Sunday, December 22, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 2

It's been 2 weeks since I had my first post about this month's exSPIREment to meditate every day.  I've enjoyed this journey so far, though I do admit to skipping 5 days already.  I've been keeping an Excel file to log my pre- and post- meditation feelings and blood pressure/pulse in addition to the type and duration of meditation.  I've tried a variety of meditation styles.  Here are some examples: 

Each person will have a meditation style that suits him/her best.  For myself, I've learned that lying down does not work for me.  The one time I tried (while listening to a recording of a body scan), I fell asleep (rookie mistake!).  When I sit cross-legged on the floor, my legs and feet get tingly, so I switched to sitting onto 2 stacked pillows on the bed.  For part of my Christmas present (we exchanged gifts early), Nick got me a meditation cushion filled with buckwheat!  This is so much better than sitting on pillows!  I tried it last night for the first time- I feel more stable, have better posture, and am able to maintain the same position for a longer time without adjusting.  Through my practices, I've also learned that I focus better with my eyes closed.  The OnDemand Qi Gong video I tried did not fulfill my goal of relaxing, though I did like the concept of mindful movement in general.  When I set a timer and sit in silence, I find myself wondering how much time is left and then when the alarm goes off, it startles me (even when it is set to something soft like chimes).  I've typically been meditating in the evenings, but I did try one morning after exercising; I was tired.  Through my practices, I think I've been getting quicker at being able to settle into a meditation session.  My mood is generally more positive after a session; however, my blood pressure/pulse does not seem correlated.  

I put my skills to use this past week as I prepared for my thesis proposal (PhD candidacy exam) on Tuesday.  I was especially anxious on Monday.  That evening, I meditated for 20 minutes (seated, focusing on my breath and positive energy).  My pre-meditation blood pressure and pulse were especially high, likely because of my anxiety.  After my meditation session, my systolic pressure dropped by 10 mmHg, my diastolic dropped by 3, and my pulse dropped by 18 beats.  This was the one time I felt that my meditation had a significant influence on my blood pressure (though I was still anxious after my meditation session).  

A week prior to my thesis proposal, I had watched this TED Talk on body language and how it influences your feelings:

On Tuesday, the day of my proposal, I was fortunately not as nervous as the day before.  To ensure confidence for my afternoon's presentation, I periodically assumed a power pride position (arms in the air in a V-shape, as if I just crossed a finish line), which I had learned about from watching the TED talk.  I only held the pose for maybe 30 seconds each time, but I did it multiple times throughout the morning and one final time about 20 minutes before my presentation.  It sounds silly, but seeing myself in the mirror in this position did make me feel like I was strong, confident, and ready.  Something must have worked because in the end, my thesis proposal went well, and I am now a PhD candidate! 

As I continue my exSPIREment for the rest of this month, I'm going to try incorporating mindful moments into everyday activities rather than simply setting aside a specific time of day to be mindful.  

What's your favorite meditation style?  
How do you reduce anxiety and increase confidence?

Sunday, December 8, 2013

exSPIREment: Meditate, episode 1

In October, for my first exSPIREment, I tried reading the newspaper every day.  From that experience, I improved my knowledge of current events and have since downloaded the NPR app, to which I listen as I walk to work; I particularly like the 10 minute newscast that is updated every hour and gives short blips for the main headlines.  Staying up-to-date on national and world events is a new addition to my lifestyle to help me improve as a person.  Now, it's time to embark on my next journey...

On Sunday, December 1 (also the 6 month mark of my marriage!), I commenced on my second exSPIREment: to meditate every day for the month of December.  This comes at perfect timing, seeing that I will be proposing my PhD thesis in the middle of the month (less than 1.5 weeks away now!), and I'm going to need to stay level headed to get through it successfully.

I've long been intrigued by mindful practices.  Indeed, this is not my first time undertaking meditation as a daily routine- I have gone to various workshops and classes on meditation over the years.  I even once participated in a 21 day meditation challenge through One Yoga Philly; however, I have not yet made meditation a part of my lifestyle.  The objective of this exSPIREment is to 1) define the personal benefits I gain through consistent meditation practice and 2) identify how I can incorporate meditation into my lifestyle. 

Newspapers, magazines, online articles- you can find articles touting the benefits of meditation almost anywhere you look.  I chose to search on PubMed for the real research articles to decide for myself how beneficial meditation may be.  For once, it seems that journalism has only moderately blown the benefits out of proportion: meditation and mindfulness-based practices have been suggested as an effective treatment for various psychological problems (particularly to reduce anxiety, depression, and stress), a method to assist smoking cessation, a practice to decrease chronic pain, an adjuvant treatment for patients with neurodegenerative diseases, a way to "slow down" time, a method to improve sleep quality and cognitive function in older individuals, a practice to improve autobiographical memory specificity, etc. 

Meditation has both acute (immediate) and chronic (long-term) effects: one study showed an acute relaxation response and improved reaction time and long-term improvements in IQ and stress.  Meditative practices produce real physiological changes.  For example, MRI imaging of the brains of Parkinson's patients who underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness based intervention had increased gray matter density in the regions of the brain thought to be important in Parkinson's.  Increased regional gray matter in the brain has also been seen in healthy subjects that underwent 8 weeks of mindfulness-based stress reduction. 

Although many studies show benefits of meditation or mindfulness training, taken together, the findings across multiple studies are inconclusive.  A review the effects of mindfulness training on cognitive abilities concluded preliminary evidence for enhanced cognitive functions but that more high quality studies are needed.  The American Heart Association released a statement that meditation is not recommended in clinical practice to lower blood pressure, due to lack of evidence; however, transcendental meditation may provide mild benefits.

I hypothesize that 

  1. Acutely, meditation will lower my blood pressure and pulse (quantitative), indicative of a relaxation response, and improve my mood and focus (subjective). 
  2. Chronically, meditation will improve my ability to handle stress (subjective).
To test these hypotheses, I will keep a log that details my pre- and post-meditative states.

Join me in meditating this December!