Posts Tagged ‘Breathing’

Achieving Mindfulness

April 3, 2013

Mindfulness has become a hot topic. There is a new monthly magazine, Mindful, www.mindful.org, the the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind features articles on mindfulness. Most approaches to mindfulness involve meditation. The healthymemory blog has many posts on meditation. The psychologist Richard Davidson has identified six dimensions of emotional style (See the healthymemory blog post, “The Six Dimensions of Emotional Style): resilience, outlook, self awareness, social intuition, sensitivity to context, and attention. He has techniques, which can be found in the healthymemory blog (use the blogs search box), for cultivating each of these dimensions.

Meditation techniques range from exercises designed to train concentrative focus, a narrowing of attention, to exercises designed to train open monitoring, a broad awareness of sensations and surroundings. Both skills are necessary. There are times when we need to focus on a particular problem or idea and there are types where we need to allow new thoughts into our consciousness without rejecting them out of hand as a result of selection biases. In the March/April edition of Scientific American Mind there is a piece on Capturing Attention on page 33. This is an exercise by Scott Rogers, the Director of Programs and Training, Mindfulness Research and Practice Initiative at the University of Miami, that incorporates both types of training into a single meditation session. Here is the technique:

“Sit in an upright, stable position, hands resting on your thighs or cradled together.

Lower or close your eyes, whichever is more comfortable.

Attend to your breath, following its movement throughout your body.

Notice the sensations around your belly as air flows into and out of your nose and mouth. You have been breathing all day—all of your life—and in this moment, you are simply noticing your breath.

Select one area of your body affected by your breathing and focus your attention there. Control your focus, not the breathing itself.

When you notice your mind wandering – and it will – bring your attention back to your breath.

After five to ten minutes, switch from focusing to monitoring. Think of your mind as a vast open sky and your thoughts, feelings and sensations as passing clouds.

Feel you whole body move with your breath. Be receptive to your sensations, noticing what arises in the moment. Be attentive to the changing quality of experience – sounds, aromas, the caress of a breeze…thoughts.

After about five more minutes, lift your gaze and open your eyes.

Improving Self Awareness

May 13, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Self-Awareness”, it would be good to do so before reading this post on improving self-awareness. Self-Awareness is another “Goldilocks” variable in that there can be too much or too little of it. People with high levels of Self-Awareness have greater activation of their insula, whereas people with low levels of Self-Awareness have low activation of their insula. However, more than the insula is involved. How outputs from the insula are interpreted are also critical. For this reason mindfulness meditation provides a good method of achieving an optimal level of self-awareness. The following advice is taken from Dr. Davidson’s book.1 This advice can also be found in the “Improving Resilience” post.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.

        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Davidson writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

Dr. Davidson also recommends what he calls the “body scan”.

        1. Sit upright on the floor or a chair maintaining a relaxed but upright posture so you do not become drowsy.

        2. Systematically move your attention to your toe, foot, ankle, leg, and knee and pay attention to the specific sensation of each such as tingling, or pressure, or temperature. Experience the sensations rather than thinking about the body parts. The goal is to cultivate awareness of your body in the context of nonjudgmental awareness.

        3. Should you get lost in a chain of thought or feeling, reengage with your breathing to settle your mind.

A 2008 study found that people who had practice mindfulness meditation every day for about eight years had larger insula that people of the same age and sex who did not meditate.2 This apparent paradox of a practice that increases the size of the insula but does not produce pathological levels of self-awareness is resolved when it is realized that these meditative practices also improve and modulate the messages from the insula.

1Davidson, R.J., & Begley, S. (2012). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

2Holzel, B.K., Ott, U. Gard, T. Hempel, H., Weygandt, M., Morgen, K., Vaitl, D. (2008). Investigation of Mindfulness Meditatin Practitioners with Voxel-Based Morphometry. Social Cognitive and Affeciive Neuroscience. 3, 55-61.

Improving Resilience

May 2, 2012

If you have not already read the Healthymemory Blog post “Resilience,” it is suggested that you do this now. Before it can be improved you must understand what resilience is and roughly where you stand on the resilience dimension. Resilience is one of Dr. Davidson’s Six Dimensions of Emotional Style1. Dr. Davidson stresses that you can adjust your emotional style and provides suggestions as to how you can do so.

If you are slow to recover from emotional setbacks, Dr. Davidson recommends mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness produces emotional balance and helps you recover, but not too quickly, from emotional setbacks. Mindfulness weakens the chain of associations that keep us obsessing about and wallowing in a setback. Mindfulness strengthens the connections between the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala promoting equanimity and braking the obsessive associations.

Mindfulness meditation begins with a focus on breathing. Dr Davidson suggestions the following way of beginning:

  1. Choose a time when you are awake and alert. Sit upright on a floor or chair, keep the spine straight and maintain a relaxed but erect posture so you do not get drowsy.
        1. Focus on your breathing and on the sensations it creates throughout your body. Notice how your abdomen moves as you inhale and exhale.

        2. Focus on the tip of your nose and that different sensations that arise with each breath.

        3. When unwanted thoughts or feelings arise, simply return your focus to your breathing.

Keep your eyes open or closed, whichever feels more comfortable. Try this for five to ten minutes twice a day, if possible. Increase the length of your practice sessions as you feel more comfortable.

Dr. Goldman writes that the best mindfulness instruction can be found at www.umassmed.edu/content.aspx?id=41252

He also recommends CDs by Jon Kabat-Zinn or Aharon Salzburg.

If mindfulness training does not work for you, Dr. Goldman suggests cognitive reappraisal therapy.

On the other hand, if you are too close to the fast to recover end of the resilience dimension try a type of meditation from Tibetan Buddhism called tonglen,which means “taking and receiving.” This meditation is designed to foster compassion and involves visualizing another person who might be suffering, taking in that suffering and transforming it into compassion. This is very effective at fostering empathy. Dr. Goldman recommends doing the following exercise for five to ten minutes, four or five times a week.

      1. Visualize as vividly as you can someone who is suffering. The closer this person is to you , the stronger and clearer the visualization will be. You can also visualize a generic sufferer, such as someone starving in Africa, or a cancer patient in a hospice.

      2. Imagine the suffering leaving this person as you inhale. Conjure an image of the suffering leaving this person’s body like fog dissipating as the sun burns it off.

      3. On each exhalation imagine that the suffering is turned into compassion. Direct this compassion towards this person. As you exhale imaging your breath flowing towards this person with a gift of empathy and love that will assuage the pain.

You can also arrange your environment to accommodate variations in resilience style. To speed up recovery from adversity leave the situation where the adversity occurred and go to a place les emotionally charged. To slow down your recovery, do the opposite.

1Davidson, R.J. & Begley, S. (2112). The Emotional Life of Your Brain. New York: Hudson Street Press.

Focusing on Your Breathing

November 20, 2011

A short article1 in Scientific American Mind reported a couple of studies that demonstrated the benefits of focusing on your breathing. One study reported in the May issue of the International Journal of Psychophysiology and conducted at the Toho University School of Medicine in Japan taught research participants to breathe deeply into their abdomen and to focus on their breathing. They did this for 20 minutes. They reported fewer negative feelings. More of the mood-boosting neurotransmitter serotonin was found in their blood. The prefrontal cortex, an area associated with attention and high-level cognitive processing, exhibited more oxygenated hemoglobin.

Another study reported in the April issue of Cognitive Therapy and Research conducted at Ruhr University in Germany examined the effect focusing on breathing had on depression symptoms. The research participants were asked to stay in mindful contact with their breathing and to try to maintain continual awareness without letting their minds wander. During 18 minute trials the researchers asked the participants whether they were successful in doing so. Those who were successful reported less negative thinking, less rumination and fewer other symptoms of depression.

You can do this. You can sit up comfortably and breathe naturally (or deeply, if you prefer). Focus your attention on your breath and feel it in detail, in your nasal cavity, in your chest, and in your abdomen. Don’t be critical if your mind wanders, just try to refocus. With practice, you should improve your ability to stay focused. Try to build up to 20 minutes. Once you become skillful, even a few minutes of this mindful breathing can help you become more calm and collected.

See the Healthymemory Blog Post “The Benefits of Meditation,” for more information. It does not appear that you need to be a Buddhist monk to benefit from meditation. It is thought that even very short periods of meditation can be beneficial.

1Rodriguex, T. (2011). Therapy in the Air. Scientific American Mind, November/December, p. 16.