New alternative program helps reduce stress
by Cheryl Ann Borne
The Courier News and The Home News Tribune, April 21, 2009, and on MyCentralJersey.com
“It’s not the events of our lives that stress us, but rather the interpretation of those events.”
New-age mumbo-jumbo? Hardly. That quote is from Epictetus in 50 A.D.
Through meditation, we learn mindfulness, which focuses on self-empowerment through increasing awareness of being in the present moment. This enables us to overcome matters that stress us.
Meditation, nearly as old as humanity, always has been part of Eastern religions. Now the West is rediscovering its own meditative past. I, for one, am living proof of that. And I’m not the only one, judging by others in my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, class at the Princeton Center for Yoga & Health, or PCYH, in the Skillman section of Montgomery.
Not so long ago, I was, so to speak, a hot mess. My husband and I lost our jobs. I was ill and received a serious prognosis. Both my daughter and my mother were battling disease. My mother-in-law died. My daughter, my mother and I each had hospitalizations and surgeries. There were financial problems, arguments and more. I was mired in past thinking (depression) or future thinking (anxiety).
I’m not someone who owns crystals, travels to an Ashram or even reads new-age magazines. But when therapy and antidepressants failed to help me deal with the overwhelming stress I’d experienced from those events, I tried out MBSR thanks to an unexpected gift.
And it proved to be a turning point in my life.
Meditation is practiced by more than 10 million Americans, many of them professionals who don’t practice under a bearded guru in the mountains.
As clinical studies have indicated that complementary therapies have a measurable influence on a wide range of health issues — chronic pain, migraine headaches, high blood pressure, tolerance of cancer therapies, sleep disorders, anxiety and depression, postoperative recovery — attitudes have changed.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn, professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, first introduced the benefits of MBSR 30 years ago, there has been an expansion of mindfulness-based therapy programs to include anxiety, depression, addiction, eating disorders, behavioral problems, pain and high blood pressure.
Scientists have proved meditation strengthens the immune system, increases heart health, reduces stress, slows biological aging, strengthens coping skills and even changes brain chemistry. And it can be instrumental in helping us create positive behavior changes.
While MBSR is offered at some 350 sites across the country, mostly hospitals, PCYH is the only Central Jersey yoga center to have it.
Pat Vroom, a licensed psychologist who previously established the mind-body program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, co-leads the eight-week course with PCYH founder and director Deborah Metzger, who studied with Kabat-Zinn.
“Zinn’s program is very powerful,” says Metzger, whose program includes weekly two-hour classes and one full-day retreat. “We don’t dilute the time-tested evidence-based results of the methods developed at UMass. The curriculum follows a rational and purposeful progression. There is a process that happens, and I see a real shift in students about halfway through the program.”
In January, when I walked into PCYH for the first time, I discovered an oasis of calm, healing and fun. Two months have passed since I took MBSR, and along my journey I’ve learned a way of being fully in my life, recognizing the richness and possibility within daily routines, times of difficulty and pain, and times of joy and ease.
This first became evident one day while I was in the basement folding laundry — ordinarily a chore I dread to the extreme. I’ve purchased new clothes so as to avoid laundering those in my hamper. But this time was different. I felt at peace as I folded clothes, and in that moment I knew everything was as it should be.
My mind was at ease and that usually chatty committee in my head was silent. I was in a place where I was beyond thoughts — where I could hear each breath, feel each heartbeat and where I became present to the awareness that someone was watching me.
As I turned and looked over my shoulder, I saw my three dogs from outside the window, their eyes fixed upon me. The expressions on their faces were priceless and immediately filled me with joy, so much so that I began to laugh out loud. This moment would have been missed had I not been present to it.
Right then and there I had an introspective insight into life: What is my life but a series of moments, strung together between birth and death? With this awareness my whole world changed. Now that I have found it, I carry this same joy and ease within me wherever I go.
I applied my newly acquired skill of being mindfully aware to manage a situation that in the past would have created significant distress.
HOW IT WORKS
MBSR does not advocate stopping or changing medication without advice and assistance from a doctor. Mindfulness is a tool that can work in concert with psychotherapy and psychopharmacology to increase well-being.
“Mindfulness provides us with a powerful ally to learn to observe our thoughts and our bodies,” Vroom says. “We can tune into ourselves and our own inner wisdom by becoming more in touch with ourselves and what is going on around us.”
Stress and anxiety, fear and depression, are caused by wanting things to be other than they are. Anxiety and fear lead to overthinking, brooding and living “in our head.” We start living in the future, with “what-if” statements filling our head, and so we start missing our lives. MBSR teaches us that this moment we are living in is the only moment we have.
We gain more options to respond rather than reacting on automatic pilot, caught in habits and emotions, and carried away by worries about a future we don’t have a clue about. We can trust ourselves rather than hope for the future. It is empowering when we realize we can trust ourselves rather than think the future is going to make a change.
“We have to stop the screaming of the mind so we can listen to our inner wisdom,” Vroom says. “Mindfulness shifts our mental gears into a nonjudgmental mode of being rather than doing or thinking. It allows us to identify when negative thoughts and emotions carry us away and take immediate action to reconnect with life.”
I’ve lost a lot of weight since taking the MBSR course. And the weight of the world has been lifted from my shoulders.
The Princeton Center for Yoga & Health’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program is under way. More information is available by calling 609-924-7294 or by visiting www.princetonyoga.com. The Center is at 50 Vreeland Drive, Suite 406, in the Montgomery Professional Center.