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Feeling Stressed? An Rx for Meditation

Posted on Jun 12, 2013

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My father was an extremely busy critical care physician in a small California town. Yet despite his schedule, every Thursday morning he made me join him in 20 to 30 minutes of meditation. As a hot-blooded teenager, sitting still for half an hour seemed unbearable. Now that I’m a doctor with two young kids and a mortgage, I can see why he needed those moments of tranquility. I’m convinced that the vast majority of problems I see in my patients are strongly connected to stress in some way.

In my mind, and probably in yours, the word meditation conjured images of levitating yogis, Tibetan monks, or those artsy folks from college we just couldn’t relate to. I never fully believed in it until I delved into the science in an effort to help myself and all the patients who walked into the clinic complaining about stress.

I found an increasing number of studies done with a functional MRI scanner (fMRI) that show meditation helps the part of your brain that allows you to plan, be creative and keep your emotions under control. I call it the Einstein part of our brain.

Think of your brain in three major categories:

  • Your neocortex or Einstein, includes the outer layer of your brain that helps you organize, execute, be rational, moral and fluent in language.
  • Your limbic system, or “mammalian brain,” stores memory and sociability, but when overstimulated can cause anger, irritability, anxiety, jealousy and hate.
  • Your reptilian complex, the most primitive part of the brain, helps you face physical danger and perform at a high level in competitive sports, but when activated too much can cause selfish, aggressive and violent behaviors.

How Meditation Helps Our Brains

Most of us want to keep our Einstein alive and active at work. But fMRI studies show that modern habits undermine Einstein. Multi-tasking and digital overstimulation activate the Einstein part of our brains, then tire it out. Einstein shuts down and the other more primitive parts of our brain take over.

All of a sudden manageable tasks become insurmountable obstacles. A few annoying words from a spouse, co-worker or cranky child set you off. Your heart may race or you may have trouble breathing, symptoms of anxiety that are rooted in your reptilian brain.

If you or a loved one feels like this on a regular basis, meditation can help you tame the reptile, control the mammal, and awaken your Einstein before you develop a more serious emotional or physical condition.

Studies with MRIs show that the Einstein part of the brain stays awake longer in people who meditate daily. This can help them be more creative and productive. It can also help them be a more patient and loving parent or spouse. You’ve probably heard that exercise offers these benefits to some degree. Meditation takes it to another level. That’s why many CEOs and professional athletes now meditate to help them achieve peak performance, aka “the zone.” Steve Jobs was an ardent meditator throughout his life.

Who Needs to Meditate?

Many of my male patients who need to meditate the most are the biggest skeptics. Perhaps they think meditation is not “manly” enough for them.  I guess that means they’re more “man” than athletes like Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kobe Bryant, Barry Zito and Derek Jeter, who does an hour of morning meditation on his days off. For all you SF Giants fans, check out Barry Zito joining a group meditation session at a San Francisco school.

Meditation can help kids. It allows them to regulate their moods and perform at a higher academic level.  It’s also a nice antidote to the digital overstimulation they are exposed to on a daily basis.

In fact, anyone who feels stressed can benefit from meditation, no matter what you do, or how old you are. People who meditate regularly can calm their mind almost instantly in highly stressful situations. By focusing on their anchor word or image, and breathing for a few seconds, they quickly bring their heart rate, breathing and nervous system back into balance.

If you don’t like the word meditation, call it “entering the zone” or whatever makes it more acceptable. You can do it in the privacy of your own home, inside your car, or in your cubicle at work–no one has to know.

How to Meditate

  • Find a quiet corner of your house or backyard and sit quietly in a comfortable position.
  • Turn off all digital devices.
  • Focus on an anchor word that has some meaning to you (“Peace,” “Calm,” “Breathe,” “Om,” etc.) and repeat it silently to yourself. Start with 5 minutes and then gradually work up from there. Longer sessions lead to greater benefits.
  • Breathe slowly through your nose, if possible. Inhale deeply. Then exhale slowly, taking two to four times longer to exhale.
  • Don’t judge yourself! This is the one time in your life you don’t need to be a perfectionist. Your mind will wander. Just calmly bring it back to your anchor word and breathe through it.

Meditation does not always need to be done in this manner. The practice of mindfulness means applying the meditative, focused state to everyday practices such as walking, eating and even showering. Yoga and tai-chi are great ways to incorporate movement and breathing into your meditative practice. I’m a huge fan of yoga because it helps you breathe through challenging postures and poses, which in turn teaches you to breathe through difficult moments in your life.

Need help meditating? You can take your smartphone — a usual source of stress — and turn it into your personal meditation coach. Below are some apps, classes and books to help:

  • Pranayama App lets you adjust your inhalation and exhalation and synchronizes it to calming sounds so you can close your eyes and breathe on cue. The app visual is quite cool. It shows a seated anatomic model of a yogi whose diaphragm goes up and down as he breathes. You can use a slider to show more of his body or more of his internal organs. My kids love this!
  • Stress Doctor App measures heart rate variability (HRV) and gives you reward points for taking optimal breaths. Some of my patients find this particularly motivating because it gives objective feedback.
  • Music: Certain songs and sounds can help put you in a deeper state of meditation. Just type “meditation” or “relaxation” into iTunes, Pandora or whatever music engine you like to use.
  • Classes: Mindfulness meditation classes offered by the Palo Alto Medical Foundation teach you effective ways to incorporate meditation into daily life. The mindfulness program was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., in the 1980s as therapy for physical and emotional disorders. The technique has been proven effective over three decades.
  • Books: You can pick up any book by Jon Kabat-Zinn to learn the art of mindfulness meditation. Herbert Benson, M.D., a Harvard physician, teaches the relaxation response based on years of scientific data for all of you skeptics who need more evidence.

Meditation creates a little bit of space in a world where we often feel suffocated and overwhelmed. All it takes is 10 or 15 minutes, a fraction of the time we spend browsing online, on Facebook or on Twitter. So set aside your ego, your negative stereotypes, or whatever obstacle has stopped you from meditating in the past. Give meditation a try. You’ve got nothing to lose and so much to gain!

This blog post is contributed by Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D., Palo Alto Medical Foundation Internal Medicine. Dr. Sinha works closely with the South Asian community to help reduce heart disease and diabetes risk, and provides corporate health lectures to promote wellness in the workplace. Dr. Sinha holds clinical faculty positions at UCLA; Stanford University School of Medicine; and the UCSF School of Medicine. He teaches Stanford and UCSF medical students.

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Ronesh (Ron) Sinha, M.D.