Mindfulness and Dis-Ease: Managing Mental Wellness

by Elena Vidrascu, MSc

Preventing America’s Next Drug Epidemic: A Multidisciplinary Approach is a series designed to introduce the many facets of substance abuse, and how integrating the work of multiple partners may be the best approach towards prevention and treatment.

It is estimated that 30-50% of our waking day is spent with our mind wandering. This statistic might elicit disbelief, but consider this: have you ever walked into a room and forgotten a moment later what it is you went there for? Our mind is constantly occupied by internal, self-generated thoughts or external stimuli that capture our attention and shift our focus away from task-relevant stimuli. In a series of studies done several years ago, 65% of men and 25% of women preferred to receive an electrical shock rather than spend 6 to 15 minutes alone in a room with their thoughts.

When the mind is at rest and not engaged in any task, a network of brain regions becomes active, allowing the mind to wander. This default mode network creates a sense of self, a self that can be taken back into the past and into the future. Knowing this, it should not be surprising that this network has been shown to be hyperactive in individuals struggling with major depressive disorder. Many people struggling with depression have difficulty reorienting their attention to anything other than themselves and are constantly projecting themselves into the past. For individuals struggling with anxiety, they are constantly projecting themselves into the future. For individuals struggling with substance use disorder (SUD), it might be a little bit of both. Past trauma that could have precipitated substance use, coupled with the subsequent shame and guilt from the consequences of abusing substances, can incessantly creep into the minds of those with SUD. When an individual is actively in addiction, they are constantly seeking alcohol and/or substance(s) to distract their thoughts and feelings. They project themselves into the future, thinking about where to find their next fix, or how their pain will cease once they use just a little.

To better manage disease, be mindful of when you are experiencing dis-ease.

Mind wandering does not solely occur in those who have diagnosed disorders. The absence of disease does not mean that there is no experience with dis-ease in typical day-to-day life. We are constantly overwhelmed with responsibilities that fall outside of work obligations. Taking care of family, having a social life, exercising, eating healthily, engaging in extracurricular activities, and so on. Too often we hear people say, “Oh, I am so happy that tomorrow is Friday!” If we are constantly hoping for the week to end, are we really only living for the weekend? We cannot possibly be remembering much of what we do during the week if we are constantly trying to rush through it to get to the weekend. Being more present during the many moments that fill a single day can help us appreciate more of the positive interactions with people at work, become aware of when we need some social interaction to combat our desire to become a recluse, or help us realize when our increased rumination might be signaling the onset of a breakdown. To become more aware of the present moment is where mindfulness comes in.

Mindfulness or Meditation?

Although often used interchangeably, mindfulness and meditation are not exactly the same thing. The simple difference is that mindfulness is noticing and being present in whatever you are doing, whereas meditation is more about focusing inward on thoughts and emotions. If sitting with your thoughts for ten minutes is too scary to start with, next time you are eating a meal, eat slowly. Take the time to completely immerse yourself in the experience. Try to smell the food before it hits your tongue, identify the different spices you taste, and feel the texture of the ingredients. This way, you can spend as much time as you want eating that delicious burger, rather than scarf it down in 5 minutes and forget all about it! And if mindfully engaging in an experience like this proves not too difficult, then try a few minutes of mindfulness meditation.

The simple difference is that mindfulness is noticing and being present in whatever you are doing, whereas meditation is more about focusing inward on thoughts and emotions.

Mindfulness meditation has gained increased popularity in the wellness field, with daily meditation showing improvements in attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in meditators. It is a secular practice that can be done anywhere, anytime, with no equipment.

Begin by finding a quiet place, sit on a chair or cross-legged on the floor, and rest your hands on your knees. Close your eyes, take a few slow, deep breaths, and then start to notice your breathing, feeling your body breathe in and breathe out. You will find your mind wandering, and that is okay. Gently return your focus to the rhythm of your breathing.

This is breath meditation, just one of several different forms of meditation. Despite popular belief, the goal of meditation is not to stop the mind from thinking. The goal is to become aware of any thoughts and feelings that arise without judgement, accepting whatever surfaces with equanimity. When we become present with an emotion as it arises, we can then choose whether to give power to it or not. If we are watching as the observer, we are not getting lost in it. By reorienting our attention back to the breath, for example, we are increasing self-control. In fact, previous research has shown success in brief 2-week (5 hours total) MM training in reducing smoking by 60%, with increased activity in brain regions involved in self-control. These results could be at least partly due to decreased stress-reactivity, as was found in another study looking at smoking cessation.     

Whether the goal is to improve cognition and well-being, or reduce fatigue, anxiety, depression, pain, or alcohol or drug use, mindfulness meditation has a place in everyone’s life. It is no different than going to the gym to strengthen our muscles; our brains also need strengthening. If this practice begins at a young age, as is the case for millions of children being positively impacted by Mindful Schools, then life can be filled with less reactivity and more calmness. In an elementary school in Baltimore, Maryland, detention has been substituted for mindfulness meditation and the results are inspiring, with school administrators rarely seeing children anymore for disciplinary issues. Even for adults, it is never too late to start practicing. A recent review looking at workplace-based mindfulness meditation programs concluded that workplace interventions improved psychological indices of stress, partly by reduced cortisol production and sympathetic nervous system reactivity. In a recent blog post on JPHMP Direct by Dr. Jay Maddock, he explores the question of whether workplaces are promoting well-being among employees. Implementing mindfulness meditation may be one strategy towards accomplishing this. 

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Elena Vidrascu, MSc

Elena Vidrascu, MSc, recently graduated from Wake Forest University with her MSc in Physiology and Pharmacology. Her primary field of interest is substance abuse, with goals to disseminate information to the public, including addicts and those in recovery, and to influence policy change to push for more integrative approaches towards prevention and treatment. In her spare time, she enjoys playing tennis, hiking, doing puzzles, and cuddling with her kitten Maple.