Foundations of Holding Space: The Facilitation of Emotional Healing

Holding space is a highly effective, evidence-based method for providing emotional support for those in need. In essence, holding space is the act of generating a safe, supportive, loving, caring, and non-judgmental environment, as so the individual suffering is free to process emotionally charged events in a healthful way. It means to mindfully walk alongside them without attempting to change or alter their journey. It means to let them say what they need to say and feel what they need to feel. This process allows them to more readily achieve emotionally balanced states of mind, empowering them to walk in the direction they need to go. Holding space can be used in any circumstance by which a person experiences a great deal emotional distress; whether they are living with a major illness, hardship, poverty, grieving loss(es), nearing the end of their life (i.e. palliative care), or experiencing any other difficult event. The general principles of holding space are as follows:

  1. MINDFUL PRESENCE. Be there with them, grounded in the present. Put aside whatever musings are going on inside your head for a moment so you can attend to them fully.
  2. ACTIVE LISTENING. Hear what they have to say and allow them to express their thoughts and emotions without interruption. Validate that they have been heard by giving them gestures such as nods. If you’re not sure if you’re fully understanding what they are saying, ask for clarification.
  3. CONFIDENTIALITY. If they ask for it, grant them confidentiality unless they are in danger of hurting themselves or others. Let them know that you would only seek more help from others in necessary circumstances.
  4. NON-JUDGEMENT. Just like your own, their lived experience is highly complex and no one has the right to criticize it. Provide a space that is free of wrist slapping and finger wagging. This will allow them to more comfortably speak from their authentic experience.
  5. VALIDATE. Let them know that what they are experiencing is valid (because every subjective experience IS valid).
  6. EMPATHY. To the best of your ability, walk a mile in their shoes. Feel with them. Go on this journey with them, because it is probably daunting for them to go it alone.
  7. COMPASSION. Let them know that they are worthy, loved, and cared for. If the situation is appropriate and there is reciprocal consent, hold them or give them hugs.
  8. EMPOWERMENT. Keep the agency in their hands. This means that we must keep our own egos out of the equation and refrain from giving our own biased advice. Granting them their own independence feeds them confidence and strength.

Practicing the art of holding space builds relationships, communities, and broader societies that are more readily equipped to resiliently dance through hardships and trauma (because whether we like it or not, they are just a fact of life). So hold space for others, and allow others to hold space for you.

References:

Davidson, L., Chinman, M., Kloos, B., Weingarten, R., Stayner, D., & Tebes, J. K. (1999). Peer support among individuals with severe mental illness: A review of the evidence. Clinical Psychology: Science and practice, 6(2), 165-187.

Krause, N. (2004). Lifetime trauma, emotional support, and life satisfaction among older adults. The Gerontologist, 44(5), 615-623.

Puchalski, C., Ferrell, B., Virani, R., Otis-Green, S., Baird, P., Bull, J., … & Pugliese, K. (2009). Improving the quality of spiritual care as a dimension of palliative care: the report of the Consensus Conference. Journal of Palliative Medicine, 12(10), 885-904.

Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E. D., Carmeli, A., Spreitzer, G. M., & Dutton, J. E. (2013). Relationship quality and virtuousness: Emotional carrying capacity as a source of individual and team resilience. The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science, 49(1), 13-41.

Solomon, P. (2004). Peer support/peer provided services underlying processes, benefits, and critical ingredients. Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal, 27(4), 392-401.

Stand Up to Stigma

MENTAL ILLNESS: THE IGNORANCE IS RAMPANT

Stigma against persons with mental illness are manifested in negative attitudes, stereotypes, and discriminating behavior towards those who suffer. Stigma occurs due to a lack understanding of mental illness themselves. For instance, mental illness is often perceived as something the sufferer has agency over;

“Everyone has total control over all areas of their brain”
“I can control this part of myself, so why can’t they?”

These statements are grounded in an assumption that everyone encompasses the same neurobiological make up; one that is alike their own. In reality, neurobiological deviance exists, and research has established that mental illnesses have can have many complex causal factors which can be genetic, developmental, and environmental– many of which are not within a person’s control.

Furthermore, specific mental illnesses can carry with them certain stereotypes that are once again, due to a lack of understanding. Some of these stereotypes include:

“Mentally ill patients are unintelligent and incompetent.”
“Depressed people are lazy and ungrateful.”
“Alcoholics do it to themselves. They can never recover.”
“Bipolar patients are bad people.”
“Borderlines are dangerous and need to be locked up.”
“PTSD patients are weak and need to get over it.”
“Anorexics are narcissists that just need to eat something.”

Note here that language of these statements define a person by their illness, when in actuality they are HUMANS, just like everyone else (!!!), that have a bit of a deviation in their brain biology. This is precisely the point of the problem– a whole, complex person who happens to have a mental illness is deduced into negative labels and stereotypes that are many of the time, untrue. This discriminatory social environment then in turn, leads to bigger problems in terms of treatment.

PUTTING AN END TO THE SILENT SUFFERING

Stigma compounds the suffering of persons with mental illness. Tiresome efforts to suppress and hide the illness, feelings of guilt, and social exclusion all impede efforts to recover. Stigma can also breed internalized oppression by which a person starts to believe the stereotypes they are subjected to, e.g. dangerous, incompetent, lazy, and worthless. Alongside, stigma may prevent a person from landing a job, maintaining a job, or receiving accessibility aids and social support; poverty is a whole new traumatic experience. Lastly, it steers them away from accessing essential public resources to recover, cope, and manage their illness due to shame.

So how can we help decrease mental health stigma in our society?

  1. KEEP THE CONVERSATION GOING. Let others know that they can speak openly about their mental illness. Within your comfort, express your own experience with mental illness if any; this naturally gives permission for others to do the same.
  2. SHOW RESPECT AND HUMANIZATION FOR PERSONS LIVING WITH MENTAL ILLNESS. See the person as a whole, complex person, just like everyone else. Doctors: I am talking to you too.
  3. IF NEEDED, ENCOURAGE THOSE WHO DISCLOSE THEIR MENTAL ILLNESS TO YOU TO ACCESS PUBLIC HEALTH RESOURCES such as psychiatric care, counselling, and support groups. Respect their level of confidentiality and let them know that they are not alone.
  4. EDUCATE YOURSELF. Unfortunately, those living with mental illness don’t always have the energy to educate everyone they talk to. Do some reading and challenge the stereotypes.
  5. BE MINDFUL OF YOUR SPEECH. Avoid stigmatized words such as “retarded,” “lunatic,” and “psycho.”
  6. NEVER SHAME A PERSON FOR TAKING PSYCHOACTIVE MEDICATIONS. Just because some individuals may not need it, it could be another individual’s life line.

Working together to stand up to stigma can create an environment where we can all heal a little more gracefully. This is imperative as a mental illness crisis continues to plague our world.

References:

Corrigan, P. W., Watson, A. C., & Barr, L. (2006). The self–stigma of mental illness: Implications for self–esteem and self–efficacy. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 25(8), 875-884.

Rüsch, N., Angermeyer, M. C., & Corrigan, P. W. (2005). Mental illness stigma: concepts, consequences, and initiatives to reduce stigma. European Psychiatry, 20(8), 529-539.

Corrigan, P. W. (2005). On the stigma of mental illness: Practical strategies for research and social change. American Psychological Association.

Corrigan, P. (2004). How stigma interferes with mental health care. American Psychologist, 59(7), 614.

Corrigan, P. W., & Watson, A. C. (2002). Understanding the impact of stigma on people with mental illness. World Psychiatry, 1(1), 16-20.

Unknown. (2000). Mental illness vies for attention. The Lancet.

Eating Disorders, Mind-Body Interventions, and Body Positivity: On Healing the Self and Society

EATING DISORDER OVERVIEW

Eating disorders are on the rise in the majority of industrialized nations, having among the highest mortality rates of all psychiatric illnesses. There are three main types of eating disorders, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder. These disorders share a common characteristics: an extreme fear of weight gain, intense disturbance with body self-perceptions, and negative relationships with food. The distinguishing factor between each disorder lies in how one copes with these neuroses; in anorexia nervosa, one engages in intense food restriction. Meanwhile, bulimia nervosa is characterized by episodes of binge eating followed by compensatory purging (i.e. self-induced vomiting, laxative abuse, fasting, and/ or excessive exercise). Binge eating disorder is characterized by recurring episodes of binging without compensatory behaviors. Binge episodes are typically used to alleviate feelings of emotional distress.

While statistics report that eating disorders affect approximately 1-3% of the population, this represents an underestimation as these studies do not account for those undiagnosed and untreated. Moreover, a large proportion of the population (the majority being women and trans folk), still suffer from eating disorder symptoms at a subclinical threshold, even if they do not fully express clinical behaviors. Full recovery rates of documented cases are dismal at approximately 50% with many patients experiencing relapse. Thus, there is certainly a pressing need for more research and rapid clinical application to better assist existing patients and subclinical persons at risk, through their recovery.

MIND-BODY INTERVENTIONS

Mind-body interventions such as Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation have been of increasing interest to mental health professionals. Both of these interventions share a common thread of their ability to aid in distress tolerance and emotion-regulation while improving body awareness– features that are impaired in those with eating disorders. For instance, recent neuroimaging studies have found that patients with eating disorders tend to have dysfunction in a brain area called the insula, which allows one to feel internal body signals such as pain, temperature, itch, tickle, muscle tension, hunger, stomach pH, and intestinal tension. Furthermore, many eating disorder patients face co-morbid affect disorders and emotion-regulation deficits such as maladaptive anxiety, depression, and intense shame.

With promise, mind-body interventions may work to combat these neural dysfunctions. Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation have been shown to improve insula functioning, through practice of listening to internal body signals and thus re-establishing clear communication between the body and mind. Furthermore, Hatha yoga and mindfulness meditation can help tolerate and alleviate negative emotional states which can contribute to binging episodes. While studies on Hatha yoga are in their infancy, a recent array of mindfulness studies have shown promising effects for decreasing eating disorder symptoms. Mindfulness interventions that involve mindful eating components have been revealed to be the most beneficial for healing relationships with food by method of de-conditioning negative emotional responses to food consumption. Taken together, mindfulness meditation is recognized as an efficacious conjunctive treatment to eating disorders. Please see the meditation tab for a mindful body scan and mindful eating guide.

CULTIVATING A BODY POSITIVE SOCIETY 

Healing our relationships with food and our bodes is an important step in fighting eating disorders. However, this fight must not be disconnected from the sociocultural systems which strategically create this suffering for monetary profit. The fashion, diet, weight loss, and some exercise industries all cooperate in creating intense fears of weight gain and toxic ideologies of how we relate to food and our bodies, just so they can sell us “cures,” that quite frankly, do not work. It’s time to take a stand against these systems of oppression. Join in the body-positivity movement, where we work to create societies free of body shame and objectification. How? Start with your own social sphere: be mindful of your speech to avoid triggering someone with an eating disorder and/ or negative past histories. Here’s a quick guide how:

  1. RESPECT EVERYONE’S GENDER. Use appropriate names and pronouns. Respect style and dress.
  2. DO NOT COMMENT ON BODIES. There is a lot more to a person beyond the body they live in. Never criticize or shame a person’s body. Do not attach positive or negative connotations to certain body features. Be aware of weight biases (the false belief that fat individuals are undisciplined and lazy). Reserve compliments to style choices rather than body features.
  3. AVOID DIET AND WEIGHT TALK. Do not add to the obsessive diet and weight culture. Seek other ways to bond!
  4. KEEP YOUR HEALTH CONCERNS TO YOURSELF. Contrary to popular belief, studies show that self- and other health concern shaming is not helpful for changing health behaviors. If you want to help someone, focus on supporting them emotionally. Lastly, acknowledge that content of food consumed primarily depends on social class and accessibility; check yourself before making any potentially classist comments.
  5. YOUR BODY. YOUR RULES. Respect people’s sexual orientation, relationship orientation, diet, gender, style, and dress.

Let’s work together to heal ourselves and at the same time, create a more body-positive social environment.

References:

American Psychiatric Association (2000). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders: Fourth Edition Text Revision. Washington, DC: APA Press.

American Psychiatric Association (2006). Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Eating Disorders Third Edition. Washington, DC: APA Press.

Carei, T. R., Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Breuner, C. C., & Brown, M. A. (2010). Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 346-351.

Forbes, B. (2011). Yoga for Emotional Balance: Simple Practices to Help Relieve Anxiety and Depression. Boston, MA: Shambhala.

Kaye, W. (2008). Neurobiology of anorexia and bulimia nervosa. Physiology & Behavior, 94(1), 121-135.

Kaye, W. H., Fudge, J. L., & Paulus, M. (2009). New insights into symptoms and neurocircuit function of anorexia nervosa. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 10(8), 573-584.

Kim, K. R., Ku, J., Lee, J. H., Lee, H., & Jung, Y. C. (2012). Functional and effective connectivity of anterior insula in anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. Neuroscience Letters, 521(2), 152-157.

Kristeller, J. L., Baer, R. A., & Quillian-Wolever, R. (2006). Mindfulness-based approaches to eating disorders. Mindfulness-based treatment approaches: Clinician’s guide to evidence base and applications, 75-91.

O’Reilly, G. A., Cook, L., Spruijt‐Metz, D., & Black, D. S. (2014). Mindfulness‐based interventions for obesity‐related eating behaviours: a literature review. Obesity Reviews, 15(6), 453-461.

…And THANK YOU to all the amazing community members who participated in a series of focus groups by which I was able to create a guideline for mindful, body positive speech.

Silent Meditation Retreats are NOT Relaxing, but They’re Something Better

GETTING TO KNOW YOURSELF

Recently I underwent a 7-day silent meditation retreat in my own home. I carefully planned the week to involve one yoga session, four mindfulness meditation sits, three mindful meals, and two mindful walks per day. I refrained myself from all communication and technology.

In the context of silence, time, and space, you get the chance to observe a 360 view of all your brain processes. You get to dive deep into a conglomerate of unconscious brain networks by which you work upon everyday, without even knowing it. You get to see all of your thought patterns, corresponding emotional responses, and all of the memories (even ones from early childhood!) that created them. By this, I could now see how silly the notion was of “finding yourself through travel (i.e. a constant barrage of novel and distracting stimuli,” when in reality all you have to do is close your eyes. The combined concoction of restricting stimulation and engaging in mindful meditation for a prolonged period is the key to understanding who you are. And in the process, you get to see aspects of yourself have been helping you, and the ones that have been holding you back.

THE DE-CONDITIONING OF CHRONIC MICROTRAUMAS

Negative emotional experiences left unprocessed overtime eventually take a toll on your mental health. I view it like a repetitive strain injury; just like how continuous small traumas to connective tissue can lead to chronic pain and muskoloskeletal injuries, unprocessed emotions from repeated negative events can lead to mental illness. Here lies the gap in trauma psychotherapy. While many psychotherapies such as eye movement desensitization and reprocessing work to de-condition the emotional response to one highly traumatic, adversive event, little therapeutic modalities are offered which work to de-conditon emotional responses to many, smaller scale microtraumas.

This is where silent mindfulness meditation retreats come in to play. Silent mindfulness meditation retreats have a way of unearthing a multitude of negative memories and emotional responses to them. When you practice, you allow your body to meet and greet the past traumas/ microtraumas and de-condition their adversive emotional power through the power of mindful breath and body awareness. Memories of the similar content usually present themselves one after another; in this way, you get to address all of them at once.

For myself, a person living with chronic mental illness, this process was extremely intense. Reliving all of the crappy parts of your life in one week is not a fun undertaking. However, through this process I was able to work through many difficult and destructive thought and emotion patterns of which I once felt that I could never overcome. I had a renewed sense of energy that could run free after all of the negative mental fog was lessened. While I still live with mental illness, the power it has over me has decreased.

*Here I’d like to caution that if you have a severe psychiatric illness, it is generally not recommended that you do a prolonged meditation retreat without professional supervision, as they can be overwhelming and counterproductive. As with my case,  I have had professional training in meditation prior to the retreat. Current research is still parsing out how to safely tailor meditation programs to those with severe psychiatric illnesses.

THE CAKE IS A LIE, BUT YOU EVENTUALLY REALIZE YOU DON’T NEED CAKE

A lot of people have this notion that the meaning of meditation retreats are to guide you to an enlightened, thoughtless state of ultimate bliss and happiness. I did NOT get here. But… *drum roll* I don’t CARE. From this retreat, I did not attain unwaivering inner peace. Not even close. Rather, I attained the realization that emotions are okay. I learned how to ride and embrace intense waves of emotion. And I learned that while anger, fear, shame, and sadness are crappy, they eventually dissolve and collapse. Similarly, I learned that while happiness is nice, it is just as fleeting. I learned that clinging to any emotion is a recipe for disappointment. I also learned to not take any thought too seriously, and to even laugh at the presentation of negative ones. I learned the meaning of equanimity in an experiential way.

These were the lessons I truly needed. And I would prefer them over relaxation, inner peace, or popular perceptions of enlightenment any day.

[retreat 1 blog]

Let Go of the Pursuit of Happiness: All Emotions Deserve Our Love

A MINDLESS OBSESSION WITH HAPPINESS 

Frequent experiences of positive affect (contentment, joy, excitement, calm) are beneficial for a variety of health and well-being outcomes. As such, happiness is a highly valued emotion in our culture; this is very evident by fact that we are often expected to put on a smiley face even when we are experiencing other emotions. However, happiness is not always appropriate and adaptive. For instance, happiness can also make us use heuristic shortcuts and stereotypes over critical and analytical thought processes. Moreover, happiness may not be appropriate when responding to others who are in distress and call for empathetic concern over positive contagion. Furthermore, studies have found that the pursuit of happiness almost always leads to dissatisfaction and distress when not obtained. Rather, it is best to engage in behaviors that have a high probability of leading to happiness (ex. building strong interpersonal relationships, volunteering, exercise), without holding onto the expectation of acquiring happiness.

On the other hand, subjectively unpleasant emotions can be evolutionary adaptive, and are important for survival when experienced to an optimal degree and in the appropriate situations. For instance, sadness and crying signals a need for helping behavior from social support networks. Moreover, anger signals a clear need for social reparations, and anxiety signals a fight or flight response to evade dangerous situations. Although these emotions may be uncomfortable, they must not be pushed aside when they can actually be of service to us. Therefore, it would be wise to listen and appreciate all of your emotions; express them to a healthy degree when appropriate. Likewise, it is important to understand that happiness can be beneficial, but not necessary to be put on a pedestal.

THE COSTS OF EMOTIONAL SUPPRESSION

Emotional suppression is an emotion-regulation strategy by which the person actively inhibits the expression of unwanted emotions. Chronic suppression of negative emotions is common in cultures where positive emotions are deemed the only appropriate emotion to exhibit in the public sphere. While this strategy may be adaptive in some contexts such as when completing tasks that require cognitive concentration, public speaking, building professional networks, and managing healthy degrees of anger during conflict resolution, it can be highly detrimental when employed long-term. For instance, emotional suppression can increase heart rate, blood pressure, and stress levels, while decreasing memory function. In extreme cases of emotional dissociation (a coping strategy for trauma where the individual completely cuts themselves off from all emotions) can lead to an unfortunate myriad of after effects such as nightmares, intrusive images and thoughts, and auditory hallucinations. Furthermore, it can be dangerous to ignore adaptive emotions such as anxiety and anger in certain social and environmental situations. The chronic inability to feel negative emotions and use them for their advantages can lead to other detrimental coping strategies which help to blunt emotions, such as substance abuse, self-harm, and addiction. The culture of emotional suppression is truly killing us all. In a similar vein, the culture of “forced positive thinking” must be better informed of the costs of suppressing negative emotions and thoughts.

THE OTHER PATH: A MINDFUL WELCOMING OF EMOTIONS

In mindfulness meditation, we practice the skill of observing arising emotions with acceptance. Instead of pushing an undesired emotion away, we practice saying “oh hello there emotion,” while sensing our breath and body sensations. When we become skilled at doing this, we are then able to 1) listen to the presented emotions without judgement and criticism, 2) regulate these emotions using a healthful method if necessary (e.g. with mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, re-appraisal strategies) and 3) respond with appropriate actions that the emotion calls for (e.g. problem solving, evading dangerous situations, preventing anticipated problems and conflicts, communicating concerns). The more we practice, the more we are able to call up mindfulness skills in our everyday life off of the meditation cushion. As a more adaptive way to process and utilize emotions, mindfulness meditation is health protective of dissociative disorders, substance use disorders, and affective disorders. Better yet, it is extremely cost effective; requiring no fancy equipment but our breath and bodies themselves. Please see the meditation tab for mindfulness meditation guides!

References:

Bonanno, G. A., Papa, A., Lalande, K., Westphal, M., & Coifman, K. (2004). The importance of being flexible the ability to both enhance and suppress emotional expression predicts long-term adjustment. Psychological Science, 15(7), 482-487.References:

Campbell-Sills, L., Barlow, D. H., Brown, T. A., & Hofmann, S. G. (2006). Effects of suppression and acceptance on emotional responses of individuals with anxiety and mood disorders. Behaviour research and therapy, 44(9), 1251-1263.

Ford, B. Q., Dmitrieva, J. O., Heller, D., Chentsova-Dutton, Y., Grossmann, I., Tamir, M., … & Mauss, I. B. (2015). Culture shapes whether the pursuit of happiness predicts higher or lower well-being. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 144(6), 1053.

Gross, J. J. (2002). Emotion regulation: Affective, cognitive, and social consequences. Psychophysiology, 39(3), 281-291.

Gross, J. J. (2001). Emotion regulation in adulthood: Timing is everything. Current directions in psychological science, 10(6), 214-219.

Gruber, J., Mauss, I. B., & Tamir, M. (2011). A dark side of happiness? How, when, and why happiness is not always good. Perspectives on Psychological Science6(3), 222-233.

Levitt, J. T., Brown, T. A., Orsillo, S. M., & Barlow, D. H. (2004). The effects of acceptance versus suppression of emotion on subjective and psychophysiological response to carbon dioxide challenge in patients with panic disorder. Behavior therapy, 35(4), 747-766.

Lyubomirsky, S., King, L. A., & Diener, E. (2005). The benefits of frequent positive affect: Does happiness lead to success? Psychological Bulletin, 131, 803-855.

Roberts, N. A., Levenson, R. W., & Gross, J. J. (2008). Cardiovascular costs of emotion suppression cross ethnic lines. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 70(1), 82-87.

Srivastava, S., Tamir, M., McGonigal, K. M., John, O. P., & Gross, J. J. (2009). The social costs of emotional suppression: a prospective study of the transition to college. Journal of personality and social psychology, 96(4), 883.

A Critical Note on the Cerebellum Blog’s Health Interventions

The purpose of this blog is to stress the importance of considering individual factors and contextual circumstances by which methods presented on my blogs for improving mental health are utilized. That is to say, although I do my best to ensure all health interventions I share have undergone sound empirical investigation, this does not necessarily mean that they can be applied to all persons cross-situationally. It is my hope that you are able to take a critical approach in exercising these presented self-help techniques in your daily life.

Cerebellum’s mental health interventions can be practical to many but not all populations. Many are mental illness prevention techniques that can be used for healthy individuals. For clinical and subclinical populations, most of these interventions can be used in conjunction to biomedical and psychotherapy; they should not seek to completely replace these treatments. Furthermore, most interventions require a certain level of cognitive functioning to be effective. For instance, an individual whom is experiencing severe depression will most likely not be able to gratitude journal their way to healing alone. Likewise, asking an extremely anxious individual to simply work on their breathing is not only ignorant but counterproductive. Pushing these types of interventions on exceptionally ill populations can be cruel and makes the assumption that their debilitating disease is the fault of their own laziness.

Perfection in exercising these interventions should never be the goal. These techniques are meant to alleviate suffering, not to provide another means to be self-critical. I do not wish to send an underlying message of “you are not happy enough, mindful enough, grateful enough, spiritual enough” etc. Positive self-growth is and always will be a process with no end point. Moreover, it is important to take what works and leave what doesn’t. Be gentle with yourself, and incorporate what you are capable of at your own practical pace.

I wish for my blog to benefit the well-being of yourself and others in a useful way, and I hope that this note will help facilitate this goal. Thank you for your continued readership and I wish you all the best on your healing journeys.

Meditation Alters Brain Wave Activity

The brain is an extremely complex organ which communicates via electrical impulses between neurons. An electroencephalogram (EEG) is a device which measures the frequency and amplitude of these electrical impulses (i.e. “brain waves”). Studies have shown that meditation practices can induce different EEG states in practitioners.

For instance, one review found that relaxation-based meditations induces a larger proportion of alpha wave (8-12 hz) and theta wave (4-8 hz) activity in the brain, which are characterized by rest.

In addition, yoga nidra practitioners have been shown to induce slow wave delta wave activity (0.5-4 hz) — that is, EEG activity exhibited during deep sleep stages, while paradoxically remaining conscious. Delta waves contain a “down state,” where neurons in the neocortex are silent and able to rest.

Finally, studies have shown that some advanced Buddhist meditators are able to self-induce high frequency gamma waves (25-42 hz) during practice. Gamma wave activity has been associated with heightened perceptual clarity and superior cognitive control of thought and emotional expression.

Why is this important?

As workaholic North Americans, our brains spend a lot of the day producing beta waves, that is characterized by states of heavy information processing. Too much beta wave activity is associated with anxiety, insomnia, anger, and paranoia– it is not surprising that many of us suffer from illnesses related with these states of mind. Thus, meditation breaks can be highly beneficial for controlling differing levels of brain wave frequencies protective of mental illness.

References:

Buchsbaum, M. S., Hazlett, E., Sicotte, N., Stein, M., Wu, J., & Zetin, M. (1985). Topographic EEG changes with benzodiazepine administration in generalized anxiety disorder. Biological Psychiatry, 20(8), 832-842.

Cahn, B. R., & Polich, J. (2006). Meditation states and traits: EEG, ERP, and neuroimaging studies. Psychological Bulletin, 132(2), 180.

Kjaer, T. W., Bertelsen, C., Piccini, P., Brooks, D., Alving, J., & Lou, H. C. (2002). Increased dopamine tone during meditation-induced change of consciousness. Cognitive Brain Research, 13(2), 255-259.

Lutz, A., Greischar, L. L., Rawlings, N. B., Ricard, M., & Davidson, R. J. (2004). Long-term meditators self-induce high-amplitude gamma synchrony during mental practice. Proceedings of the National academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 101(46), 16369-16373.

Moore, N. C. (2000). A review of EEG biofeedback treatment of anxiety disorders. Clinical EEG and Neuroscience, 31(1), 1-6.

Tang, Y., Li, Y., Wang, J., Tong, S., Li, H., & Yan, J. (2011, August). Induced gamma activity in EEG represents cognitive control during detecting emotional expressions. In Engineering in Medicine and Biology Society, EMBC, 2011 Annual International Conference of the IEEE (pp. 1717-1720).