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
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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
- “The Last Best Cure”: An Exploration of One Woman’s Quest For Healing # I – Beginnings
- The Past WAS Prologue: The Last Best Cure II: An Autoimmune Patient Searches For Health
- Alps to Climb: Lab Tests and Clinic Workup Suggest Big Trials Ahead – the Last Best Cure Pt. III
- “I Think I Have A Meditation Disability” : The Last Best Cure #IV
- Telomeres, Wandering Minds, and Creating Cellular Health: the Last Best Cure V
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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