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Ronald Alexander, Ph.D.

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Meditation In Action: Learning To Take A Sacred Pause

Posted: 04/26/2012 12:29 pm

It seems that every time we hear about the tragic death of a celebrity it is due to a lethal combination of recreational drugs, prescription medications and alcohol. And in the midst of the controversy is the issue of irresponsible doctors prescribing antidepressant medication like candy. In similar fashion, are we not prematurely drugging a nation of young children with drugs such as Ritalin and Adderall that have the potential of adversely affecting their developing brains? Instead, if we could teach alternative healthy lifestyles such as yoga and mindfulness in our schools, we could avert generations to come whose brain chemistry, gene structures and immune systems may be compromised.

We all know that we live in a very stressful world and have been reminded over and over that too much tension can lead to chronic psychosomatic disorders, autoimmune disorders, heart disease, adrenal burnout, cancer, migraines, ulcerative colitis as well as eating disorders, drug and alcohol abuse. For many the easy way to deal with their excessive stress level is turn to anti-anxiety drugs such as Prozac and Ativan instead of first taking a run in the neighborhood or a weekly yoga or mindfulness class.

Of course, there are certain brain chemistry disorders that cannot be completely regulated with these types of activities, and many of my patients thrive once they do get on the right medication. My colleague Dr. Mark Epstein wrote a very informative article on this topic titled "Awakening Through Prozac." I also address this issue in my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind.

As a young man, when I first started university I was initially overwhelmed with campus life and began getting anxiety and panic attacks for the first time in my life. I didn't know exactly what they were, but I had the good sense to go to the Student Mental Health Center for help. Thankfully, I saw a young psychologist who had just returned from studying in India. He asked me, "I can give you medication for your anxiety attacks or I can teach you meditation. What would you like to do?" Well, I knew about medication, but the meditation aspect intrigued me, so I started to learn it. Shortly afterward my attacks stopped, and I was delighted to discover an incredibly valuable life-long tool to help me through life's challenges.

Now, a certain level of stress can be beneficial, but the key is to know when you have reached that magical threshold, which is different for each individual. People who are able to let things roll off their back can generally handle more stress than those who are sensitive. One indication that you are maxed out is when your body starts to break down and you develop chronic illnesses such as gastrointestinal problems, insomnia, chronic worry or immune-related disorders. Working primarily in the entertainment industry, I know that many of my patients thrive on a certain amount of stress. It gives them drive, vitality, purpose and stimulates their creative juices. The challenge is to help them find a healthy balance without always or immediately resorting to medication. With their hectic lives, they don't have the time to meditate for hours sitting in a lotus position, so I work with them on techniques that I call "Meditation in Action."

Meditation in Action is at its core learning to take a mindful or sacred pause and self regulate the "fight or flight" aspect of your nervous system, which can affect positive changes in the neuronal pathways to the amygdala, the walnut-sized area in the center of the brain responsible for regulating emotions. When the amygdala is relaxed, the parasympathetic nervous system engages to counteract the anxiety response. Instead, it activates what we call the relaxation or healing response, when the heart rate lowers, breathing deepens and slows, and the body stops releasing cortisol and adrenaline into the bloodstream; these stress hormones provide us with quick energy in times of danger but have damaging effects on the body in the long term if they're too prevalent. In mindfulness you learn to slow down and to take your body's pulse. Even though mindfulness originated in an Eastern culture, it is a standalone practice that is not associated with any religion or spirituality.

So the next time you're under a deadline, your partner comes home in an ugly mood, your supervisor wants you to work overtime once again or you just get cut off in traffic, try these four simple steps from my book, Wise Mind, Open Mind to help you respond with more composure and calmness.

Step One: When you are first triggered, stop yourself from responding with any unwholesome emotional reaction, such as anger.

Step Two: Next, focus on your breath. Feel your body expand as you breathe in and contract as you exhale.

Step Three: While focusing on your breath, silently repeat to yourself words such as calming, centering, relaxing, harmony, peacefulness, and/or surrender for a couple of minutes or until you feel a shift in your emotions. Of course, if you are all alone you can say these words out loud.

Step Four: Within this short period of time you are now able to respond to the situation with more equanimity and from a place of mindful reflection, or what I call mindstrength. This is the ability to very quickly and easily shift out of a reactive mode and become fully present in the moment, experiencing the full force of your emotions even as you recognize that they are temporary and will soon dissipate.

With practice, mindstrength is an effective tool to help one develop a deeply-grounded core rudder so that no matter what size of wave they encounter in their life they can recover quickly and proceed with more focus. The business yogi of the 21st century has the capacity and ability to pair together intention and attention to make life's entire daily challenges a true meditation in action.

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