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Danielle Richardson

It’s Time to Take the Mind-Body Connection Seriously

No longer just a fringe New Age theory, science supports the positive benefits of mind-body therapies to minimize suffering and enhance wellbeing.

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THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION, once fringe New Age theory, has emerged as a bonafide medical phenomenon with evidence-based science to support it. Understanding the interconnectedness between our mental and physical states is especially useful for stress modulation.

Healthy stress, or eustress, keeps us productive, alert and upbeat. Unfortunately, modern life exposes us to ever more stimuli, increasing our points of contact with physical, mental and emotional stressors, leading to an overabundance of negative stress, or distress.

We know stress has a physiological effect on biological functions, but science is revealing the mind’s role in how we experience it. Neuroscientists led by Dr. Peter L. Strick, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Brain Institute uncovered neurological data to support the theory of Mind-Body Connection. In the study, published in the journal Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences (Pnas), Strick, et. al. discovered several key neural networks that connect the cerebral cortex — particularly areas responsible for motor function — to the adrenal medulla, which is the area of the brain that produces our stress (or “fight or flight”) hormones. This could explain how mental states like stress, anxiety, and depression affect our body via neurotransmitters and offers a clue as to why bodily movement and exercise are a useful counterbalance to stress.

Scientists at The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, an NIH affiliate, are studying mind-body therapies including yoga, meditation, hypnosis, tai chi and electromyogram biofeedback. With science exploring the power of mind-body therapies to minimize suffering and enhance well-being, perhaps it’s time for you to strengthen your Mind-Body Connection. Here are a few ways to get started:

Move Your Body

Western science is discovering that moving the body can ease stress and psychosomatic illnesses. Mind-body movement includes practices like yoga and tai chi, but also walking or dancing. Find fun and easy ways to prioritize movement as a part of your healthy living routine.

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Viva Las Vagus!

The Vagus nerve is our 10th cranial nerve and the primary controller of the parasympathetic nervous system — responsible for our rest and digest responses. It’s the longest cranial nerve and modulates the psychophysiological connection between the brain, gut and internal organs. Yogis know that slow, deep, mindful breathing stimulates a parasympathetic response via the vagus nerve causing increased relaxation and decreased stress. This was confirmed by a study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine which showed deep abdominal breathing reduced sympathetic activity while enhancing vagal activity. Consider a daily diaphragmatic breathing practice.

Remember Non-Physical Health

Health has mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects. Pay attention to the physical manifestation of mental experiences and emotions, such as “butterflies in the stomach” or “feeling hot headed.” Oftentimes, physical sensations are accompanied by mental and emotional fluctuations. Enlist a therapist, clergy person, meditation teacher or other trusted counselor to help you in this area.

MBSR Technique

If you want to go deeper, find a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in your area. Created in the 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is an eight-week group course supported by peer reviewed, repeatable scientific evidence. Participants commit to 30-45 minutes of daily mindfulness meditation, mindful movement, and a weekly group class led by an MBSR certified instructor. The program has been shown to help participants better manage stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain while improving general wellbeing.

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Dr. Danielle Richardson practices in Houston with Texas State Optical and runs a holistic wellness company, Fierce Clarity. She is a registered yoga teacher and hosts wellness retreats, yoga classes, and pop-up events for busy, professional women to help manage stress and avoid burnout. Follow her on Instagram at @fierceclarity

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Danielle Richardson

Feel Like Your Wellness Routine Could Be Missing Something? It’s Probably Sleep

We spend nearly a third of our life sleeping, which makes getting quality sleep as essential as a healthy diet and regular exercise.

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WHEN YOU THINK OF your health and wellness, how often do you think of sleep? Chances are not often — but you should. Sleep is the newest frontier in wellness as public health consciousness continues to increase and we move to a more holistic idea of health. We spend nearly 1/3 of our life sleeping which makes getting quality sleep as essential as a healthy diet and regular exercise.

The National Sleep Foundation defines quality sleep as occurring when you’re asleep within 30 minutes of laying down, wake no more than once, and sleep for at least 85 percent of the night. Unfortunately, quality sleep is an uncommon occurrence as the CDC reports a third of American adults experience poor or inadequate sleep on a regular basis. An estimated 50 to 70 million Americans suffer from sleep-related problems or disorders, such as sleep apnea, insomnia, narcolepsy, or restless leg syndrome. As a country, we need to get some rest!

Sleep deprivation increases the risk for high blood pressure, heart disease, and triples the risk for type 2 diabetes according to Johns Hopkins sleep researcher Patrick Finan, PhD. Those not getting adequate sleep suffer from a weakened immune system, irregular metabolism, and obesity secondary to increased levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin. Not limited to just the physical body, sleep deprivation can also manifest as cognitive impairment and/or mental health changes including depression, irritability, anxiety, forgetfulness, and brain fog. Poor quality sleep is far less recuperative, which causes us to not feel rested when do we wake up.

Sleep depends on a number of factors, our body’s internal regulating system is chief among them. Our Circadian Rhythm functions as the body’s biological clock and regulates the experience of alertness vs. sleepiness. This rhythm is sensitive to fluctuations in hormone levels, particularly cortisol and melatonin. Cortisol peaks in the morning allowing us to be alert and focused throughout the day. The secretion of melatonin — which helps us sleep — is highest at night.

These days, our minds are moving a mile a minute and we’re constantly on light-producing digital devices even though increased high-energy blue light exposure from devices decreases melatonin production and causes insomnia or sleeplessness. The disrupting culprits aren’t limited to devices though; increased stress, irregular work schedules, frequent jet lag, and sleep disorders can also disrupt our cycles.

The CDC recommends 7-9 hours of quality sleep for adults and more for teens and children. Here are some easy ways you can get better sleep tonight:

Build Consistency. It’s important to wake and head to bed around the same time each day — even on the weekends.

Use Sleep Monitoring Technology. Smartphones and wearable tech devices can help monitor the duration and quality of your sleep through downloadable applications and Bluetooth technology.

Sleep Habits. Limit screen time and diminish light sources in the bedroom. Additionally, use the automatic setting on your phone to warm the screen at night.

Bonus — Zen Out! Use essential oils or pillow sprays in scents like lavender as aromatherapy to help you sleep. Also consider meditation, light music, or other soothing sounds as a relaxing way to send yourself to bed.

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Danielle Richardson

Mindful Meditation for You and Your Patients

Studies show it can cure many chronic pain and anxiety conditions … even treat glaucoma!

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MINDFULNESS AND MEDITATION ARE two words whose meanings depend on who you ask. So what is mindfulness meditation? Is it sitting still on a yoga mat? Is it repeating mantras in the Himalayan Mountains? Is it something totally different?

The answer is (drum roll please) … Yes! It is all those things and more. It is the practice of intentional, nonjudgmental awareness of moment-to-moment experiences, as defined by Dr. Dan Siegel, founding co-director of UCLA’s Mindful Awareness Research Center.

While this type of practice seems like a way of improving your mental health, the benefits extend to your physical self as well. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) technique was created in the 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since then, the Center for Mindfulness at the UMass Medical School has found success curing many chronic pain and anxiety conditions with mindfulness meditation.

More recently, a study published in the Journal of Glaucoma revealed this same MBSR meditation technique as an effective treatment for primary open angle glaucoma (POAG) when used over a 21-day period. The randomized study included 90 POAG patients and found the patients who meditated not only had lower intraocular pressure, but also significantly lower levels of the stress hormone Cortisol when compared to the control group. It’s time to consider beginning a mindfulness meditation practice of your own and perhaps making the recommendation to your patients.

I wholeheartedly believe in the power of meditation but don’t take my word for it, give it a try for yourself via one of the methods below.

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Video-Based Guided Meditation

A quick search for the keywords ‘guided meditation’ will yield a treasure trove of resources and online videos. If you’re feeling overwhelmed with all the results, I recommend starting with Dr. Dan Siegel’s guided mindfulness meditation.

App-Based Guided Meditation

Mobile applications like Headspace, Calm, and Omvana put the power of meditation in your pocket. You’re able to turn idle time into a chance to reconnect with yourself. Oprah and Deepak Chopra also have a “21-Day Meditation Experience” app focused on helping beginners develop a foundation.

IRL (In Real Life) Options

Many local yoga studios or healing centers offer meditation classes. Although these classes may lean towards the spiritual elements of meditation, they often provide an opportunity to receive in-person guided meditation in a space that’s welcoming and inviting. Additionally, mindful awareness practices like yoga, tai chi, and qi gong are effective in helping you achieve many of the same awareness benefits with a bit more movement.

Whether you choose to attend a yoga class, download an app, or watch a YouTube video — building a regular meditation practice can help you become mindful, improve focus, reduce stress, and achieve greater well-being. Happy meditating!

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Danielle Richardson

Stop Trying to Be Perfect

It’s just making us sick.

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PERFECTIONISM IS THE SISTER of failure, and she keeps many of us stuck and unhappy. Perfectionism takes different forms but is generally defined as a personality trait marked by a person’s striving for perfection, creating unreasonably high standards, and engaging in harsh self-critical analysis. This will sound familiar if you’re an overachieving personality type; perfectionism runs deep in many of us.

Thomas Curran Ph.D., a personality psychologist, and physiologist Andrew Hill published a study showing how perfectionism has increased over time. Their study of over 40,000 American, Canadian, and British college students between 1989 and 2016 showed an increase in levels of perfectionism, affecting males and females equally. They correlate this increase with Western society’s “emphasized competitive individualism” that began en masse in the 1980s.

A 2017 World Health Organization report also showed a record number of young people are suffering from serious depression or anxiety disorders. Curran and Hill postulate this rise is not related to a coddled, emotionally weak generation, but “may stem from the excessive standards that they hold for themselves and the harsh self-punishment they routinely engage in.” In short — perfectionism is making us sick.

The links between modern society and perfectionism are inextricable. Living in the digital age, where everyone and everything has become a “brand,” there is an immense amount of pressure to maintain a perfect appearance. As doctors, we are always striving to appear competent, knowledgeable, and like we have it all together. To overcome perfectionism, we have to be willing to release our rigid ideas of how things are “supposed” to be. We can still strive for excellence while extending ourselves grace to not be perfect. Below are two techniques to help you get started.

Make Peace With Failure

Failure is not a dirty 7-letter word, but rather an opportunity to learn and grow. Failure as a learning exercise is being taken seriously at Columbia University’s Teachers College where a center dedicated to studying failure’s educational purpose, the Education for Persistence and Innovation Center, was recently created. Failure is also a fundamental cornerstone of science, for there are many failed attempts for every successful experiment. This should encourage you to know that it’s OK to fail. You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take, so don’t be discouraged — get out and shoot!

Try Self-Compassion

Kristin Neff, Ph.D., one of the world’s leading experts on self-compassion, defines it as being kind and understanding instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies and/or personal failings. As a yoga teacher, this is a quality I and my students work to cultivate. It may seem counterintuitive, but treating yourself as you would treat a friend in need is a simple way to exercise self-compassion.
You don’t have to be perfect. Embrace the ups-and-downs and be kind to yourself. Your journey will be far more enjoyable!

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