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Healthy Balance

Pay Attention: The Medicine of Mindfulness

Each Monday this month, we’re looking at the UVA Cancer Center’s Integrative Medicine Program.

It starts like this.

You’re driving down the road. Another driver pulls out, cuts you off without even looking. Or the truck behind you tailgates too close.

Even before your brain registers what’s happening, your body reacts. The events trigger a stress response, a spike of hormones, a rush of adrenaline.

Mindful meditation can help reduce stress, promote healing for patients with cancer.Your heart rate increases.

Your chest tightens.

You feel angry, worried, tense; the fight-or-flight response built into your nervous system has been triggered. In a matter of seconds, you’re driving like an enraged maniac – or you panic and find yourself hitting the breaks too hard. Either way, you’re not thinking clearly and you’re putting yourself and the other people on the road at risk.

Now imagine that car that cuts you off is cancer. It doesn’t just pull out once – you’re faced with it interrupting your life, throwing you off course, possibly killing you – every day.

And now you know how stressful it can be to get a cancer diagnoses.

The Dangers of Stress on Cancer

Over time, stress harms your immune system.

“Chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system is toxic to the heart,” says John Schorling, MD, Director of the UVA Mindfulness Center. “Experiencing a rush of adrenaline like this over and over puts you at a much higher risk of heart attack and death.“

Which is exactly why the UVA Mindfulness Center offers programs to cancer patients at UVA – because the effects of stress on the body and its ability to heal cannot be ignored.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is all about paying attention to the present moment of our experience with nonjudgmental awareness.

Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), the meditation program taught at the UVA Mindfulness Center, specifically trains people to recognize the feeling of stress in their bodies, so that we can make conscious choices about responding to the world around us.

Jon Kabat-Zinn first taught MBSR in 1979 to patients with chronic pain at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Based on the Buddhist insight meditation tradition and incorporating aspects of Hatha yoga, the eight-week course has been used around the world to treat patients with all types of health conditions, including:

  • Anxiety and panic
  • Sleep disturbances
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic pain
  • Depression
  • Gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches

Whether dealing with symptoms of treatment like chemotherapy or from the disease itself, cancer patients face a range of emotional and physical conditions that mindfulness meditation can help them manage and endure.

Retrain Your Brain: How it Works

As Schorling explains, there’s three main ways we have experience:

  • Thoughts
  • Bodily sensations
  • Emotional states

“And if we start paying attention, then we notice the connections between these three things,” Schorling adds. This engages awareness “in the higher parts of the brain cortex. We notice the bodily sensations of increasing heart rate, tightness in the chest, anxiety and worry.  And then once we have that awareness, we can make choices about what to do.”

Research on mindfulness and meditation practice shows that this kind of practice literally – physically – retrains the brain. Dr. Schorling: “We’ve been actually able to show what happens in the brain with meditation and mindfulness through functional MRI scanning, like a recent study that shows one of the main places in the brain that’s involved in mediating the stress response – the amygdala  – a measurable reduction in its size over time, implying there’s less need for the amygdala to deal with stress.”

Retraining the brain means that mindfulness meditation practice over time helps the brain to avoid the stress-hormone reaction altogether.

For patients facing the stress of cancer or other serious health conditions, this can be a crucial and life-altering brain-change that affects the whole body.

Facing cancer with mindfulness, says Schorling, helps patients “recognize they have choices. The rage tends to dissipate, tends to change; they choose to feed it or not feed it.“ They can focus on caring for themselves.

Paying attention isn’t about ignoring the devastating affects of cancer or avoiding anything else that’s bad, annoying or even evil in the world. As Schorling says, “It’s not about saying things don’t matter.  But if we meet anger with anger and violence with violence, we’re more likely to perpetuate the cycle as opposed to stopping and thinking about how we might respond differently to achieve a positive outcome.”

Want to try? Listen to an online meditation session.

You can also “like” the UVA Mindfulness Center on Facebook.

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