In the 1950’s Dr. Thomas Almy, a prestigious gastroenterologist, snapped a picture of a live colon responding to the proverbial “butterflies in the stomach.”
Dr. Almy invited a student to take part in an experiment where he used a sigmoidoscope to look inside the student’s rectum and colon. A bystander complicit in the experiment said something about cancer of the colon. Upon hearing this, the student concluded that he must have cancer, at which time his colon started to change color, tense up, and contract rapidly. When the student was reassured that cancer was not his diagnosis, his colon regained its natural color, and relaxed.
This experiment paved the way for a deeper understanding of the visceral processes behind our gut-wrenching experiences. Getting butterflies before a big test or nausea right after a breakup: those feelings are much more than anecdotal. It’s a physiological reality that our emotions and stress physically impact our gut.
The Brain-Gut Axis and Stress
One of the major breakthroughs in understanding how the central nervous system (CNS) and the gut communicate was the discovery of the enteric nervous system (ENS). The ENS, sometimes called the “second brain,” is a complex system of about 100 million nerves found in the lining of the gut. Both of our brains, so to speak, are in constant dialogue and speak in many “languages” as they send signals to and fro via neural and endocrine pathways that collectively have been dubbed the “Brain-Gut Axis” (BGA).
The BGA plays a prominent role in our overall wellness, and there is significant evidence that it’s susceptible to stress. The route to BGA dysregulation has many avenues, all of which make the gut more vulnerable to disease.
Stress-induced changes in the physiological functions of the gut include changes in: gut motility, mucosal permeability, visceral sensitivity, gastric secretion, and the gut microbiota. Changes to gut microbiota is called dysbiosis, which may lead to disease. Many of these stress-induced changes account for the symptoms seen in many gastrointestinal disorders.
Functional Gastrointestinal Disorders (FGIDs): When the Gut Acts Up
In my clinical practice, evidence of the BGA is most visible in the functional gastrointestinal disorders (FGIDs): cases when the gut is acting up and there’s no obvious physical cause, like a tumor or bowel obstruction, for example. This does not mean that an FGID is all in one’s head, however. A more precise conceptualization is that stress influences the actual physiology of the gut. In other words, psychological factors can impact upon physical factors, like the movement and contractions of the GI tract, causing inflammation, pain, and other bowel symptoms. These disorders often significantly reduce quality of life.
FGIDs include the better-known irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and the lesser-known small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO). Given their functional nature, they continue to be difficult to treat, and often require GI doctors to use multiple treatment modalities and make referrals to other clinicians, including psychologists.
A Vicious Cycle
To be clear, the brain-gut connection is complex. For one, it is bidirectional; just like a stressed brain sends signals to the gut, a troubled gut sends signals to the brain, putting someone at greater risk for anxiety and other neuropsychiatric difficulties. Parsing which came first, the stress or the gut distress, becomes challenging and most often this bidirectionality between enteric and central nervous systems is a vicious cycle of great discomfort.
Just like a stressed brain sends signals to the gut, a troubled gut sends signals to the brain, putting someone at greater risk for anxiety and other neuropsychiatric difficulties.
On top of that, many of the FGIDs become chronic conditions, which pose a stressful physical and psychological burden. Many of the patients I treat come see me because having a disorder like IBS primes them for stress that maintains the original symptoms. For example, while stress is a clear player in the origin of FGIDs, “gut-focused” thoughts, emotions, and behaviors start to create stress that reinforces the underlying pathophysiology (i.e., slows motility, visceral pain). For example, my patients with FGID have become hyper-vigilant of their heightened visceral pain and then begin to catastrophically appraise their abdominal sensations. Also, their quality of life starts to significantly decrease, many times leading to anxiety and depression.
Many of the patients I treat come see me because having a disorder like IBS primes them for stress that reinforces the original symptoms.
A SIBO Story
I’ve learned about the FGIDs firsthand. I have a deeply personal connection to the BGA, and it serves to enhance my professional passion and expertise on the subject. In the winter of 2013, I experienced a feeling of pressure in my stomach after every meal. I felt visceral pain, and it felt difficult to empty my bowels. My heart felt fiery. I wasn’t just bloated—I looked pregnant. I had a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I wasn’t just bloated—I looked pregnant. I had a belly the size of six-month gestational equivalence.
I was otherwise healthy, and thankfully so, and the onset of symptoms was anxiety provoking. After a multitude of tests ruled-out anything life threatening, I took a hydrogen breath test that my GI specialist said was indicative of small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO).
I had never heard of it before, so I began to just refer to myself as a “digestive mess.” It definitely felt like a mess, as SIBO had nonchalantly decided to go camping in my gut, like a pesky parasite sucking the life out of every ounce of normal flora to be found. Camping: as in pitching tents, starting fires, and sleeping in the dark hollows of my alimentary organs (i.e., my gastrointestinal tract).
This was my up close and personal reckoning with just how much stress was taking over my mind—and body. SIBO was a wake-up call to inspect my habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that were adding to my stress levels over time.
This was my up close and personal reckoning with just how much stress was taking over my mind—and body. SIBO was a wake-up call to inspect my habitual patterns of thinking and behaving that were adding to my stress levels over time. These patterns weren’t “bad” per se, they were just not serving my wellness. It is hard to pinpoint any one stressor, or any one pattern that contributed to SIBO. In retrospect, it was probably an accumulation of stress that I carried with me during a grueling postdoc. Postdoc was an extraordinary experience that afforded me first-class training. Yet, I pushed myself without taking the time to rest. I can still recall one of my supervisors saying that “postdocs” never get sick, or if they do, they sweat through it, and suck it up. All I could think then if I needed a break was “I am such a failure.” I think I carried this line of thinking with me as I embarked on the first phase of my career post-training. I kept going without rest, and if I needed a break I’d once again hear the stress-inducing voice in my head reminding me of what I thought was my inadequacy.
It is hard to pinpoint any one stressor, or any one pattern that contributed to SIBO. In retrospect, it was probably an accumulation of stress that I carried with me during a grueling postdoc. Postdoc was an extraordinary experience that afforded me first-class training. Yet, I pushed myself without taking the time to rest. I can still recall one of my supervisors saying that “postdocs” never get sick, or if they do, they sweat through it, and suck it up. All I could think then if I needed a break was “I am such a failure.”
SIBO was a wake-up call, albeit a very uncomfortable one. So uncomfortable that I began to resent my body, avoiding social engagements, and hyper-focusing on my symptoms. The heaviness I physiologically felt in my core became a psychological burden, and I became depressed, until I finally realized that by calling myself a “digestive mess” I was colluding in the maintenance of my pain.
4 Ways to Treat FGIDs Using the Mind
Since multiple components, including physiological, affective, cognitive, and behavioral factors are associated with FGIDs, an integrative approach to treatment is prudent. The research indicates that psychological interventions have been successfully applied. More specifically, a large number of randomized controlled trials suggest that cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), biofeedback, relaxation techniques, and mindfulness meditation are effective psychological interventions for FGIDs.
1) Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy is based on the idea that sometimes people engage in habitual thinking patterns that are founded on a skewed perception of their experiences or unhelpful, “distorted” thinking. It’s an inquiry-based approach that asks people to take notice of their mood changes and the habitual patterns of behavior they engage in.
CBT is the most studied psychological intervention vis-à-vis FGIDs, and most studies were conducted with IBS populations. Many people with IBS engage in unhelpful thinking styles related to their actual symptoms, which then impact upon their moods and behaviors. For example, imagine a scenario during which someone with IBS is certain that eating out in public means they will absolutely have diarrhea. The thought creates anxiety, which might actually lead to autonomic arousal that could potentially trigger diarrhea. Eating out is now linked to having diarrhea and so eating out is likely avoided. CBT treatment would first be geared toward helping someone identify this pattern of thinking, feeling, and behaving. Then it would be utilized to help someone learn to challenge this unhelpful thinking and develop healthy active coping skills.
One study conducted over twenty years ago focused on the impact of CBT on IBS by randomizing 34 patients to eight weeks of cognitive therapy, a self-help support group, or a waitlist control. The results indicated that post-treatment the cognitive therapy group showed a significant reduction in gastrointestinal symptoms, as well as significant improvement on measures of depression and anxiety when compared to both the support group and waitlist control paradigms. These results were maintained at a three-month follow up.
A recent study, published in January 2017, looked at the effects of a 12-week course of face-to-face CBT on 18 subjects with IBS. Results indicated a decrease in self-rated visceral sensitivity, as well as associated psychiatric symptoms. The authors of the study attributed the results to increased ability to cope with IBS symptoms.
2) Relaxation Techniques
In 1975, Herbert Benson, a physician at Harvard, introduced the concept of the relaxation response. It is the physiological opposite to the fight or flight response. In this way, stress management can be achieved by dampening the effects of the sympathetic nervous system’s “fight or flight” arousal mechanisms by activating our parasympathetic nervous system through relaxation techniques.
Research has suggested that practices like meditation, yoga, and prayer, which elicit the relaxation response, alleviate stress and anxiety’s physiological counterparts, which as we now know, can impact gut motility and induce dysbiosis.
A pilot study from Harvard University affiliates Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center was designed to investigate whether meditation, a relaxation-response-based intervention could reduce negative symptoms and improve quality of life in patients with IBS and irritable bowel disease (IBD). Forty-eight patients with either IBS or irritable bowel disease (IBD) took a 9-week session that included meditation training, and the results showed reduced pain, improved symptoms, stress reduction, and the change in expression of genes that contribute to inflammation.
Biofeedback uses computerized technology to help someone learn to control or manage the body’s response to stress. Sensitive instruments are used to measure physiological processes, like heart rate variability and/or muscle contractions, for example, with the purpose of “feeding back” the information to someone so they can learn to control them.
In terms of FGIDs, biofeedback’s effectiveness has mostly been investigated in those experiencing functional constipation. In this case, biofeedback is used to help someone tune in to a propensity for paradoxically contracting the pelvic floor muscles during bowel movement (often referred to as pelvic floor dyssynergia (PFD), and then to train someone to relax these muscles instead.
One study compared the effects of five weekly biofeedback sessions with those of laxatives plus counseling in patients with severe PFD. The researchers studied overall satisfaction with treatment, symptoms of constipation, and pelvic floor physiology. At six months, improvement was reported in 80% of patients in the biofeedback group vs. 22 % in the other group. Results were sustained at 12 and 24 months post-treatment. More specifically, biofeedback produced a greater reduction in straining, a greater reduction in the sensation of incomplete evacuation, a greater reduction in abdominal pain, and reduced use of suppositories. Since the study clearly indicates the benefits of five biofeedback sessions vs. continuous laxative use, it’s become the gold standard for treatment for this type of functional constipation.
4) Mindfulness Meditation
John Kabat-Zinn, the pioneer of mindfulness meditation’s use in Western psychological interventions, proposes that mindfulness is a state of greater awareness cultivated by paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgment. This definition reflects mindfulness’ positive impact upon sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing through cultivating purposeful, present-moment focus on experiences without the added judgment and evaluation often projected onto them. Since FGIDs are often maintained by the stress burden induced by the narrative that is created about the symptoms—a narrative that is rooted in judgment—mindfulness meditation has recently been studied and added to a growing list of possible psychological interventions for FGIDs.
One particular study in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, looked at the impact of mindfulness training based on the MBSR program developed by Kabat-Zinn, on the quality of life of 39 women with IBS. As compared to a control group, the women who received the training experienced a significant attenuation of symptoms and an increase in quality of life.
More specifically, the mindfulness training cultivated a less reactive mindset toward potentially distressing thoughts, emotions, and sensory experiences. As the women were able to just witness their visceral sensations without catastrophically appraising them, anxiety was reduced, pain was attenuated, and they even started to think they had the potential to successfully cope with their symptoms.
Mindfulness for My SIBO Case
I personally looked toward mindfulness meditation to help me sit through a lot of the discomfort from SIBO. I repeatedly practiced sitting with the sensory experience of my symptoms without the added judgment. The anger toward my body for betraying me was slowly replaced with a compassion for what it was enduring.
The anger toward my body for betraying me was slowly replaced with a compassion for what it was enduring.
Overall, what I learned through my healing process, in a nutshell, is that given just how clear it is that emotional and psychosocial factors can trigger symptoms in the gut, I needed to make some lifestyle changes. So I did, and I still do. When we have engaged with certain unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for a long time, the path toward wellness takes extra patience, perseverance, time, and trust. Nothing about the path is easy. Sometimes, it’s even disheartening. Always, it’s worth the chance to thrive.
It’s April, and while that means more rain showers, it also means it’s time to recognize a literary style “in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm”. Or, simply put, poetry!
In honor of National Poetry Month, I would like to present these 4 poems that not only resonate deeply with me, but have also helped to inform my work with my clients.
One of the beauties of poetry, I think, is that there is no single meaning to any one poem. The poet pens a narrative in verse that can be interpreted in all ways; I would even go so far as to say that a reader of poetry projects upon a poem what he/she needs in that given moment. The interpretation is never static, and likely the reader will experience something different with each reading or recitation. So, if it stirs something within you right now – and moves you to greater awareness of self, others, and the world – then honor those things!
Vulnerable alert: These works have seen me through difficult times. As my post-doc and a romantic relationship were both simultaneously coming to an end in 2010, the feeling of loss led me to these poems. I recited them every time I needed a reminder that not only was it was okay to feel every iteration of my feelings, but that those feelings were also healthy, and important – serving as a springboard for new endeavors and a greater openness to identifying, and then saying yes to, those things I desired that were beyond my comfort zone.
Reciting the poems, as I power-walked around the Charles River, comforted me, and also allowed me to notice and feel the pain of confronting the changes in my life. The more I recited, the more I let myself feel, and the more facile it became to just put one foot in front of another, trusting that those small steps would lead me to my somewhere new. The words reverberated over and over until I found my way towards healing.
There is much to be learned from a poetic journey inward. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.
by Mary Oliver
One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
their bad advice—
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
“Mend my life!”
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.
You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations,
though their melancholy
It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.
But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do—
determined to save
the only life you could save.
Why it resonates:
The Journey resonates with me because it speaks to the idea of individuation and separation.
It is hard for most of us to leave our family of origin, mentally speaking. It’s a challenge to go out into the world, without the protection and grounded-ness that our primary attachment figures provided (if we were lucky enough) when we were younger. It is also just as hard, because despite wanting to “become ourselves” as individual entities, we often stay enmeshed in the maladaptive patterns of our ancestry. Their traumas, and subsequent triggers, sometimes become ours, and though we want to shed those layers from our own psyches, it is what we know – the familiarity is resoundingly comforting.
My clients and I have learned that we sometimes make unconscious agreements with ourselves to hold on to the pain, until we realize we can’t breathe from the bearing of it, and we need to let go of it in order to save ourselves.
Both personally and professionally I know so well that change is hard. Actually, that’s the understatement of the day! When we have engaged with certain unhealthy thoughts, feelings, and behaviors for a long time, the path towards wellness takes extra patience, perseverance, time, and trust. This poem resonates for me because it reflects a sequence of change that is authentic.
Portia beings by speaking to the deeply painful reckoning with bumps in the road. Then, she begins to recognize patterns that might be holding her back, but does so with a gentle nudge and compassion for herself. She continues by putting just one step in front of the other, supporting herself through each step, not blind to the challenges, but not beating herself up either for the slow progress, which includes literally falling into the same old maladaptive patterns.
She recognizes that patterns are like habits, accumulations of ways of being and showing up in a world that used to work for us, and that most likely previously protected us from our pain. Ultimately, she finds a new path. This doesn’t mean her journey is over. In fact, in some ways, it has just begun.
Rumi, the Sufi poet, waxed poetic in his ‘The Guest House’ a long time ago about how we should treat every emotion as a visitor, without looking to get rid of any of them, but rather to understand their message and purpose.
Emotions are neither inherently good nor bad, and to think of them in such dichotomous terms is to do oneself a disservice. Emotions just are. In fact, every emotion tells us something about our inner experience that might be informing our outer experience.
What Rumi alluded to in his writing was also recently confirmed by research (https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/negative-emotions-key-well-being/) – which indicated that well-being is actually predicated on having a wider range of emotions, including the negative ones! Yes, that’s correct, the more you can feel, in all of feeling’s iterations, the better off you are.
While relaxation is a beneficial byproduct of mindfulness practice, its salutary effects are associated with the ability to help us expose ourselves to our emotions, to truly feel them, with compassion and as little judgment as possible. That’s why techniques like mindfulness have gained anecdotal significance, and their effectiveness is being confirmed through rigorous research.
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
Why it resonates:
We are socialized from a young age to think that being “good” means that we will be rewarded. What does “good” really mean though? The need to “be good” for the sake of approval, or the idea that one needs to repent to be redeemed, is immediately refuted here. How do we differentiate our own moral compass, and being a “good” person versus a “bad” person, from how other people interpret “good” and “bad”? When we try to base our actions on other people’s definitions, it can often lead to stifling expectations and guilt, which leads to deep suffering.
This poem, perhaps, then, speaks to a freedom that defies the need to be “good” as a way out of punishment or scorn by others. In this poem, Mary Oliver invites us to shed the shackles we so often place upon ourselves for the sake of pleasing others. She makes room for us to let go of that, to fully embrace our essence, without judging it, without labeling it good or bad or right or wrong.
There is a chance for catharsis here, as we let ourselves connect to the “soft animals of our body”. Beyond the layers of somatic tension, clenching, and a protective posturing, is softness. The soft part of ourselves doesn’t need to hide. We shouldn’t deny what we love or whom we love or how we love.
To me, the most poignant part of this poem is the invitation to shed those limiting layers, and to look at the bigger and grander picture; that is, all of us, every living creature, are immortally bound by our smallness and bigness all at once. Perhaps, this collective truth is the most healing of them all.
You may have noticed that two of the poems I shared are from Mary Oliver’s oeuvre. I tried to be more diverse in my choices, but Mary has become a role model and mentor (read-she doesn’t know who I am!) for me in my own journey as a poet. A few years ago I attended one of Mary Oliver’s rare readings and signings at the 92nd Street Y and scored this!
Sometimes the only way out of a trying situation or time in our life, is to journey inward, and a great place to start is by peering into a poet’s own journey. I hope that one, or more, of these poems bring you some of the peace that they have brought me.
Do you ever struggle to connect or communicate with your partner? I mean, who doesn’t?
But what a lot of people don’t know is that brain science shows that practicing mindfulness can help you in this area of life.
You see, mindfulness is much more than meditation. It’s more like a fundamental approach to life.
Mindfulness Improves Relationships
It starts with choosing to become more aware of how we show up in life and making conscious choices about what our presence looks and feels like in each moment.
All of this can inform the way we are as individuals in our relationships.
How is that?
Because mindfulness can help you cultivate healthier relationships through stress reduction, enhanced emotion-regulation abilities, and honed communication skills (Among other ways I am sure)!
1. Stress reduction
We’ve all experienced that moment when we are so stressed that the little things start to bother us. Stress increases our irritability levels, and then inconsequential things start to elicit reactivity.
I know you know what I’m talking about…
Mindfulness meditation can help reduce stress, and consequently, make each individual in a relationship less likely to argue about the little things that—oftentimes unnecessarily—blow up into big things.
Here’s one quick mindfulness exercise to help you in moments like that. Try this stress-busting breathing with your partner.
2. Enhanced Emotion Regulation
It’s becoming clearer to researchers that practicing mindfulness meditation can help us regulate our emotions, and lash out less at one another!
How does that work?
Studies show that practicing mindfulness meditation decreases the grey-matter volume of the amygdala—the fear center of the brain—and increases the grey-matter volume of our pre-frontal cortex.
That’s the part of the brain responsible for forethought, and what we call “higher order” functions.
But it doesn’t stop there. Mindfulness meditation is also associated with increased connection between the amygdala and pre-frontal cortex. This leads to greater integration of our emotions and intellect.
How This Can Help Your Relationship
But you might be wondering, how does this help us? Here’s an example.
When our partner says something we don’t like, it’s plausible that instead of thinking it through, we feel threatened. That activates the amygdala that readies us to attack back.
In truth, much of the time when our partner “acts out” it’s from a place of their own insecurity, and their own deep-rooted pain.
So instead of impulsively trying to attack back from one’s own “wounded place,” try responding with compassion for all of the pain both of you are experiencing by truly listening and then responding from a place that is less fear-based.
Slowly, but steadily, we can work together with our partner to decrease our amygdala volume!
3. Honed Communication Skills
Now, imagine that instead of immediately reacting based on fear, we take a moment to pause and reflect on why we feel threatened and then proceed to respond with more kindness.
We can then start to imagine that our significant other also has their own insecurities and hot-button issues. It’s hard, but imagine if each individual in a partnership practiced taking a few breaths before lashing out and attacking in return and instead responded with a calmer and less defensive demeanor.
We’d actually give one another the space to be heard, and the opportunity to communicate without our armor. WOW.
But how do we do this?
Each partner works on becoming more attuned to their own emotional landscape by starting to understand what triggers them most, and why.
For example, someone might immediately be on the attack if her significant other calls to say that they will be late to dinner. It’s important to understand why that call felt so threatening that it resulted in anger and lashing out.
Perhaps, and this is just an example, it taps into someone’s deeper fear of being abandoned by their partner. If possible, cultivate compassion for oneself for experiencing such deep pain, and even needing to be on the defensive.
This takes time, and it’s a process…one that is often worked upon in therapy.
A Mindful Listening Exercise
Then, maybe try THIS:
Mindful listening is a core element of healthy communication.
Really taking the time to listen to how the other feels, without immediately and sometimes impulsively reacting, creates the space for both parties to feel heard and then to show up in kind with a more mindful ear.
I recommend you set a timer for five minutes. Then one partner begins to speak about whatever they would like (this isn’t the time to attack the other, this is just about practicing uninterrupted listening), which can include how they feel about the relationship or about anything at all.
Non-verbal responses are permitted from the listening part, but no verbal response of any kind.
Then, when the timer goes off switch roles so that the speaker now becomes the listener. Each time you practice the exercise, switch off who starts being the initial listener and vice versa.
Here are five digestible bytes of well-regarded facts, opinions, and ideas about mindfulness meditation’s ability to lead to greater well-being!
1. Reframe the Experience of Pain:
Mindfulness meditation’s ability to provide pain relief can be done by cultivating the ability to parse between the objective sensory dimension of pain and the more subjective judgement that we attach to the pain and the way that we interpret it mentally.
A recent and groundbreaking review looked at 20 randomized control trials examining the effects of mindfulness meditation on the immune system. In reviewing the research, the authors found that mindfulness meditation “Reduced markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease.”
Mindfulness meditation also increased the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells involved in destroying infections. There was also increased telomerase activity which helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevent their deterioration (telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging).
Deregulation of the brain areas associated with emotional regulation and memory are key contributors to the symptoms associated with PTSD. In addition, an over-activity in the brain’s fear center, the amygdala, can be found in those suffering from Trauma-related disorders. Mindfulness reverses these patterns by increasing prefrontal and hippocampal activity, and toning down the amygdala.
In fact, brain scans confirm that mindfulness meditation is correlated with an increase in gray matter in the hippocampus, a decrease of gray matter in the amygdala, and neuroimaging studies have found that mindfulness meditation also helps to activate the Pre-frontal Cortex.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety. “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power,” she explains. “They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.” Mindfulness meditation cultivates the ability to be more discerning. Subsequently, we can use the opportunity to take action on the problem solving, and to see the worry without judgment and more compassion.
In every situation, we can choose to REACT from a place of fear and perhaps anger, or RESPOND more mindfully.
Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension. In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach to any given situation. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to STOP:
Take a breath.
Proceed (more mindfully).
Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
Finally, after a fulfilling but very long and arduous day of work, and perhaps for some, a foray into getting the kids fed and bathed and to bed, you finally have time for yourself, to unwind, and then eventually, grab some slumber. Sounds dreamy – pun intended. Then imagine the bliss of whatever rest you were able to grab being pulled out from under you by the shrieking of an alarm at the crack of dawn, catapulting your mind and body and brain back to the reality of a new day.
Yes, a new day is theoretically full of potential; a new opportunity to move toward personal and professional goals, a chance to show up for oneself and one’s loved ones with even more compassion and love. Yet, all the newness falls by the wayside as you press the snooze button again, and then are faced with this same jolting shriek-snooze cycle until you finally acquiesce to the call to action to get out of bed and begin the day’s journey.
Not hard to imagine, because this sounds like many of our realities. This daily routine often primes us for anxiety, right upon waking in the morning. Here are some reasons why this time of day is a particularly vulnerable one.
Causes of Early Morning Anxiety
1. Sometimes, the blatant contrast between the sleeping and waking states, often heralded in by the shrieking of an alarm, can be jarring to our senses. In fact, sometimes we are so blindsided by the transition, that we immediately go into fight or flight mode.
2. Fight or flight mode can actually be elicited by the mere fact that our blood sugar has dropped through the night and our brains need more fuel. The symptoms of a low blood sugar response can mimic the feeling of a panic attack, characterized by lightheadedness, dizziness, and increased heart rate.
3. Cognitively, the morning is often the time when we are more apt to engage in unhelpful thinking, given the level of anticipatory anxiety as we envision our to-do lists, and wonder how we are going to get through the day. These kinds of thoughts, though unhelpful, flood our minds in the morning, as we grasp toward trying to leverage control over the rest of the day.
One way to offset this potential morning anxiety is by establishing clear morning rituals to follow as we start to transition into the daylight hours. Aside from just symptom reduction, they also serve as a way to take the time to frame the day in a way that elicits increased overall wellness.
I, therefore, want to share my personal morning routine here with you as an example of how to leverage the rooster within and thrive throughout the day!
Five Ways to Leverage the Rooster Within
Upon waking and feeling any stress or discomfort, my immediate go-to is to find my breath. Engaging the breath provides me with an opportunity to help lower my heart rate that is sometimes elevated in the morning if I’m hyper-aroused out of slumber by a “rude” awakening.
My breath also reminds me that I am alive and that I am able to choose to focus on controlling the sensation of the inhale and the exhale. I like to imagine my breath feeding and rejuvenating my cells with each inhale. It is a great way for me to then literally gain a sense of control to get motivated to start moving in the morning.
Stretching is a great way to relieve the tension or stiffness that’s often entrenched in our body in the morning.
I want to make particular note of how much relief can be felt in stretching the psoas muscles. According to Dr. Christian Northrup, a leading authority in the field of women’s health and wellness, the psoas muscles (pronounced SO-as) may be the most important group of muscles in our body.
They are the only muscles that connect the spine to the legs, attaching from the 12th thoracic vertebra to the 5th lumbar vertebra through the pelvis and down to the femurs. Needless to say, the psoas muscles, therefore, play a crucial role in one’s core structural wellness, especially the psoas major, the biggest muscle of the group.
The absolutely mind-blowing understanding regarding the psoas muscles though, is that they have been actually touted as instrumental to one’s mental well-being as well!
According to Liz Koch, who wrote, The Psoas Book, anatomically speaking, the psoas muscles flank the diaphragm and the many connections between the psoas muscles and the diaphragm literally link these muscles to our breath, which is sensitive to fear. When we are in a state of fear, the breath is shallow and constricted, and the diaphragm isn’t being used to take deeper, calming breaths. The psoas feels this, and holds the fear.
This means that if we are in a constant fight or flight mode, due to chronic stress, then our psoas muscles are also chronically stressed and constricted. This would also mean that an over-constricted psoas, caused by poor posture for example, could actually elicit fear. So, after hours and hours of sitting in a position that constricts our psoas muscles, it’s no wonder we have a visceral feeling of tension that seems to envelop our minds, bodies, and brains.
Many suggest that having The Attitude of Gratitude is the key to a better life. And the research concurs: cultivating gratitude has been linked to better health, sounder sleep, and both decreased anxiety and depression.
In fact, gratitude has become a self-help buzzword. Turns out though that the benefits of saying “thank you” aren’t just grand delusions or a bunch of fluff. According to Robert Emmons, a renowned gratitude expert, gratitude has two parts. He says that first, “it’s an affirmation of goodness. We affirm that there are good things in the world, gifts and benefits we’ve received.” Then, “we recognize that the sources of this goodness are outside of ourselves.”
This definition allows gratitude to become a way for us to appreciate what we have, instead of always reaching for something new in the hopes that it will make us happier. We can definitely feel satisfied EVEN IF our every physical and material need is not met. It also allows us to trust in something greater than us, which can allow us to let go of needing to always control every little detail of our lives, which can be anxiety provoking.
At the very least, I like to just simply say “thank you” to whatever out there is greater than I am, for this gift of a new day.
DRINK ESPRESSO – WITH A DASH OF TURMERIC
As you might know if you follow my social media posts and photos, I love my morning espresso routine.
Espresso itself has some touted benefits, but what I really like is the routine. In fact, for the last year or so, I have incorporated espresso into my morning mindfulness meditation practice by really becoming present to every aspect of the process, from the way I fill the water in the machine to the sound the machine makes as the stream of brown sultry liquid emanating from portafilter flows into the shot glass, as the rich crema forms on top, to the aroma, to the first sip.
Aside from this, espresso is rich in antioxidants and boosts the body’s immunity. Yes, there is caffeine, and too much caffeine can mimic the feeling of anxiety, but that is why moderation is important. Just one or two shots of espresso invigorate me to the core, energizing me, and even elicit a sense of cognitive acumen and focus without adding to any morning anxiety. In fact, the ritual relieves me of anxiety, through the mindfulness practice and the promise of the experience each morning (see gratitude!)
I talk often about taking pause. Taking just ONE extra moment in the morning to STOP can make a difference in how we live our lives each day.
When you wake up in the morning, before you jump into your to-do list, remember to STOP (Stop. Take a breath. Observe. Proceed). This routine gears us up for the day and our lives in general.
There are going to be many moments throughout the day that call upon us to choose how to show up for ourselves and others, and practicing taking this pause can help us with making more conscious choices.
This is true regardless of where or with whom that moment occurs—at home with our children, alone in our cars, at work among colleagues, and so on. In every situation, we can choose to React or Respond. Reacting is a reflexive, and sometimes impulsive, way to behave in a situation. It’s not adaptive and often leads to increased stress and tension.
In contrast, responding is a more mindful approach and can include active listening and a gentler tone of speech. But in order to respond in lieu of reacting, we need to first STOP. Just ONE extra moment to take a step back, regroup, and consider a healthier response can make a huge difference.
Let’s START each day with thriving by calling upon these techniques and our unique morning rituals to look forward to, in order to best leverage our inner roosters and greet every new day with joy and gratitude.