Monday, March 12, 2012

Combat Hot Flashes and Insomnia through Mindfulness Meditation

"Love yourself and be awake -today, tomorrow, always"
"We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts”
"With our thoughts, we make our world"
Buddha 568-488 BC, Founder of Buddhism

Menopause is definitely not a disease, but its symptoms might be quite painful, maddening, and inconvenient. Sometimes, you can find inner way to combat these signs of your body rebellion and put it back under control. The tool which may naturally empower you is mindfulness mediation.

The University of Massachusetts Study, 2008

There were multiple studies, confirming usefulness and effectiveness of the meditation in helping to ease the hot flashes, night sweats and insomnia of menopause, and with no side effects. One of the resent studies, performed by the University of Massachusetts, confirmed that mindfulness training, based on a Buddhist meditation concept, substantially reduced the distress associated with hot flashes and significantly improved physical, psychosocial and sexual functioning.

"The findings are important because hormone replacement therapy, used to treat menopause symptoms in the past, has been associated with health risks," said study author James Carmody, an associate professor of medicine in the division of preventive and behavioral medicine.

About 40 percent of menopausal women suffer from hot flashes and night sweats, which undermine their quality of life, the researchers noted. But since hormone replacement therapy has been linked with an increased risk of heart disease, breast cancer and stroke, Carmody observed that "not only are women looking for alternative treatments, it is an NIH (National Institutes of Health) priority to find behavioral treatments."

No other treatment has been found to substitute for hormone therapy so far, according to the study, but mindfulness training appears to allow women to be "less reactive" to menopausal symptoms.

Mindfulness therapy helps focus on the present. Practitioners avoid making judgments and simply accept whatever is passing through their mind while focusing on each breath. The technique is not difficult to learn, but requires some discipline in the beginning, experts noted.

The researchers aimed to influence women's reaction to their symptoms, "including psychological distress, social embarrassment and anxiety."

The study divided 110 women between the ages of 47 and 69 into two groups, one receiving the training, the other "waitlisted" to learn the technique. Participants filled out questionnaires to determine factors known to influence hot flashes, such as alcohol use, yoga and exercise.
Researchers also measured four dimensions of quality of life: physical, psychosocial, vasomotor (hot flashes), and sexual function. The women rated how much they were bothered by symptoms on a four-point scale ranging from "not at all" to "extremely" bothered. They kept diaries noting the number and intensity of hot flashes and night sweats. On average, the women had five or more moderate to severe hot flashes, or night sweats, a day when the study began.

After taking classes once a week for eight weeks, and a full day of training, the training group women had an average decrease of 15 percent in how much their symptoms bothered them vs. 7 percent for the control group. While hot flash intensity did not differ significantly, the training group reported better sleep, and less anxiety and perceived stress.

At the beginning of the study, which ran from November 2005 to September 2007, participants had "clinically significant" sleep problems. Improved sleep was an important outcome, the study found.
"The thing that surprised us the most was the effect on sleep," said Carmody, noting that mindfulness training was found to be as effective as hormone replacement therapy in reducing insomnia.

Another expert praised the study for using the "mind-body connection" to help women with serious menopause symptoms with "no side effects."

What is mindfulness meditation?

Idea of Mindfulness is simple and straightforward. Being mindful for you just means of being totally aware of the present moment that you are currently living in. It means bringing your attention away from all those hundreds of thoughts and distractions which buzz around our heads continuously and instead, consciously and explicitly, focusing your attention on your breath.

Being mindful simply means being in the present moment, in the here and now, focusing on our in-breath and on our out-breath and finding our centre within our body.

As Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk and one of the most highly respected teachers of mindfulness practice in the world, says:

"The practice of mindfulness requires only that whatever you do, you do with your whole being. You have to invest one hundred percent of yourself in doing even very simple things, like picking up a pen, opening a book, or lighting a stick of incense.”

But mindfulness techniques, though simple in theory, are far from being simple when you try to practice. Because the way our minds tend to work when we have not received mindfulness training, is to jump about relentlessly. Your thoughts race from one idea to another, from one worry to another, bringing non-invited memories though the associative links of thoughts, anything except for proper concentration on what is happening with you at the actual moment of your life.

Developing a mindfulness meditation practice is about training the mind to be more aware and to pay more attention to the present moment. Not the past, not the future. Just what’s happening right here, right now.

Originally mindfulness meditation developed in the Buddhist tradition, and Buddhist monks have been practicing mindfulness techniques for hundreds of years. Around the middle of the 20th century, Westerners interested in Buddhist philosophy and psychology started to study mindfulness meditation and began to understand the benefits of meditation for themselves. Thanks to collaborations between Buddhist monks and interested Westerners, the practice of mindfulness has become more widespread outside of the Buddhist tradition. Nowadays mindfulness has become widely accepted by doctors and psychologists as a cognitive technique, which has its roots in Buddhism but can be practiced by anyone anywhere, regardless of their religious beliefs.

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How to start mindfulness meditation?

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who introduced mindfulness meditation into Western medicine, has said that mindfulness: "could most easily be described as much ado about almost nothing, it's not quite nothing, but it's not so much about doing as about being, or as the Daoists would call it, it's about non-doing”.

So, how you can start with mindfulness meditation? Mindfulness Meditation can be conducted or practiced through informal and formal techniques. While formal Mindfulness Meditation involves Yoga, in which there is a control and awareness of breathing patterns with appropriate body movements, informal Mindfulness Meditation includes taking into account each experience in life with relish and enjoyment.

It is recommended to get some initial guidance from the trained specialists at first. But, as soon as you will feel the main principles, techniques, and guidelines, you will be able to practice Mindfulness Meditation individually anywhere anytime.

You need to find a quiet moment and a quiet place where you know you won't be interrupted for at least 20 to 30 minutes. Here are some brief recommendations for beginners:

  • Sit in a comfortable position. A straight-backed chair which ensures you sit as upright as possible, is fine. If you prefer and don't feel too stiff, you can sit cross-legged on the floor.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Try to put aside all thoughts of the past and the future and stay in the present.
  • Bring your attention to your breathing and watch your thoughts.
  • Try to keep concentrating on your breath.
  • Be aware of breathing in.
  • Be aware of breathing out.
  • Inhale and exhale. Feel your belly rise and fall, the air enter your nostrils and leave your mouth. Pay attention to the way each breath changes and is different.
  • Keep your attention right there, on the flow of your breath.
  • Watch every thought come and go, whether it is a worry, fear, anxiety or hope. When thoughts come up in your mind, don't ignore or suppress them but simply note them, remain calm and use your breathing as an anchor.
  • If you find yourself getting carried away in your thoughts, observe where your mind went off to, without judging, and simply return to your breathing. Remember not to be hard on yourself if this happens.
  • As the time comes to a close, sit for a minute or two, becoming aware of where you are. Get up gradually.

At first, that will not be easy, trust me. Your mind will try to get away from your instructions, returning restlessly to daily activities, family problems, personal worries, etc. But gradually as your meditation practice develops, you will find that you are better able to bring your attention to your breath, your body, your immediate surroundings and to see yourself in the context of your environment.

Mindfulness can be practiced sitting down, while walking, while eating, while standing in a queue, while waiting for the train, while chopping the vegetables, while cleaning the toilet, washing the dishes, sweeping the floor, checking email ...

Yes - mindfulness activities can be just about any activity that you do, but instead of doing something while you're thinking about five other things or trying to multi-task by answering the phone, tidying the table, and checking your make-up ... doing things mindfully means being there in the moment, concentrating on doing what you're doing and trying not to do more than one thing at a time.

Mindfulness meditation in bed

Dr. Kabat-Zinn – well-known meditation teacher, author, researcher, and clinician in the fields of mind/body medicine, integrative medicine, lifestyle change, and self-healing – offers the following guide on how to start practicing mindfulness meditation on wake up and before sleep. These are valuable moments, when we the mind is in the transitional phase between awake and asleep, and the effect of the meditation might be multiplied by this state.

1. Try lying in bed for a few moments after you wake up, and just ride on the waves of your own breathing moment by moment and breath by breath.
2. Experiment with expanding your awareness around your breath until it includes a sense of the body as a whole lying in bed breathing.
3. As best you can, be aware of the various sensations fluxing in the body, including the breath sensations.
4. Just rest in the awareness of lying here breathing, outside of time, even if it is only for a minute or two by the clock.
5. When you notice that the mind has a life of its own and wanders here and there, keep in mind that this is just what minds do, so there is no need to judge it.
6. Just note what is on your mind if you are no longer in touch with the breath or with the sensations of the body lying in the bed, and without judgment or criticism, just let that be part of your awareness in the moment, and feature once again the breath and the body center-stage in the field of your awareness.
7. Repeat the previous step a few million times.
8. It is very easy to fall into the thought stream and get caught up in the future (worrying, planning) and the past (remembering, blaming, pining) and in reactive and often painful emotions.
9. No need to try to stop any of this from happening when you can just bring a big embrace of openhearted, spacious, accepting awareness to it and, lo and behold, you are once again sitting on the bank of the thought stream, listening to the gurgling but not so caught up in the torrent for the moment.
10. You can cultivate mindfulness in this way lying in bed for a few moments in the morning, or in the evening before going to sleep.

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Mindfulness exercises

Over time, you will develop your own style and routine, which will work best. For started, you can try several exercises to let you explore your own mind and find a better way for mindfulness practicing.

Exercise 1: One Minute of Mindfulness

This is an easy mindfulness exercise, and one that you can do anytime throughout the day. Take a moment right now to try this. Check your watch and note the time. For the next 60 seconds your task is to focus all your attention on your breathing. It’s just for one minute, but it can seem like an eternity. Leave your eyes open and breathe normally. Be ready to catch your mind from wandering off (because it will) and return your attention to your breath whenever it does so.

This mindfulness exercise is far more powerful than most people give it credit for. It takes some people many years of practice before they are able to complete a single minute of alert, clear attention.

Keep in mind that this mindfulness exercise is not a contest or a personal challenge. You can’t fail at this exercise, you can only experience it.

Use this exercise many times throughout the day to restore your mind to the present moment and to restore your mind to clarity and peace.

Over time, you can gradually extend the duration of this exercise into longer and longer periods. This exercise is actually the foundation of a correct mindfulness meditation technique.

Exercise 2: Conscious Observation

Pick up an object that you have lying around. Any ordinary object will do. Hold it in your hands and allow your attention to be fully absorbed by the object. Observe it. Don’t assess it, or think about it, or study it intellectually. Just observe it for what it is.

You’ll feel a sense of heightened "nowness" during this exercise. Conscious observation can really give you a feeling of "being awake". Notice how your mind quickly releases thoughts of past or future, and how different it feels to be in the moment. Conscious observation is a form of meditation. It’s subtle, but powerful. Try practicing mindfulness in this way you’ll really start to sense what mindfulness is all about.

You can also practice conscious observation with your ears rather than your eyes. Many people find that mindful listening is a more powerful mindfulness technique than visual observation.

Exercise 3: The Ten Second Count

This is more of an exercise in practicing concentration than it is in mindfulness, and it is a simple variation on exercise 1. In this exercise, rather than focusing on your breath, you just close your eyes and focus your attention on slowly counting to ten. If your concentration wanders of, start back at number one! For most people, it goes something like this...

“ I have to buy milk today or did John say he’d do it? Oh, whoops, I’m thinking.”
“One...two...three...four...this isn’t so hard after all... Oh no....that’s a thought! Start again.”
“One...two...three... now I’ve got it. I’m really concentrating now...”

Exercise 4: Mindfulness Cues

In this exercise you focus your attention on your breathing whenever a specific environmental cue occurs. For example, whenever you hear the phone ring, you promptly bring your attention into the present moment and stay focused on your breath.

Simply choose a cue that works for you. Perhaps you will choose to become mindful every time you look in the mirror. Perhaps it will be every time your hands touch each other. Perhaps it will be every time you hear a bird.

Mindfulness cues are an excellent mindfulness technique that are designed to snap you out of the unconscious “autopilot” state of mind, and bring you back into the present moment.

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