Sunday, 20 April 2014

Mind and Body: T2 article dated 20th April 2014

Google 'pseudocyesis'. Commonly known as false pregnancy, it is a fascinating condition.
Women who intensely desire to be mothers but are unable to conceive may develop this condition, where their mind tricks their physical body into believing that they are pregnant. Physiologically, the body mimics the symptoms of pregnancy, such as distension of abdomen, interruption of the menstrual period, changes in the breasts, changes in the cervix, morning sickness and weight gain.
This condition was pretty common before pregnancy tests and ultrasonography came into vogue, and even seasoned obstetricians would sometimes fail to catch the ' con'. Just think about it — if our mind can conjure something as complex as pregnancy and trick our body to initiate the multi- level chemical changes to produce these symptoms, do we really understand how powerful our mind is? And how profoundly it affects, not only our thoughts, behaviour and choices, but also our body? A man wanted to bring his 63- year- old father to us for therapy. At that time, a display board at the place where we practiced read, ' We care for your mental well-being'. The father refused to walk in and left shouting at his son, 'I am not mental'. There is too much fear and taboo attached to
issues related to 'mental health'. Unfortunately, we ignore our emotions and disregard our mental state as having very little or no effect on us.
WHO defines health as 'a state of complete physical, mental, and social well- being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity'. We all know that when we are happy we feel physically charged up and healthy, and when we are sad we feel low and down. Our body is constantly responding to our mind. There are more and more researches showing that diseases have a mental- emotional component. This has led to a new branch of medicine called Mind Body Medicine, which uses the power of thoughts and emotions to influence physical health.
All the commonly heard diseases, like diabetes, hypertension, coronary heart disease and atherosclerosis, are stress- related. The factor causing or aggravating them is long- standing mental and emotional stress. New studies show that contrary to popular belief, most allergies and chronic pain, especially lower back pain, are caused or aggravated by psychological factors. Medication combined with mind- body techniques has shown better results in treatment than just medication alone.
These techniques encourage relaxation, improve coping skills, reduce tension and pain, and in turn lessen the need for medication in various diseases like high- blood pressure,
pressure, coronary heart disease, asthma, cancer, obesity, pain and nausea/ vomiting related to chemotherapy, insomnia, diabetes, stomach and intestinal problems ( including indigestion, irritable bowel syndrome, constipation, diarrhoea, ulcerative colitis, heartburn, and Crohn's disease), fibromyalgia, and menopausal symptoms such as hot flashes, depression and irritability.
In 1989, a clinical study by David Spiegel, MD, at Stanford University School of Medicine demonstrated the power of emotional support to heal. Of 86 women with late- stage breast cancer, half received standard medical care while the other half received standard care plus weekly emotional support sessions. In these sessions, the women were able to share both their grief and their triumphs. Spiegel discovered that the women who participated in the social support group lived twice as long as the women who did not.
Simple relaxation techniques, practice of gratitude and compassion, practice of ancient traditions like yoga, meditation and t'ai- chi which help calm the mind, are gaining more and more interest from research scholars from prestigious medical schools in pursuit of health and happiness.
Dr Dean Ornish's work has proved that comprehensive lifestyle changes along with yoga, meditation and a lowfat diet can actually reverse the changes in the artery in coronary heart disease patients, traditionally considered irreversible. Clinical trials of Dr Ornish's work show better results than the more mainstream treatment modalities like bypass surgery and angioplasty. His current research shows that a relaxed and stress- free lifestyle can ' turn on' disease- preventing genes and ' turn off' disease- causing genes in the human body.
Our mind can be a wonderful ally or a vicious foe, depending on how we treat it. If we want to stay healthy and find happiness, we need to gather courage to look within to be aware of and acknowledge our emotions.
Only then will we be able to befriend our mind. That's what we can try to achieve. At the least we can try.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at 
dr.sangbarta@ gmail. com

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Life as Meditation: T2 Article dated 6th April 2004

It was a hectic week for us. Our teacher, whom we consider an exceptional human being, needed emergency neurosurgery.Over the past two- three weeks, we had been noticing a few changes in him. He told us that he was not enjoying playing the sitar, an instrument that he has played every day for more than six decades, because the strokes were not perfect. He was finding it a little difficult to keep track of the rhythm. He complained that his handwriting was changing. His very sharp mind was not at its best. We dreaded that it could be an irreversible neurological condition. Of course his ever- infectious positivity, sage- like peacefulness and wit made us hopeful and created a certain scope of denial for us. He is 82 years old, so these not- so- obvious symptoms can easily be mistaken as part of a normal ageing process. We suggested to the family members that a neurological consultation was necessary.
However, in retrospect we find ourselves questioning if we pushed hard enough. Could we have pushed harder for a neurological scan had we been more objective? Was it possible that a part of us did not want to face what really might be in store? Of course, there was nothing that we could have done that would have changed the outcome.
So, what really happens to us when we are faced with a crisis? Do we really see the situation as it is? Or do we respond to the memories of experiences that we have had in the past? And based on these experiences, we try to pre- empt the future outcome? What happens in this process is that we are constantly vacillating between ' what has been' and ' what will be', and are not present for ' what is'. In 2000, pscychologist Joseph Tloczynski studied the changes in perception that accompany mindfulness meditation. He surmised: ' A person who meditates consequently perceives objects more as directly experienced stimuli and less as concepts.' In other words, meditation helps us to see experiences as they are happening in the now, rather than our perceptions of it.
The purpose of any authentic meditation is to train and help us be in the NOW, to be better able to see and accept ' what is'. In her book The Blissful Brain , neuroscientist Shanida Natarajan says that a meditative procedure must meet five essential criteria:
1) It must involve a specific technique that is both defined and taught.
2) It must involve, at some stage, progressive muscle relaxation.
3) It must involve, at some stage, a reduction in logical processing.
4) It must be self- induced.
5) It must involve a tool, referred to as an ' anchor', that allows effective focus of the mind.
A recent consensus definition of ' mindfulness', which essentially is any authentic meditative process, emphasises two complementary elements: the placement of attention on the immediate experience and adopting an open, curious, and accepting attitude toward that experience.
In Indian philosophical texts, the five stages of mind in meditation are described as:
1) Mudha ( Ignorant) — Where one is ignorant of the reality.
2) Ksipta ( Agitated) — As we try to focus, our mind becomes restless, agitated and distracted. We compulsively feel the need to ' escape'. 3) Viksipta ( Scattered) — Our mind becomes scattered and random thoughts, memories take our awareness away from the present.
4) Ekagra ( Attentive) — Finally, we become focused and attentive. We observe more, listen more, and become aware of the present.
5) Nirruddhya ( Restrained) — We are in control of our mind. We know we are not the mind and we do not get swayed by emotions, by our needs or by our defences. We become more cognizant of ' what is' and we flow.
Contrary to popular belief, authentic meditation does not consists of mere visualisation and surely does not advocate any dissociation from reality. Neither does it mean you have to be secluded in a room for endless hours. In fact, meditation teaches us to open up more to life itself, to become more objective and less interpretative.
There are numerous benefits of mindfulness on issues ranging from medical to psychological — be it stress, anxiety, bipolar disorder, low self- esteem or overall life satisfaction to medical conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and psoriasis. It also reduces the likelihood of developing Alzheimer's in old age.
If we consciously choose to be more present in the reality, be more aware of what is happening, observe more before concluding, listen more before interpreting, be open to experience rather than react... if we just try to lower our need to intellectualise all the time and be biased by our own judgements, perhaps life itself can become a meditation. We can then, perhaps ' flow' in life as well.

Dr Sangbarta Chattopadhyay and Dr Namita Bhuta are medical practitioners, psychotherapists and life coaches Share your problems with them at  dr. sangbarta@ gmail. com