Mindfulness Meditation: Ancient practice addresses modern stresses

Published: Nov. 11, 2016 at 2:57 AM CST|Updated: Nov. 11, 2016 at 3:10 AM CST
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NEW ORLEANS, LA (WVUE) - For a lot of people, life zips by at Indy 500 speeds. But what is being called a revolution is helping people be more in the moment, and even professional athletes, schools and even the military are buying in.

With work, school and personal obligations, everyday experiences can become a blur. On Tulane University's campus in a naturally lit room, a group of students and staffers embraced tenets of the past.

"Think about where you'd like to place your hands so that it's easy to relax your arms. Let's take a downward gaze, or flutter, or the eyes closed, whatever feels most comfortable for you and we'll just begin by tuning into our breath," the group leader said.

Miles away in Metairie, wind chimes danced, exuding a melodious tune.

"Oh, I love these. These are so beautiful. We actually come out and talk to them every day, and they just thrive and they're happy," said Linda Hall as she walked past colorful flowers in her backyard.

She has something in common with the group at Tulane. They practice mindfulness meditation.

"Simply noticing in our body where you most easily feel the sensation of your breath and allowing your awareness to rest there. You're aware of what's happening within you, and around you with an open curiosity," said Dr. Jose Calderon, a board-certified psychiatrist and addiction specialist who is part of LSU Health New Orleans School of Medicine.

He said mindfulness is about being fully present for even routine rituals like eating, brushing your teeth and holding a steering wheel.

"I'm paying attention and noticing the physical sensations"

"Dr. Kabat-Zinn brought it to the University of Massachusetts and started working with colleagues doing a mindfulness based practice," said Dr. Arwen Podesta of New Orleans, who is also a board-certified psychiatrist who specializes in addiction, holistic and integrative medicine.

Mindfulness, though birthed from centuries-old Eastern religions, evolved for the modern western world.

"There's nothing about religion," Dr. Calderon said.

Federal researchers have taken notice. The National Institutes of Health after a review of empirical studies wrote: "We conclude that mindfulness brings about various positive psychological effects, including increased subjective well-being, reduced psychological symptoms and emotional reactivity and improved behavioral regulation.

"The heart rate starts beating faster, the blood pressure increases," he said.

"Mindfulness is a fantastic tool to help de-stress and regulate the mental and physical sensations that come with stress and all of the bad outcomes of stress," said Dr. Podesta.

"Being able to recognize the stress factors and to step back and say okay, what's going on in my body that I'm reacting to this stimuli like this?" Hall said.

Dr. Calderon has employed mindfulness techniques with 70 percent of his patients.

"And I begin to soften my abdomen to allow for deeper breathing," he said as he demonstrated some of the practice of mindfulness meditation.

"One of the simplest ones that I start with with patients is a body scan," said Dr. Podesta.

She, too, engaged in some of the techniques.

"Starting at their toes moving to how heels and their ankles feel, moving to their lower extremities and then going all the way up to the neck and shoulders…And by the end of 10 minutes, we find lower heart rates, lower stress in the shoulders and necks, decreased headaches," Dr. Podesta stated.

At Tulane, the group engaged in body scanning at one point, as well. Other studies point to benefits for people suffering from anxiety and depression.

"You can review bran scans on people before and after mindfulness techniques are employed, and you can see that it really just calms down the limbic [system], the emotional reactivity center because of using the breath, you're bringing more oxygen into the system, you're lowering your cortisol, your stress hormone, and you're making more serotonin, you're calming hormones, and it's very scientifically proved that it actually works," Podesta said.

And research shows it can be beneficial to substance abusers.

"Medicines are a great piece of the treatment, but learning to self-regulate those emotional outbursts and that impulsivity that really leads to relapse is such a useful thing, and mindfulness through breath work and body scans and just being aware of the moment can take away, or at least decrease that impulsivity enough so that someone can help prevent a relapse," said Podesta.

At after the meditation, students gave reviews.

"So how was that for you guys? It felt really nice. I thought about my dog, made me really happy. I miss my dog," said Reagan George, an undergraduate student.

Tulane's Mindfulness Collaborative has reached 1,000 students.

"We've had really good retention. People who join the mindful collaborative who go through our training tend to stay with us," said Lindsey Greeson, a certified health education specialist and director of The Well for Health Promotion at Tulane.

"I have young children. Mindfulness is an excellent tool to use with little ones who are just learning emotional regulation," said Shawna Foose, assistant. director of the Goldman Center for Student Accessibility at Tulane.

And about doubters?

"Yeah, give it a try, try it three times and then tell me if it's hype. You'll have lower anxiety, you'll cope with your stress better, you'll be happier," said Dr. Podesta.

While mindfulness meditation is said to improve a number of conditions, experts say it's not a replacement for your doctor.

"Not a substitute for seeing a doctor, but hopefully employable with a doctor's advice and guidance, as well," Podesta stated.

"Mindfulness leads to humbleness, to gratitude," said Hall.

But all agree practice is required to be more mindful in a hyper-paced world.

Dr. Calderon said mindfulness can be practices in any setting without anyone knowing.  He added as little as a few minutes can be devoted to the meditation because at its core, mindfulness is about letting go and being present in the moment.

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