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Lions Roar : January 2011
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2011 48 Acute illness, such as an upper respiratory infection or gastroin- testinal irritability, is often exacerbated or triggered by stress. We know that mindfulness and related interventions reduce stress reactivity and make one less prone to developing these acute ill- nesses and infections. there are many studies supporting this effect, including one that Jon was involved in that showed in- creased antibody levels after mindfulness practice. in terms of chronic illnesses—ranging from cancer to car- diovascular disease, diabetes, and autoimmune disease—all of them have an inflammatory component, and inflammation and stress are absolutely associated. We’re showing through stud- ies that mindfulness practices have an impact on inflammatory processes in the body. Conceivably, if you begin these practices earlier, you may be able to prevent some serious chronic illnesses associated with inflammation. in terms of early diagnosis, many people are not really in tune with their bodies, so they don’t notice when something’s wrong. their body might be alerting them to something that needs to be checked out, but they’re not really paying attention to their way of being and what’s happening in their body. With mindfulness, they might notice it sooner, when it could be diagnosed at an earlier stage. in terms of healthy lifestyle choices, we can think of Dan’s analogy of dropping the gun. the gun could be a cigarette, an- other piece of cake, or working to the point of fatigue. Mindful- ness can help you notice what the body needs and help you make good lifestyle choices. So in all of these ways, mindfulness can help to prevent illnesses down the road. DAniEL SiEGEL: in addition to what it can do for the body, the mindful way of being supports a healthy mind and more empathic relationships. those three—body, mind, and rela- tionship—are the three major dimensions of the human experi- ence that an integrated health care ought to be concerned with. Self-compassion and compassion for others are enhanced with a mindful way of being. these are very helpful for someone under- going treatment, which is a process involving relationships with family members, friends, and colleagues, as well as caregivers and health administrators. How can mindfulness help in the diagnosis and treatment phases of illness? SuSAn BAuER-Wu: in the early phase, after someone is di- agnosed with serious disease, there is an intense period of un- certainty. Of course, there is uncertainty throughout the whole trajectory from diagnosis through treatment and cure or pal- liative care, but at the beginning there are so many questions in people’s minds. it’s very common for the mind to jump to the worst-case scenario and spin a whole story of what’s going to happen. Mindfulness practice helps to ground people in what is true for them right now. it helps them break out of the story, to be more centered and less overwhelmed. it also increases their ability to communicate effectively with their caregivers, and helps the caregivers communicate better with them. During the treatment phase of cancer of radiation, chemo- therapy, or surgery, there is a whole host of physical symptoms ranging from pain to nausea to itching to diarrhea. Body–mind awareness practices help people ride the waves of these symp- toms, which are constantly in flux. JOn KABAt-Zinn: One of the reasons our health care system is breaking down is that we need more participation from the people who are suffering. Mindfulness can help you take a more active role in your health and healing. You are not a machine being taken to the shop for a repair or a tune up. it’s best if you can begin participating in your own health care as early as possible. Starting in childhood by learning mindfulness practices in school would put people on the road to a much more healthy relationship to their body and their emotions. that’s much healthier than the default mode where you just hope for the best and treat the body more or less as an automobile that you drive into the hospital for repairs when it breaks down. Your participation in the process is important for many rea- sons. in addition to awareness of your lifestyle and the state of your body and mind, as Susan and Dan were talking about, once you have been diagnosed it’s important to be able to negotiate with your doctor about treatment options. there are so many potential pathways you can go down, and you need to have as much agency as possible in that situation. for one thing, it brings a certain peace of mind when you’re an engaged participant as opposed to a passive recipient of treatment. this speaks to an entirely different way of practicing medicine that recruits the internal resources of the patient in the treatment process. that’s what MBSR is designed to do. there is now more than thirty-one years of evidence that the program can make a remarkable difference in people’s relationship to their illness and how it unfolds. if you go into radiation, chemotherapy, or surgery with greater awareness and mindfulness, that will make a huge dif- ference. Also, when you’re more accepting of what’s going on in the present moment, you bring less resistance and can be a full participant, not just a recipient of radiation and chemotherapy. Sometimes you even need less anesthetic if you’re being mindful. DAniEL SiEGEL: it’s very easy to be in denial about a change in your body, whether it’s a change in intestinal functioning, a lump in the breast, or irregularity in breathing, all of which might in- dicate the onset of disease. Many people avoid going to the doc- tor even for a regular check-up for fear of what they might find out. When we operate on auto-pilot, we tend to avoid things that might be distressing. ➢