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This is the sixth in a blog series as we follow Donna Jackson Nakazawa in “The Last Best Cure” as she incorporates mind/body practices into her life in order to experience more joy and better health after having  a severe autoimmune disorder. 

Playing Catch with Thoughts in Mid-air

“By putting your feelings into words, it’s as if you’re hitting the brakes on your emotional responses.” Mathew Lieberman, UCLA – Leader in social cognitive neurosciences

rebirth

Donna’s attempting to turn a pretty bleak existence into a more joyful one – and possibly improve her health at the same time.

Donna Jackson Nakazawa is working hard on getting her emotions and mental outlook under control, but she does not have a mood disorder; she has an autoimmune disorder.  She’s spending a year incorporating meditation and mindfulness techniques into her life because the research suggests to her that doing so will help her quality of life – and very likely her health.

Now she’s getting down to the nitty-gritty – adding some practices to her daily life. She has been asked to

  • label her negative emotions when they come up.
  • assess the speed of her thoughts by using a mental speedometer.
  • when her subconscious starts beating her up, quite it down by  telling it she’s forgiven.
  • focus on her breath when she’s upset.

Labeling Emotions

Functional MRI studies have found two things happen when you label or name a negative emotion that you’re having: activity in your amygdala (fear center of the brain) goes down while activity in your prefrontal cortex (center of organized thought) goes up.

Studies suggest that connections between the prefrontal cortex (PFC) – the seat of executive functioning, decision-making and planning – and other parts of the brain may be critical in illnesses like fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Japanese researchers believe the PFC is increasing activity in parts of the brain that produce fatigue signals in ME/CFS.

Another theory proposes that the prefrontal cortex may be getting so hard by signals from lower parts of the brain that it’s buckling under the strain.  With the PFC down, areas of the brain like the amygdala that are primarily involved in fear reactions can light up, pumping out stress hormones and proinflammatory cytokines.

dog-frisbee

Donna’s goal – catching those stress hormone and pro-inflammatory cytokine producing thoughts before they send her system into a tailspin

The research indicates that  labeling fear when fear is present, anger when anger is present, or despair when despair is present gives the PFC – which should be downplaying these negative emotions – a boost. It’s as if you’re consciously doing what the PFC should be doing subconsciously but can’t.

Donna’s been in the grip of these emotions a lot. In Landmark Education’s parlance they’ve been “running her” – putting her in states of fear and anger she’s had little control over.  Since each time this happens a proinflammatory immune response – the kind that she of all people with her autoimmune condition doesn’t want – flares up, it would benefit her not just emotionally but physiologically to stop it.

Stopping “It” From Taking Over

She’s also to put a stop to the negative self-assessments that “it” – that lacerating, self-judging part of our minds – keeps running by telling herself that she’s “forgiven”. Then, to take “it” further out of the picture, she’s to focus on her breath. Hopefully, this practice, run time and time again, will leave her in a calmer and healthier state.

A recent study on mindfulness-based stress reduction in fibromyalgia explained the general process like this: You learn “to pause and choose your response to difficulty rather than reacting without thinking.”  

Life Intrudes

stress

Some things go wrong and the “screaming meemies” are back…

She quickly gets a great test of her practice. While headed out to do an interview she goes to pick up her car at the mechanic’s shop. First she gets set off by the mess the mechanics have left behind in it.  Then, both the radio and the navigation system – the later  almost a necessity if you’re driving through Washington D. C. – are dead.  Then she smacks her foot hard against a door.

The catastrophic thoughts start pounding out – she’ll never find her location, she’ll be late if she does, she’s such a klutz . They all culminate in the thought “everything (my body, my work, my life) always breaks!”.  Within seconds she’s drenched in anger and despair.

Then she steps into a puddle of gas at the gas station. Now she’s going to show up at her interview late and stinking of gasoline.

Applying the Correction

But then she remembers. First, apply the correction – “Forgiven” she tells herself four times. Then check her mental speedometer – yep,  mind racing at about 220 miles an hour. Then label her thought processes – experiencing “self-loathing, worrying, thinking”. Finally, she brings herself back to the present by focusing on the breath. The screaming meemies feelings subside, she calms down – and the options start to open.

changing-reality

The skies aren’t entirely blue but the dark clouds are gone and Donna is calmer and things are looking up after her practice

She realizes it’s not as bad as “it” was making it out to be. She can call and get directions. If the navigation doesn’t reboot she can bring the car back and get that fixed. The pain in her foot is beginning to ease. The gasoline smell will probably be gone.

It’s a  minor miracle. In a matter of  minutes she’s re-established her home base. She realizes that she is not her thoughts. She doesn’t have to get absorbed in her anger. Her emotions are like internal weather – they come and go; as one front comes in another front goes out. By using practices to identify them as they really are –  temporary passengers – she can gain some distance from them. Then she can choose her response. She can insert new conversations. The mind, as Toni Bernhard says, is malleable.

Is It True?

Toni Bernhard’s explication of Byron’s Katie’s “Is it true” practice came to mind when reading this chapter. In this practice. you ask yourself

  • If a thought is true.
  • Are you absolutely sure that it’s true?
  • How do you  feel when you think that thought? (getting the cost)
  • Who would you be without the thought?

The Turnaround – after this process you turn the thought around.

Note that the catastrophic thoughts –  none  of them – were true.  She  could call and  get directions. The gasoline smell would  dissipate. The car can be fixed later. The pain in  her foot was subsiding…Everything is definitely not broken! The thoughts, though, were causing her large amounts of  mental and undoubtedly physical stress. Who would she have been without them – a calm, collected person taking the breakdowns in stride as she resolved them moved on to her interview; i.e. – the person she became after doing her practices.

Big Sighs

Donna is also taking three big sighs periodically to blow out  the tension held in her body. I’ve found that whenever something goes wrong I tend to hold my breath and my body becomes rigid. I’ve found that periodically following  my breath allows me to breathe again  (always a good idea :)) and helps me release the muscle tension that has built up.These are little practices that temporarily allow me to breathe more deeply and feel more relaxed. Over time, though, they can help to reset one’s system. Even if your functionality isn’t greatly improved, there’s the possibility you can feel better – maybe even a lot better  – than you are now, and enjoy better health.

I love breathing more deeply…

The Last Best Cure Blog  Series

 

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Donna Jackson Nakazawa is a science journalist, author, and public speaker.  She tweets often about breaking medical news. Follow her tweets and check out her Facebook site and website and blog. 

She is the author of the The Last Best  Cure, The Autoimmune Epidemic, and Does Anybody Else Look Like Me? A Parent’s Guide to Raising Multiracial Children as well as a contributor to the Andrew Weil Integrative Medicine Library book, Integrative Gastroenterology, (Oxford University Press, April 2010).Among others she is the recipient of the 2010 National Health Information Award, the 2012 international AESKU Award from the International Congress on Autoimmunity for her lifetime contribution to autoimmune disease research with the book The Autoimmune Epidemic.

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