Posts Tagged ‘Mindful meditation’

Mindfully Combating Those SAD “Winter Blues”: Seasonal Affective Disorder

Tomorrow’s predicted temperature is 44°F. Personally, I find that temperature to be less than ideal. I will handle it though, because on Thursday the temperature is expected to bounce back into the 60s, which I find much more desirable.

This fall has blessed the Philadelphia area with what seems to be warmer than average temperatures. I have not hesitated to take advantage of it by walking to my destinations whenever possible and taking part in outdoor activities. I’m doing my best to be mindful of the warm weather now because, as my mother always says, I’d rather be warm than cold, but also because I am secretly dreading the annual case of the Winter Blues. It comes when the weather stays consistent at freezing temperatures and makes mindfulness a bit more difficult, as I am forced to wear a puffy winter coat and suffocating scarf while people in other parts of the world get to wear shorts and lay on the beach if they so please.

The Winter Blues is a commonly used expression for feeling down when the weather becomes cold enough to keep people feeling cooped up in their homes and distracted from mindfulness. It is also used casually as an alternate term for Subsyndromal Seasonal Affective Disorder, a milder form of Seasonal Affective Disorder (otherwise known as SAD). Symptoms include prolonged feelings of lethargy; intense fatigue; negative thoughts such as guilt; abnormal sleeping patterns; a craving and indulge in carbohydrates and sweets; and difficulty concentrating, remembering, and socializing. SAD affects a few million of American adults, and happens to be more susceptible in northern regions, particularly in women ages 18-30.

Subsyndromal SAD is a result of a chemical imbalance caused by lack of sunlight. Sunlight is difficult to catch between December and March. In the Northeast region of the United States, there are less than four hours of sunlight available those months outside of the typical nine to five workday – that is 1/6 of the day, which is not a long time.

There are natural treatments for people with Subsyndromal SAD. For those with the opportunity to spend a part of that 1/6 of the day outdoors, walking for about 30 minutes in sunlight is a great way to boost one’s mood, and get vitamin D. If walking is not possible, sitting near a window where sun shines through can also do just fine. Additionally, eating a balanced diet can contribute to an improved mood. While carbs and sweets can serve as comfort food, it is best not to binge on either of the two. Instead, be mindful of what is being put into your body, and try reaching for fruits, vegetables, or protein first. (Tips on combining mindful practices with both walking and eating can be found earlier in my blog!)

Another natural treatment with additional benefits is socialization. Socialization gives one the chance to create a sense of belonging in the world; by establishing connections with others that are satisfactory to you, the individual involved, a comforting feeling of belonging and purpose is developed. During the cold winter months, getting bundled up to trek in the cold can be an unpleasant hassle. However, it is important to make the effort with the goal of achieving happiness in oneself. Make simple plans with friends or family to go shopping, see a movie, get coffee, or wander around a museum – something that gets you into a different environment with a person you care about to spend a couple of mindful hours together. A great way to socialize with familiar faces and strangers is to volunteer through community service. With the holiday season quickly approaching, there is an abundance of opportunity to do good for others and oneself at the same time!

If natural treatments are not enough to combat the effects of SAD, that is okay! Another popular treatment for SAD is lamp or light box therapy. Bright light boxes or lamps can be purchased without a prescription for less than 50 dollars. Studies have shown that spending about 30 minutes under a box/lamp over the course of eight weeks bettered the moods of those diagnosed with SAD. Psychology Today contributor Christopher Bergland takes using a light lamp to the next level by using his time under it to practice mindful meditation (a basic breathing meditation can be found earlier in my blog, too.)

The above treatment suggestions have been proven to lessen the effects of SAD, but are by no means substitutes for true medical assistance. SAD can sometimes be a facet of a more serious depression or bipolar disorder. If SAD symptoms persist despite these natural treatments and throughout the year, contact your doctor for professional medical assistance.

Although winter has its beautiful moments – think snow days and the holiday season – it also has its debilitating cold that can potentially strip us of our mindfulness. The temperature will inevitably drop in the coming weeks, but that does not mean our mindfulness has to go with it. Remember to take care of yourself physically with exercise and balanced eating, and mentally with various mindful meditation practices. Both will lighten your mood and remind you to be mindful of the present moment as well as help to see the positive side of winter (because somewhere in the cold, it’s there).

Benefits for the Brain

After you meditate, your state of mindfulness will result in a feeling of calm and relaxation of thoughts.

Why?

According to neuroscience Richie Davidson, the brain is always capable of changing throughout its lifetime. In scientific studies such as this one, it has been proven that mindful meditation “is associated with changes in gray matter concentration in brain regions involved in learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.” In other words, mindful meditation affects the parts of our brains that translate to wellness.

Jennifer Wolkin, Ph D., for mindful.org explains a few examples of where the brain changes after mindful meditation and those parts’ responsibilities related to wellness.

Below, I further break down the certain parts of the brain affected based on Wolkin’s article:

  • Anterior Cingulate Cortex: Self-regulatory process. Deals with handling conflicts
  • Prefrontal Cortex: Executive functioning. Decisions in planning, problem solving, and emotion regulation
  • Hippocampus: Part of limbic system involved in learning and memory. Susceptible to stress related disorders like depression
  • Amygdala: Base of anxiousness and fear
  • Connections between Amygdala and pre-frontal cortex: Can potentially strengthen awareness
  • Default Mode Network (DMN): The wandering of thoughts in our minds

Mindful meditation can improve the functionings of these parts of the brain. Entering a state of mindfulness can calm our emotions in stressful times to make rational decisions, calm anxious feelings, and ease wild thoughts. More importantly, with the brain’s constant ability to change, it is possible to make habits of mindfulness. Mindful habits can result in a more stable state of each mentioned part of the brain.

Some affects will be felt immediately after entering a state of mindfulness, and with frequent practice, may be present often. Science has proven the positive affects of mindfulness on the brain; why not give mindful meditation a shot?

Free Guided Meditations

I just discovered that UCLA has its own Mindful Awareness Research Center (MARC).

From scanning over the site, I gather that it is run by UCLA Health. MARC assists in research on mindfulness, is cited in notable publications (The New York TimesTime Magazine, and The Los Angeles Times, to name a few), and lists countless professional resources for extensive information on mindful topics.

Additionally, MARC offers a range of Mindful Awareness Practices classes, workshops, retreats, mindful opportunities for youth and Spanish-speakers, and even online meditation classes.

As if all of this and more wasn’t impressive enough, MARC offers over 60 minutes worth of free guided meditations.

The guided meditations that are offered range from as short as 3 minutes to as long as 19 minutes. Some meditations are basic and focus simply on breathing and awareness of the senses. Other meditations dive a little deeper to focus the senses more intensely in preparation for a state of mindfulness involving sleep, loving relationships, and working out difficulties.

Led by a female’s steady voice occasionally accompanied by an instrument played in the background to set a tranquil mood, the instructions are given in a soothing manner. They are announced slowly so the listener can participate in the meditation at a comfortable pace.

Aside from giving the basic instructions, the speaker will remind the listener that it is okay for the mind to occasionally wander. She acknowledges that when using, for example, the sense of hearing, one may get distracted and pair a sound with a scenario in their own head. If a truck honks its horn on the street outside the window, it could be caused by a pedestrian crossing when she does not have the right of way, a car cutting the truck driver off, or a signal to get somebody’s attention to prevent a disaster from occurring. The mind’s imagination can easily be distracted by such a sound, and that is absolutely acceptable. The important thing is for the listener to return focus on breathing, and the use of the senses in the present moment.

What I found surprising about the guided meditations was the idea of breathing at one’s own pace. In my experiences meditating, I always found breathing deeply to a count of five to seven seconds was more helpful than following my breath at a natural pace. When I first began practicing basic meditation, especially, I would sometimes feel anxious or uneasy. Such feelings were accompanied by fast, unsteady breathing that was hard to transform into a more relaxed pattern. I find that beginning a meditation exercise with a structured breath makes for an easier transition into a state of mindfulness.

If right now you have a spare five minutes, below is a basic, guided breathing meditation from MARC. If you have a little extra time, you can download the full selection of guided meditations on iTunes for free here.

I will be adding the MARC website to my blogroll in the very near future.

Happy meditating!

To Clarify: The Meanings of “Mindful Meditation” and “Mindfulness”

I would like to take a quick moment to talk about some words that are important to this blog.

Meditation is a practice; it is the foundation on which one begins his or her path to a calm state. The act of meditating, in most cases, uses breath as an anchor to bring one’s focus on the present moment. Paying attention to the senses (seeing, smelling, tasting, hearing, and feeling) one at a time while breathing deeply focuses concentration to where one currently is in his or her surroundings. When one is finished meditation, the hope is that he or she has reached a state of mindfulness.

Mindfulness is the state one experiences after completing a meditation practice. Mindfulness is being aware of oneself in a physical surrounding, and being more conscious of that surrounding. It is realizing oneself existing purely in the present moment.

To meditate one must be mindful. One must be mindful (fully aware) of breath and the senses to be immersed in the practice of meditation. To be purely focused on the movement of air in and out of one’s body, and to be purely focused on noticing what each sense can interpret is the act of mindful meditation.

So to participate in meditation, it is a given that one must be mindful. When I say meditation in my writing, it is implied that one needs to be mindful while practicing meditation. Meditation is not always easy, especially when the mind feels super cluttered and busy with different thoughts flying around aimlessly. Specifying meditation as “mindful meditation” provides that nice little reminder of why one is meditating in the first place: to reach the state of mindfulness, where thoughts are settled down in the mind so focus can be dedicated on the present moment.

In short, [mindful] meditation is the the cause, and the state of mindfulness is the effect. Mindful meditation is the action, and the state of mindfulness is the result.

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