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The Red Stoplight is Your Friend

By October 7, 2015December 12th, 2015Blog

Breathe In, Breathe Out. Repeat. Deep breathing from your abdomen. Place your hand on your belly and feel it rise and fall.

Take whatever thoughts are stuck in your mind from yesterday, or any worries about what might happen tomorrow, and watch them fill a balloon. Now release the balloon, let it drift away. Don’t force it. It’ll float away on its own if you let it.

Breathe in, and breathe out. Focus on the rising and falling of your breath. As thoughts arise, gently bring your attention back to your breath.

I’ll see you in a minute.

How was that experience? Easy? Hard? Boring? If you’ve never done it before, one minute might have seemed like 5, or 10.

Being completely present in the moment, or mindfulness, is very much tied to mental health. The health benefits of mindfulness practice are increasingly well-studied not just in mental health, but physical health as well. In searching “mindfulness 2015” on PubMed, the US National Library of Medicine website, 607 citations popped up.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Buddhist Monk, offers a meditation on sitting at a red light. He sees this as an opportunity to take a moment from the busyness of our daily lives, rushing from here to there, engaged with our iPhones. Instead of being frustrated about getting caught at that red light, try looking it as a gift, to take a moment, to breathe from your belly, to regroup before moving on to the next task. He says, “the red light is your friend.”

Mindfulness practice has been emphasized as a core modality of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, since Marsha Linehan developed it in the late 1980’s. Today, manualized treatments for mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy for depression and anxiety are being used for patients, and articles have shown the benefits of mindfulness for a range of other disorders such as PTSD.

Harvard offers a course in Meditation and Psychotherapy, and Maine Medical Center teaches a course for doctors and nurses on mindfulness, helping to apply it both with patients and in their own lives. The June 2015 issue journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry included a clinical perspective on mindfulness. Mindfulness courses for stress reduction, communication, eating, and pain management, abound.

A fad? Hardly. Mindfulness practice has existed for centuries. Mindfulness, as utilized in western mental health is a secularization of eastern Buddhist traditions, without cultural or religious trappings.

In his book The Mindful Brain, Dan Siegel describes mindfulness as an antidote to living life on “automatic pilot.” Mindfulness can be helpful in working with powerful, negative emotions such as anger and sadness. Mindfulness enables us to be more aware of the multiplicity of emotions and thoughts that come and go during every day, and be more skillful at letting the painful ones go, just like that balloon.

Mindfulness can help us remain calm and centered in the face of adversity, to remember that as bad as things may be right now, the one thing we can be certain of is that the moment will not last, that change is a certainty.

So the next time you’re sitting at that red light, be grateful for the moment, and breathe in, and breathe out.

By David Walter, D.O.

Medical Director

Spurwink Services