A MINDFUL NATION

Congressman Tim Ryan’s book A MINDFUL NATION is a must read.  It’s what many of us have stressed for years, but now that our leaders are focused on mindfulness, I am excited that time has arrived for the masses to pay attention.  THE FOLLOWING IS AN EXCERPT FROM THE BOOK, which can be purchased on line and wherever books are sold.

“Mindfulness helped me become aware of how my body and mind reacted to the stress of daily life, to get in touch with how my built-in survival mechanism could go into high gear when it had no valid reason to. I could feel myself tense up if someone told me something I didn’t want to hear. I would lose focus during a conversation because I was fretting about something that happened hours before. I looked at my BlackBerry messages first thing in the morning and got thrown into a tailspin before I even got out of bed. This made me curious about what exactly is happening to the brain and nervous system when we are constantly taking in all of this negativity and whether mindfulness can help with it.”

“Another finding that demonstrates improved brain health is what is called the left shift. That is, mindfulness has been found to cause a shift toward the left frontal region of the brain, where more positive mental states are activated. So neuroscientific research supports the claim that mindfulness helps us approach situations with greater resilience and without negative emotions such as fear. This finding was observed in a study conducted by Jon Kabat-Zinn in collaboration with the neuroscientist Dr. Richard Davidson. The results, based on studying people trained in Jon’s program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), are described in a book called The Mindful Brain by Daniel J. Siegel: A “left-shift” has been noted, in which the left frontal activity of the brain is enhanced following MBSR training. This electrical change in brain function is thought to reflect the cultivation of an “approach state” in which people move toward, rather than away from, a challenging external situation or internal mental function such as a thought, feeling, or memory. Naturally, such a state can be seen as the neural basis for resilience.”

“When a stressful situation comes upon us—a personal conflict with a co-worker, our daughter wanting to stay out after midnight, a road-rager disrupting the conference call we’re conducting by Bluetooth while driving to work—the human mind and body handle it the same way it did 100,000 years ago. Two key parts of our brain are involved: the hippocampus, a small structure near the base of the brain with the size and shape of a small seahorse; and the amygdala, almond-shaped groups of nuclei in the midsection of the brain.”

“The perceptual information is arranged and passed to the hippocampus, which rapidly determines whether it’s real or not. If the hippocampus identifies the incoming information as threatening, it sends alarm bells to the amygdala and we go into red alert, sending out the hormones that create the superfocus in our body and mind that put our ancestors in a position to deal with a wild animal on the attack.”

“Dr. Davidson reminded me that the stress-generating process has served our species well for thousands of years. We are here today because of it. As amazing and necessary as this process is, though, it is not meant to happen 24 hours a day, day in and day out. It’s meant to happen only when our lives are at risk or a major situation is at hand. One of the challenges for those of us alive today is that our brain and body cannot easily distinguish a real physical threat from an emotional one like having a bad nightmare and waking up with a racing heart or recalling a traumatic event.”

“The events in the nightmare didn’t really happen; the traumatic event is not recurring. Responding to perceived threats takes a toll on our bodies. The same goes for an anticipated negative future situation. Our body goes through the full-scale stress reaction. It’s like bringing out all the fire engines and firefighters to a five-alarm fire that turns out to be a false alarm. If we live in a state of worry or regret, this process is going on inside of us all the time. Should we really wonder why we are tired so often and why we can’t seem to get our energy levels up? Why we drink too much or eat too much? All of the worry and negativity is setting our body off on a roller coaster of hormone release and decimating our nervous system. We get down, worn out, beat up. And when we get sick, Dr. Davidson says, all this stress makes it worse.”

“I can feel the stress and heartache emanating from these friends and neighbors. I see 55-year-old people who have worked hard their whole lives lose everything. Mothers weep as they tell me about not having health care for their children. This is real-world stress that doesn’t go away after a few minutes. It lasts for days, weeks, months, and years. Whether someone has long periods of stress because of difficult, real-life challenges like job loss or lack of health care, or whether the stress is from self-created stories filled with negative thoughts that never come to pass, it leads to chronic stimulation of our sympathetic nervous system. Apparently, sustained stress causes inflammation in various parts of our body. We are literally inflamed, with all the negative effects that implies. This then leads to heart disease . . . .”

“When psychologist Amishi Jha came to meet and talk with me in my congressional office in Washington, I began to learn more about these other dimensions of the power of mindfulness. I was reminded of the benefits that Bella seemed to be experiencing in her Tae Kwon Do class and that I thought would be helpful for our schoolchildren and our teachers—and for our military. When I first met her, Dr. Jha was at the University of Pennsylvania. Now she is spearheading the NIH-funded neuroimaging and health initiative, as Associate Professor within the department of psychology at the University of Miami. Her lab focuses on how attention and working memory can be enhanced. These are two important cognitive systems that interact with each other to allow for fluid behavior. Attention allows for selection.”The principle of neuroplasticity means that the brain can change and grow through our entire lifetime. This is one of the most encouraging discoveries in recent times, and it gives us all the more reason to want to practice mindfulness. “Neuroscientists discovered that everything they told us when I was a graduate student in biology about the nervous system was wrong,” Jon told me, “in the sense that in certain regions of the nervous system you can make new functional neurons until the day you die. Particularly in the hippocampus, which is related to memory and learning. It turns out it’s not all downhill from the time we’re two years old.” A smile came to my face as I realized that we have ongoing influence over how we are wired. The fact that our brain is always changing means we’re not “locked in” to having the stress superhighway built into our nervous system. We can keep that road there for when we need it. The cutting-edge research today shows us how mindfulness can help us reshape our brain and nervous system.”

“We mentioned how a lot of stress can hypercharge our amygdala, which in turn makes it thicker because of all the activity. Now studies by Dr. Sara Lazar, of Harvard University’s Massachusetts General Hospital, are suggesting that after an eight-week MBSR program at least one side of the amygdala gets thinner. By practicing mindfulness we can change the way our brain functions. Most important, we can change it in the direction of balance and in fact in the direction of kindness. . . . .”

PICK UP A COPY OF Ryan, Tim. A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit

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