In the last few weeks, I’ve been fascinated to read several interviews with medical writer Jo Marchant. For her new book, Cure: A Journey Into The Science of Mind Over Body, Marchant has mined the literature on how thoughts and perceptions affect our physiology, developing a nuanced appreciation of how the mind and body interact. Her findings:
“Our mental state can be crucial in determining our experience of symptoms such as pain, nausea, fatigue and depression…Feeling stressed or afraid can cause your heart to race and your bowels to empty, and trigger an immune response called inflammation. These processes aren’t usually under our conscious control—we can’t will changes to occur—but there are indirect methods we can use to influence them.”
While in no way suggesting that illnesses are “all in the mind,” Marchant’s analysis suggests that our mental and physical health is affected by the way we perceive and relate to it. Meditation, says Marchant, is one of those indirect, influencing, methods that can help, which is perhaps not surprising given that how we perceive and relate to our lives is precisely what’s trained in mindfulness practice.
The effect of mindfulness on inflammatory health was shown in a study by David Creswell that came out this month. This research showed changes in brain circuitry and reduced inflammation after three days of mindfulness training, while three days of relaxation did not have the same effect. Creswell explains the difference in impact between mindfulness meditation and relaxation:
“We show that mindfulness meditation impacts measurable brain circuits more so than helpful relaxation practices, and that these brain circuit changes help us understand how mindfulness meditation improves health. Mindfulness teaches participants how to be more open and attentive to their experiences, even difficult ones. By contrast, relaxation approaches are good in the moment for making the body feel relaxed, but… harder to translate when you’re dealing with difficult stressors in your life. This new work sheds light into what mindfulness training is doing to the brain to produce these inflammatory health benefits.”
How meditation helps me deal with the symptoms of depression and lingering triggers
A mindful way of perceiving and relating to difficult experiences has helped in my journey with depression. I came to meditation around 15 years ago, when stuck in a two-and-a half year depressive trough. I had thrown myself in desperation at various treatments, but mindfulness offered something different. The method itself meant practicing acceptance, just the opposite of what I was used to. This marked the beginning of a transformation—a recognition that the way I was approaching the “problem” of depression actually helped perpetuate it. Through meditation, I learned to see how my attitude and behaviour, characterized by self-critical striving and resistance, was a significant factor in how I felt. Mindfulness offered a gentler way, and I learned how to be kind to myself, even—especially—when feeling stressed.
What’s really changed is that life’s troubles no longer seem to propel me into a prolonged, self-perpetuating funk, one that continues to endure long after the events that triggered it.
I still sometimes experience the symptoms of what I used to call “depression,” albeit usually for shorter periods, after a difficult event. What’s really changed is that life’s troubles no longer seem to propel me into a prolonged, self-perpetuating funk, one that continues to endure long after the events that triggered it. Why is this so? Well, I think that the meaning I give to my condition matters. Once upon a time, I saw depression on one hand as something I couldn’t control, a clinical illness that left me feeling powerless. On the other, I also saw it as my fault, a self-stigmatising belief that filled me with shame, and a sense of failure that I couldn’t shake off. These perspectives, I suspect, made me feel even more depressed.
When I believed that symptoms like heart palpitations, muscle pain, and racing thoughts were fearful catastrophes, signs of the devil depression, I was easily overwhelmed by them, and prone to try to push them away, with a sense of impotent rage. However, as I learned to let go of the labels and judgements about depression, I started meeting the same kinds of symptoms as normal reactions to unpleasant events. I no longer added to their unpleasantness with the stressful belief that something terrible or unmanageable was happening to me, that I couldn’t cope, that it was all my own doing, or that I had to wrestle with it.
Viewing difficult thoughts, feelings, and urges as impermanent events in the mind and body, trusting that they too will fade, just like the events that triggered them, I find I can handle life’s challenges with more competence, trust, and confidence. I’m less likely to add a secondary suffering to the unavoidable stresses of living. Difficulties come, but they also go.
This is a radical shift. Gently practising steadfastness and self-compassion has not only made uncomfortable thoughts and feelings more workable, but allows them to pass more quickly, rather than reactively keeping them going. With this approach, I make better decisions when problems arise, and I’m more able to draw on my environment for support—rather than the old chaotic, lonely existence I used to lead, my outer life has come more to reflect the qualities of mind that I’ve gradually cultivated through mindfulness practice. With my mind, body and life no longer in such conflict, stress has reduced.
Practicing a shift in view, a change of heart, over and over again, seems to be a vital mechanism through which mindfulness training helps our sense of health. As Creswell’s study elegantly demonstrates, it also leads to measurable biological shifts.
For me, mindfulness has been the “master key” to understanding how the mind and body work, as well as a skillful method for managing them. It’s not magic, of course. Our physiological and psychological habits are strong, and we can’t just think our way out of them—believing this would be falling prey to the pseudo-science which has given mind-body medicine an undeservedly poor reputation. Our experience is conditioned not just by our mentality, not just by our biology, but also our relationships, external environment, society and culture, and we have limited control over all of these. But practicing a shift in view, a change of heart, over and over again, seems to be a vital mechanism through which mindfulness training helps our sense of health. As Creswell’s study elegantly demonstrates, it also leads to measurable biological shifts.
There’s a traditional mind training slogan which says: “Change your attitude, but remain natural.” I think this captures the paradox that mindfulness training invites. Without getting caught in trying to change the moment, we nevertheless change our relationship with the moment—the meaning we give to what’s happening, and our way of responding. This, it turns out, changes the moment too.