Taming the Monkey Mind—How Meditation Affects Your Health and Wellbeing
By Dr. Kelly Brogan
I have a monkey mind. As a mother, wife, physician, writer, educator, and to-do-list-completer, I recommend that anyone enter my mental space with caution. Even if I played none of these roles, and was charged with sitting under a palm tree and relaxing, that chattering racket of a mind would follow me there.
The universality of this condition, however, is what makes the practice of meditation so vital. You may, like me, roll an internal eye when you hear the word meditation. The implied holier-than-thou practice seems, at times, to have been co-opted by a cult of hippiedom rather than a behavior ingrained in all religions, performance, and waking relaxation.
Perhaps you will be persuaded, as I was, by some of the compelling literature that suggests the simple act of breathing, and attending to that breath, may be panacea enough to replace your current anxiety prescription.
The Science of Meditation
Since we have come to appreciate the power of genetic expression as more than simply the 20,000 genes you’re born with, we can now harness tools that optimize the “good” and suppress the “bad.”
It turns out that our in-born DNA interfaces with an “exposome” or elements in our environment, and our conscious behavior, dictating exactly how the book of you will actually be written. With one fell swoop, things like spices, exercise, and relaxation can accomplish what pharmaceuticals could only fantasize about.
Some diligent researchers out of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine1 in Massachusetts have begun to illuminate the mechanisms of meditation’s effects, specifically the relaxation response which can be achieved through various forms of meditation, repetitive prayer, yoga, tai chi, breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, biofeedback, guided imagery, and Qi Gong.
According to Dr. Benson, the relaxation response is, “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress (e.g., decreases in heart rate, blood pressure, rate of breathing, and muscle tension)” and is characterized by:
- Metabolism decreases
- Heart beats slow and muscles relax
- Breathing slows
- Blood pressure decreases
- Levels of nitric oxide increase
Meditation Alters Your Genetic Expression
Forty years of research support these claims. Only recently have the tools to assess gene-based changes been available. Far from summoning their inner monks, subjects in the Institute’s studies simply pop in some ear buds and listen to a 20-minute guided meditation, passively. The Benson-Henry Institute has sought to quantify the benefits of the relaxation response by assessing gene expression before, after 20 minutes, after eight weeks of practice, and after long-term meditation routines.
In a series of papers, they walk us through the anti-inflammatory effects of this intervention. Genetic study2 of eight-week and long-term meditators demonstrated evidence of changes to gene expression – specifically antioxidant production, telomerase activity, and oxidative stress – as a result of the relaxation response.
They theorize that NF-kappa B gene sets may be the messenger between psychological and physical stress wherein the body translates worry into inflammation. It appears that the relationship between gene expression optimization and relaxation response is dose-related, so that increasing amounts confer increasing benefit. Even after one session, changes were noted, characterized by:3
“Upregulating ATP synthase —with its central role in mitochondrial energy mechanics, oxidative phosphorylation and cell aging — RR may act to buffer against cellular overactivation with overexpenditure of mitochondrial energy that results in excess reactive oxygen species production. We thus postulate that upregulation of the ATP synthase pathway may play an important role in translating the beneficial effects of the RR.”
These changes represent an orchestra of base and high notes that synergize into a body-balancing harmony. The experience of the relaxation response also appears to change brain plasticity or cellular connections in areas of the brain associated with stress response.
These changes occur based on internal recalibration of the nervous system – with no manipulation of circumstantial conditions, meaning stressors remain the same. According to neuroscientist, Dr. Lazar,4 long-term meditation practice appears to be associated with preferential cortical thickening:
“…brain regions associated with attention, interoception and sensory processing were thicker in meditation participants than matched controls, including the prefrontal cortex and right anterior insula” and that these findings were further validated by an eight-week intervention trial.5
Clinically, mindfulness-based meditation practice has been demonstrated in randomized trials6 to improve depressive symptoms in fibromyalgia and to have lasting anti-anxiety effects after only eight weeks of group practice.7
So, What Is Meditation and How Do I Do It?
Having been trained in a very dichotomous New York-based paradigm wherein patients are either medicated or they are put on the couch indefinitely in service of psychoanalysis, the notion of returning agency to the patient to heal themselves is very appealing to me. Meditation can take many forms. It can mean stopping for a momentary monitored inhale and exhale; it can mean approaching conflict, tension, and stress with a renewed mindset; and it can even mean using biofeedback technology to recalibrate your nervous system.
The Heartmath Institute has played a vital role, for 20 years, in providing patients tools for the implementation of mind-body resonance. Their research uses heart rate variability, or the beat-to-beat changes that influence heart rhythms, to assess the coherence between the brain and the heart. I have written about the relationship between the brain and the gut, extensively, but here is another union worth considering.
As it turns out, summoning up a feeling of gratitude while breathing in a paced manner (typically six counts in and six counts out), can flip heart rate variability into the most optimal patterns associated with calm relaxation and peak mental performance. They have validated the effects on ADHD, hypertension, and anxiety including double blind, placebo-controlled, randomized trials.8
Developing ‘Witness Consciousness’ Could Change Your Life
Biofeedback devices such as the emWave29 can help personalize your interventions and improve progress toward toning that parasympathetic nervous system. For treatment of significant pathology, I recommend these more formalized interventions including computer-based coherence training. However, liberating oneself from the day-to-day perceptions of negativity, overwhelm, and loss may be far less complicated.
Perhaps, my favorite text on the matter of how to free ourselves from the effects of stress is by Michael Singer, called The Untethered Soul.10 He makes the bold assertion that happiness and freedom are the result of cultivating “witness consciousness,” a state of willfully observing one’s own mind, emotions, and behaviors, rather than feeling that you are these things.
He deftly argues that focus and awareness is what makes disturbances real – a hammer falls on your toe and your awareness moves there, then you hear a bang, and your awareness moves there. He implores the reader to experience pain as energy passing through before the eye of consciousness, and tasks us with the imperative to relax and release, stay centered, don’t get pulled in. Let the parade of thoughts and emotions pass by without running along with it to see where it’s going. You remain a quiet observer of your neurotic mind and eventually, the chatter starts to go quiet.
This is a means of defining our comfort zones more broadly, appreciating the limitations of our preferences, and the impossibility of matching up our external world with our arbitrary internal definitions of what should be. I particularly love his analogy of sitting by a river, noting a swirl in the water. You could try to frantically smooth out the surface of the water, continuously and senselessly, or you could reach in to pluck the rock out, only to notice that it is your other hand holding it there. We create our own distress, in many ways, and then we try to use our brains and emotions to resolve that stress. It doesn’t work.
Here’s What to Do When You Feel Stress
- Notice and acknowledge your discomfort.
- Relax and release it no matter how urgent it feels. Let the energy pass through you before you attempt to fix anything.
- Imagine sitting back up on a high seat, in the back of your head watching your thoughts, emotions, and behavior with a detached compassion.
- Then ground yourself. Connect to the present moment – feel the earth under your feet, smell the air, imagine roots growing into the earth from your spine.
Do this in a spirit of non-judgment because this isn’t an exercise done for mastery; it’s a decision that you make every time you feel disturbed inside. Michael Singer’s prescriptions can be found in a previous Huffington Post article he wrote.11
Integrating these philosophies, practices, or movement-based routines into your life may do more than support longevity and optimal health. It may reverse chronic disease, eliminate the need for medications, and most importantly confer a greater sense of life satisfaction, happiness, and freedom to be here, in the present, where the wonder of this never-before-existent moment is unfolding before you.
About the Author
Dr. Kelly Brogan is boarded in Psychiatry/Psychosomatic Medicine/Reproductive Psychiatry and Integrative Holistic Medicine, and practices Functional Medicine, a root-cause approach to illness as a manifestation of multiple-interrelated systems. After studying Cognitive Neuroscience at M.I.T., and receiving her M.D. from Cornell University, she completed her residency and fellowship at Bellevue/NYU.
She is one of the only physicians with perinatal psychiatric training who takes a holistic evidence-based approach in the care of patients with a focus on environmental medicine and nutrition. She is also a mom of two, and an active supporter of women’s birth experience, rights to birth empowerment, and limiting of unnecessary interventions which is a natural extension of her experience analyzing safety data and true informed consent around medical practice. She is the Medical Director for Fearless Parent, and an advisory board member for GreenMedInfo.com and Pathways to Family Wellness. She practices in NYC and is on faculty at NYU/Bellevue.