It is said that the best path to self-development is to regularly do something that scares you. While I was going through a Category 4 hurricane divorce (to quote Tina Swithin), it became clear that I needed to redefine myself in some way. I went on trips, I made new friends, I rented an RV and drove across the country all alone with my 2-year-old and my Labrador puppy, and I bought 3 pairs of Jimmy Choos. Despite the fact that my ex-husband and I had lived in both Chile and New Zealand, the nature of our relationship would never allow for me to go skiing. A decision was made that it wasn’t suited for me and that it cost too much. I decided that my path to independence would require me to do something that I had been forbidden from doing…and that scared me half to death.
I was raised in Kansas where there are no such things as hills, much less mountains. Nothing was more frightening to me than coasting down the side of a mountain on a pair of sticks. However, I was determined to become my own person and to learn something new. I decided to take lessons, and my first few were terrifying. My brain did not understand what in the world we were doing and every cell in my body seemed to be working to get me to stop falling down a mountain instead of coasting effortlessly like the other skiers. I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to feel as if they were falling.
I kept at it. I put my little 3 year-old in his own lessons and I went twice a week. Every single time, I was terrified. This was made worse by the fact that one of my classmates seriously injured her knee, and never wanted to ski again. However, I felt like it was just something that I needed to do. For my entire adult life I had been listening to what my ex-husband said I should do instead of listening to my own soul.
Little by little, week by week, my body started to cooperate. It let go, and got used to falling down the mountain. My muscles adapted and were able to effortlessly follow the movements required without me having to concentrate. It took quite awhile, but the neuronal connections were formed in my brain with repetition. I transformed something that once scared me half to death, into something that was actually fun. (Well…..mostly……last week I slid down a steep section on my back, after losing my skies). This happened via repetition and changing the neuronal networks in my brain. Meditation, similarity, is said to actually change the structure of the brain, resulting….in a new life.
We have heard from many New Age Gurus, The Law of Attraction, and Oprah that we can change our lives if we just change our minds. That always sounded awfully woo-woo to my scientifically trained mind. I thought that it was certainly a good thing to have a positive outlook on life, because it protected you from depression, but I didn’t think it went much farther than that.
As part of my training in Integrative Medicine, we started a class in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. I studied the research behind it, and I learned that evidence showed that it could reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression. It also helped people deal with pain and even improved their blood pressure. I thought these were all positive things, but as a busy physician, I was used to using my brain constantly and prided myself on my ability to reason and think. As a mom, I multi-tasked constantly and was excited when I could manage to do three things at once (despite the research showing that we can’t!). However, meditation, and being “present” was something alien and immensely difficult for me. These people teaching me the basics of mindfulness wanted me to think about….nothing. Doing nothing turned out to be one of hardest things I ever attempted.
Like the good student that I am, I dutifully did my assignments, which required me to meditate for about 45 minutes every day. I was expected to shut off the one thing that I had been conditioned to believe was my greatest asset, and the source of my identity. My brain fought me like a cat placed in a bathtub. I have never had my to-do list scream at me as loudly as when I tried to sit motionless for 45 minutes. I thought, “What a waste of time! I have to study, and work, and my kid is probably setting the house on fire, and I need to pay the bills, and I am missing my show on Netflix, and there are three piles of dirty laundry….this is all fine for Ashram’s in India, but I am a modern, working mother and I don’t have time for this!”
However, something mysterious started to happen as I dutifully practiced calming my brain…my life, to my surprise, actually DID start to change. I didn’t realize it at first, but my mind was a mess. After enduring an incredibly emotional, social, and financial roller-coaster of a relationship, along with a high-conflict divorce and custody battle in court, I had symptoms of full-flown PTSD. I suffered from nightmares, flashbacks, obtrusive thoughts, and severe anxiety that tormented me from my previous unhealthy relationship and having to endure a high-conflict custody battle. Underneath my awareness, I had become hyper-reactive to nearly everything. I got into tussles at work with my coworkers because I felt as if I was under attack when I wasn’t. I seemed to attract crazy, abusive people into my life. I had problems with my new boyfriend because I felt he was a threat at times when he wasn’t. My patient’s families appeared more hostile to me than they actually were. The daily, necessary interactions with my ex-husband regarding my child would send my mind into a terrorized, hostile, panicked, and defensive reaction. My world was a very dangerous, unfriendly place.
A few weeks after I started meditating, something started to happen. The world started to have softer edges, and to seem much less dangerous to me. My relationship with my now husband improved because I could see the good in him a whole lot easier. I got a new job that I loved, away from the toxic coworkers. I made new friends that actually seemed good for me. I found new passion in my work and I started to see patients with more empathy. Interestingly, my son who had been struggling emotionally and behaviorally started to do better in school. He stopped having to go to the principals office. When my ex-husband would try to manipulate, insult me, or control me, I started to simply think, “Oh. Interesting. He must be having a really bad day.” Rather than focusing on what he said, I could go back to focusing on myself and my child. I could sleep better, I could function better, and I could relate to people better. My whole life, and the life of my new family, started to fall into place in a rather kooky way.
I became interested in the theory behind meditation, and read several books and research on how it helps shape our brains. Of particular interest to me, were the studies done on Buddist monks who had over 10,000 hours of meditation under their belt (Shimomura, 2010). Their brains actually had a different structure, making them more resilient and calmer than the average human. While this degree of meditation would be impossible to achieve for an average working mother, it had become evident to me that even small changes could have big effects on brain chemistry and structure, resulting in a completely different way of reacting to one’s environment.
What’s even more interesting is that meditation can even change our gene expression. Research has shown that trauma survivors often have negative genes that are activated and passed on to their offspring (Dashorst P1 2019). Holocaust survivors have a higher likelihood of having a child with a mental illness than the general population. Although trauma can affect generations, we can undo its effects through rewiring our brains. (McEwen BS, 2012 and 2018). It is hopeful to know that a trauma survivor is not only capable of undoing the structural changes in their brain, but that they can actually change the trajectory of the lives of their children.
Many seemingly mysterious medical conditions often have their roots in the mind-body connection. Often an auto-immune condition or a series of migraines, or even a malignancy can follow a traumatic life event. In contrast to traditional, Western Medicine (just throw a drug at it), a standard of functional medicine is to determine the timeline of a person’s life in correlation with the onset of the illness.
Mind-body therapies are not only beneficial for medical conditions but can be especially helpful for mental health. We have many medications that can affect our brains, but nothing else can actually change the structure of the brain, and allow it to secrete different chemicals than meditation can. It is something that is highly accessible and free to everyone, everywhere. Just as we can learn any new task, creating new neuronal connections in our brain, we can actually un-learn how to be our old selves. This results in a new outlook on life, new actions, and the hope of a new future. Just as we can learn how to ride a bicycle, or learn how to fall down a mountain without fear, we can also condition ourselves to unlearn our own mental illness and become a person with a more hopeful life full of promise.
Integrative Medicine physicians are trained in Mind-Body methods that can help attenuate the effects of many illnesses including depression, anxiety, and several physical elements. They can help you work with existing treatments and medications to help you find the best combination for you particular illness. Meditation is not advised for those who are actively suicidal or suffer from schizophrenia.
Dr. Erin Fenstermacher is a Board-Certified Internal Medicine Physician and Fellowship-Trained Integrative Medicine Physician with a practice in Albuquerque New Mexico as well as a Telemedicine practice available in other states.