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Training a more laid-back brain

By Meryl Davids Landau

September 18, 2012 RSS Feed Print

One of the hottest forms of stress reduction today is actually one of the oldest: meditation. But the kind making the rounds of hospitals, community centers, and even schools in increasing numbers doesn't involve chanting "Om" while sitting on a cushion with closed eyes; instead, participants are trained to pay attention to their thoughts, emotions, and bodily sensations, and to view them neutrally, "without assigning an emotional value that they are strongly positive or negative," says University of Wisconsin–Madison neuroscientist Richard Davidson, coauthor of The Emotional Life of Your Brain.

The idea is to allow parts of the prefrontal cortex to lessen activity in the amygdala, which is responsible for evaluating threats. This helps reduce the likelihood you will overreact and enhances your ability to see potential solutions to problems, Davidson says.

Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) got its start in 1979, when molecular biologist and meditation practitioner Jon Kabat-Zinn created a secular program that eventually found a home as the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Early research focused on MBSR's ability to improve chronic pain and later expanded to cover other conditions like breast cancer, depression, prostate cancer, and psoriasis, says Lynn Koerbel, an instructor at the center.

More recently, University of California–San Francisco researchers reported this spring that schoolteachers who took the standard eight-week mindfulness training course were less anxious and depressed and had a greater ability to face a stressor than those in a control group. Similarly, a 2009 Massachusetts General Hospital study involving before-and-after MRI brain scans showed the program reduced the gray matter density in the amygdala, which correlated with participants feeling less stressed.

Classes in MBSR (you can find a local instructor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School website, www.umassmed.edu/cfm) typically begin with several focusing exercises, like noting how the various parts of your body feel at a particular moment (which under stress might include physical reactions like clenched fists). By recognizing your emotions and reactions for what they are and learning to observe how they rise and fall away, you can avoid getting carried away by them. This will help you respond more calmly and effectively in trying situations.

Wes Bergenholtz, 58, president of an aerospace parts manufacturer in Columbia, Conn., and a self-described workaholic, never imagined he'd seek out a practice like MBSR. But last November he developed intense, unrelenting headaches that doctors he consulted couldn't cure. His stress level, always high, went through the roof, so he recently enrolled in the University of Massachusetts class. "I went into it the ultimate skeptic, but now I rave about it," he says. Now he is able to separate his thoughts about problems from the agitation or anger they once automatically elicited. And while the pain isn't gone, his newfound ability to accept it makes it much more easily forgotten.


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