Top of Mind

Things that spark our minds, touch our hearts, make us smile—or roll our eyes. Keep up with the latest in mindfulness.

Photograph by Peekphotography.nyc

Lending an ear

We all yearn to know that our voice is listened to and valued. But the many barriers to real communication—from inequality and prejudice to the cost of talk therapy—leave many feeling disconnected and unheard.

To build empathic connections with people we wouldn’t meet otherwise, and to shift the impersonal vibe of city streets, psychotherapist Traci Ruble founded Sidewalk Talk. The nonprofit has chapters in 17 US cities and worldwide. Its volunteers (many of them mental health professionals) take two chairs to the sidewalk and simply offer to listen—to anyone who wants to talk, about anything. Ruble finds that deep listening is transformative: “When we feel a sense of belonging,” she says, “our entire nervous system just goes ‘ahhhhh.’”

Mindful with pets

After struggling to manage her bipolar disorder for years, UC Davis researcher Elisabeth Paige finally committed to meditation, something she’d tried before but couldn’t stick with. This time she did it differently: Instead of closing herself in a room and focusing on her breathing, she allowed her two dogs to join her. Petting the dogs became her anchor to the present, and their response—deep relaxation—helped her to drop into meditation. She’s since written a book on how to “petitate,” and offers guided practices on her website, Mindfulpetitations.org. “When we petitate, we get to improve our health, help our pets relax and form a deeper bond with us, and we no longer have to choose between paying attention to our pets and meditating.”

Discrimination makes us sick

How does coping with racial, gender, and other forms of prejudice affect health? The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR published a report series on this question in autumn 2017. Researchers asked 3,453 adults about discrimination in their daily lives, from employment inequity to police harassment. They found that for some groups, mental and physical health are severely impacted by social and institutional discrimination.

EXTRA­-ORDINARY ACTS OF KINDNESS

  • A Twitter troll was amazed when Sarah Silverman didn’t lash back but sympathized with his pain and helped him find medical care.
  • A Brazilian company, learning half of their janitors couldn’t read or write, organized literacy classes for the staff during their lunch breaks.
  • This year Canada and the UK are banning plastic microbeads, which pollute the oceans, from toiletry products. The US banned them in 2017. Eco-win!

WHAT’S NEW IN MINDFUL APPS

Your phone can be mindful, too. Here are a few of the latest, coolest apps designed to make life better.

AccessNow

Maayan Ziv, a Canadian photographer with muscular dystrophy, created AccessNow, a crowdsourcing app that shares accessibility information—from wheelchair-friendly parking and washrooms to Braille signage—for storefronts and businesses worldwide. Ziv says she’s a regular person “who’s interested in going out and doing things in life. And so is every other person who has a disability.”

Expectful

Expectant and new moms, typically putting self-care last, face high levels of stress. Expectful provides 10- to 20-minute meditation practices for each stage of pregnancy and early motherhood.

Bravo Tango Brain Training

A former Air Force psychologist collaborated with National Geographic on the Bravo Tango Brain Training app to help veterans relieve stress. The voice-controlled app responds to the user, guiding them through exercises for muscle relaxation, focusing, breathing, grounding, visualization, and interpersonal connection. It makes self-care tools more accessible and available, whenever vets need them.

WeCroak

If you often forget how short life is, WeCroak is the app for you. Five times a day, it pings you with a pithy quote reminding you you’re going to die.

Buy our phone… but put it down

LG Electronics USA, the American subsidiary of the global electronics giant that manufactures televisions, smartphones, tablets, and more, has launched a social responsibility initiative with mindfulness at its core. Its Experience Happiness platform aims to increase “happiness skills” among young people by 2021. Toward this end, LG has partnered with the Greater Good Science Center, whose research into the “science of happiness” has led to the understanding of six learnable skills to living a fulfilling life, and Inner Explorer, a nonprofit organization that creates and delivers mindfulness practices to classrooms for grades pre K-12.

The initiative “will allow us to help further the science of happiness and work with our grant partners to deliver proven skills for sustainable happiness to America’s young people,” said subsidiary president and CEO William Cho.

Mental health care falling short

The Mental Health Parity and Addiction Equity Act was enacted to ensure that mental health treatment in the US would be just as available as any other treatment. Now, a study by healthcare consultant Milliman Inc reports that health insurers are still not meeting this standard, a dozen years after the law’s passage.

Helping teens find purpose

A sense of purpose is tied to our sense of identity, which develops in youth. Yet only 1 in 5 high schoolers, and 1 in 3 college students, report feeling they live purposeful lives. The Purpose Challenge, launched this past winter by the Greater Good Science Center, aims to change that. The online toolkit helps highschool seniors explore what a meaningful life can look like.

Research Roundup

Building the case for mindful treatments

How well do mindful therapies stack up against other remedies for mental health issues? For certain ailments, the evidence appears promising. In a new assessment in Clinical Psychology Review, psychologist Simon Goldberg and colleagues at the University of Wisconsin–Madison pooled results from 142 randomized clinical trials involving more than 12,000 people. The meta-analysis covered psychiatric disorders ranging from social phobia to schizophrenia. It showed that at a broad-brush level, when all the data are combined, mindfulness-based interventions in those trials appear to be as helpful as long-standing therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants. However, when it comes to specific disorders, the proof of mindfulness’s effectiveness is still lacking in most cases; that’s generally because not enough rigorous studies have been done yet.

There are key exceptions, though: For depression, pain, smoking cessation, and addictions, consistent evidence indicates that mindfulness interventions are as good at easing symptoms as frontline treatments, the investigators found. Mindfulness isn’t a cure for all that ails us, Goldberg says, but “we should be taking it seriously as an intervention.”

Wait without worry

Law school grads who practice mindfulness, or who are naturally mindful, coped better while awaiting bar exam results, a University of California study found. With a more non-judgmental focus on the present, they braced for the worst later in the waiting period. Bracing early may heighten distress.

How marriages can thrive post-baby

First-time parenthood can throw couples for a loop. But tracking 218 newlyweds, Dutch psychologists identified relationship elements that predict a happier marital adjustment. The keys are having a partner who’s responsive to your needs, who you feel gratitude for, and whom you trust.

A better way to right a wrong?

In an Australian study, 192 students who’d recently offended or hurt someone were asked to write about their transgressions, either taking a self-compassionate view or describing values that they violated and why those were important. Engaging in compassion brought less self-blame and more self-forgiveness—yet didn’t reduce feelings of defensiveness or encourage attempts at reconciliation. But the more painful work of examining and reaffirming values fostered even greater self-forgiveness, along with decreased defensiveness and more making of amends.

Train your mind, grow your brain

A nine-month study reveals new details of how daily mental exercises can alter your brain. 160 adults each completed three 90-day programs with weekly instruction and daily exercises (including meditative practices). One program concentrated on honing mindful awareness; two others emphasized social skills (either compassion and handling difficult emotions, or imagining others’ perspectives). Testing showed participants improved in the targeted skills, and MRI scans revealed corresponding growth in specific brain areas. Greater mindful awareness enlarged brain regions that underlie attention, while heightened empathy and perspective-taking fostered growth in areas involved in social interactions. The findings are among the first evidence that neural regions supporting social intelligence can be specifically nurtured.

Coping in grim places

The harsh stresses of jail time harm cognitive functioning and impulse control in teenagers, says a four-month study of 197 adolescent inmates at New York’s Rikers Island. But the study also hints that a program blending mindful breathing practice with cognitive behavioral therapy may buffer these declines. Alongside its stress-reducing potential, mindfulness may help youths attend to and accept their emotions without acting on them.

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