Tuesday, February 01, 2011

More on Meditation

I had my MBSR class last night and I can honestly say it was quite a challenge -- not physically but mentally. I just found the whole evening to be a pain in my mental butt. Sometimes I felt like I was in Mr. Rodgers neighborhood with this woman quietly talking at the front of the room. “Okay boys and girls, let's get ready to meditate.” Instead of being soothing, it was irritating. I just wanted her to be quiet.

And to complicate matters, people were droning on about this and that after each routine. "Well, during that first stretch I was really hoping I wouldn't fall over which would be really embarrassing and it made me think about when I fell off the bleachers in high school.  Then I saw we were changing forms and I can arch my back REALLY WELL. That reminds me of my cat and I am not sure I changed the litter box this morning. It feels good to stretch though. I spend so much time hunched over my desk at work all day... maybe I should stand up and do cat stretches two or three times a day. People might think it was weird but I can tell them it's part of my new class. OH, squats, I can do those but it reeeeeally pulls my hamstrings. Not sure I can block that out... maybe I should just be more mindful of it and work thru it... "   and blah blah blah blah blah, etc.

In my mind, I was thinking... "Oh for Christ sake... get over it, lady!"

It's hard to be mindful of your own processes if everyone else in the room is talking about theirs at every opportunity. I think this is because I don't really like to share my inner workings and I'm puzzled (and irritated) by people who do.  Most people have a hard time being "mindful" and therefore probably need to verbalize some of it.... or all of it, as the case may be.  I guess it is part of the process for them.... but irritating to introverts like myself who don't see "mindful" as necessarily a time for "group sharing."

The military teaches its members to learn to deal with a myriad of distractions, loud noises, fast movements, and ultimately to make good and sound decisions within the midst of utter chaos. In order to achieve that, the brain has to alter the way it processes information, emotions and to suppress our fight or flight, built-in survival mechanisms. Basically, we're taught to ignore the emotional part of our brains and to rely on the parts of our brains that are good at analyzing and planning. But in highly stressful environments, it's difficult for the brain to totally suppress the urge to make snap judgments, like to run if a circus lion leaps into the stands and tries to chew your head off... or to cower and hide if you're shot at.

The areas most affected in the brain by prolonged, stressful stimuli are the hippocampus and the amygdala. The hippocampus records new sensory experiences and tries to place them into long-term memory and our belief systems. The amygdala senses input from the eyes, ears, nose -- our sensory organs. The amygdala is the part of the brain which sets our "triggers", our reflex behaviors. It's what causes us to freeze or to react dramatically when we are startled. It doesn't take a lot of exposure to stressful stimuli to alter the neurocircuitry of the amygdala. Under severe and prolonged stress, these systems can become altered to the point that the result is often depression, anxiety and PTSD.

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH),"Practicing meditation has been shown to induce some changes in the body...Some types of meditation might work by affecting the autonomic (involuntary) nervous system." The sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system of the body. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our reaction to stress or fear and is colloquially known as the "fight-or-flight" system. The parasympathetic nervous system is active during times of rest and associated with "rest and digest". The NIH goes on, "It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system."

Translation: Meditation may be able to help reverse some of the long term negative effects of exposure to combat, other stressful, traumatic stimuli and the resulting changes in brain function/chemistry.

So... I'm going to stick with it... even though it is irritating and frustrating at times.

To my friends in the medical field, I apologize for the gross over-simplification of the brain and its inner workings.

Thanks to my friend Melissa B. for her contribution to this article.

Recommended reading:

Combat Stress Injury: Theory, Research, and Management, by Charles R. Figley, William P. Nash

On Killing
, by Grossman, Lt. Col. Dave