Saturday, January 19th, 2008 12:53:24

Take a break and meditate

While hard work gets us ahead, there appear to be limits. It’s often the times of rest and recovery that provide us with the energy we need to work hard. In today’s ultra-connected worlds of Blackberrys, iPhones, e-mail and Twitter (an internet service that allows people to constantly text where they are and what they are doing to the universe at large or a group of friends) it is often hard to get even a few moments to oneself.

The constant feeling of connectedness and activity might lead some people to become anxious and stressed. Possibly it is the constancy of the connectedness rather than the connectedness itself that is making the difference.

A February 5 news release from the Feinberg School of Medicine at Northwestern University in Chicago cited a study by Dante Chialvo, Professor in the Department of Physiology, on a related topic: “People with unrelenting pain don’t only suffer from the nonstop sensation of throbbing pain. They also have trouble sleeping, are often depressed, anxious and even have difficulty making simple decisions.”

The study, Published in the Journal of Neuroscience on February 6, indicates that in a “healthy” brain, there is a state of equilibrium between the different regions in the brain, with regions quieting down when others are active. However, for those in chronic pain, a front region of the cortex mostly associated with emotion “never shuts up,” according to Chialvo, the lead author of the study.

“The areas that are affected fail to deactivate when they should,” Chialvo said. The fifteen people with chronic back pain in the study had permanent activity in the front cortex of the brain, rather than the equilibrium associated with “the resting state network of the brain,” he said.

This constant state of being on the go could cause permanent changes in the brain. Chialvo noted. “We know when neurons fire too much they may change their connections with other neurons and or even die because they can’t sustain high activity for so long,” he explained. Chialvo went on to note the impact that this permanent change in wiring might have on a chronic patient’s daily activity, saying it “may make it harder for you to make a decision or be in a good mood to get up in the morning. It could be that pain produces depression and the other reported abnormalities because it disturbs the balance of the brain as a whole.”Chronic means never ending or always present. By definition, there is no rest or reprieve it goes on forever just like the Energizer bunny. This study shows that ceaseless pain does not allow the sufferer’s brain to take a break.

While most of us, thankfully, are not in chronic pain, many of us are chronically distracted. Might this too affect how our brains function? Without the mini breaks that were once common in daily life, our brains have become switched to a constant go provoked by unending stimulus.

Indeed, we often go in several directions at once, multi-tasking in an effort to get items off of our “to-do” lists and onto our “done” lists. Seldom do you see people just driving, they are often also talking on the phone and possibly even e-mailing as well trying to get it all done.

My experience with never-ending stimulus comes in the form of my two children, whose constant chatter and verbal requests of “Mommy! Mommy!” occasionally drives me to places I don’t want to go especially while cooking dinner (or breakfast) or trying to get to an after-school activity on time. Maybe the overloaded feeling in my head is simply a response to too much noise.

There might be a simple way to combat this constant state of on turning off the mind. Though this may seem simple to accomplish, it is not. The good news is that, according to “Train your Mind, Change your Brain,” by Sharon Begley, (Ballantine Books, 2007) our brains have the ability to not only grow based on mental training (i.e., thinking) but we can alter how our brains work and connect based on mental training through meditation. This means that we can train our brains and thereby affect our emotions.

According to Begley, mental training through meditation focusing on love and compassion increases happiness and contentment. Rather than reacting constantly to what happens to us based on our outer environment, meditation literally rewires the brain, providing us with the ability to more easily summon calming, happy thoughts and remain in control.

Begley cites studies indicating the longer the training, the bigger the impact. Signifying that, perhaps, our ability to be happy reflects how often we have practiced having calm, happy thoughts. This falls in line with the chronic pain study’s findings. It makes sense that, if chronic pain can impair brain operation, then chronic meditation might have a profound healing influence.

After all, as Aristotle said, “Happiness depends on ourselves.” And “we are what we repeatedly do.”

In meditation, a mantra is repeated. Maybe if I can repeatedly meditate around “the reason I say your name so much is that I love you,” wisdom imparted by my daughter Maggie, I can become a bit more compassionate and loving, and even possibly learn to be patient around dinnertime.