbody is not familiar with being still in this concentrated way. However, if we allow ourselves to continue to be the container-like space to observe and allow the energies of life to flow through us, rather than be stuck, we begin to remove some of the intense emotional charges that attach themselves to certain thoughts, feelings and physical symptoms. We all have this ability. It is called the “witnessing self.” The mind has the ability to observe the mind. This is where daily practice and perhaps sharing and processing one’s experience with other trained meditators/professionals becomes very useful. We will begin to develop more awareness, leading to insight, allowing us to find answers we may be seeking naturally without tight, pressured expectations. As we continue our formal practice, we find that we are better equipped to handle stressful situations and interactions with others. We have grown our ability to observe and hear with more awareness, emotional regulation, and patience, allowing us to respond more effectively to what unfolds for us in life, rather than automatically reacting with unhealthy behaviors or choices. When we are in a place of compassionate awareness and strength, we can find clarity, even in the midst of chaos or stress. When we are at ease and comfortable in our “own skin,” our blood pressure, heart rate and all systems with the mindbody can function at peak efficiency for what our own mindbody requires. Breathing awareness and mindfulness turns off the “fight or flight” survival mechanism when not needed, restoring internal relaxation and balance.
Even when our lives seem in pretty good balance, we continually face potentially stressful situations. Mindfulness can help keep us healthy and in a place of wholeness as life continues to unfold. Change is part of life. Life is fluid and in motion. As I have experienced through my professional and personal experiences, we begin to discover a sense of calmness, and empowerment within change itself. We reach, develop, reconnect and reclaim our own innate, inner resources.”
Where can someone find more information about mindful meditations?
“In addition to my website mindbodystressreduction.com, you may find information from the above names listed, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Saki Santorelli at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare and Society, and Ronald Siegel, co editor of “Mindfulness in Psychotherapy.” Other pioneers in mindfulness both in eastern and western cultures include Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Stephen Levine, and Lama Surya Das.”
Thank you Cindy for doing the interview on how mindful meditation can help improve health. For more information on Cindy Foster or her work you can check out her website at mindbodystressreduction.com.