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Embracing pain, difficulty can be freeing
October 26th, 2011
08:16 AM ET

Embracing pain, difficulty can be freeing

Professor Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman are the authors of “Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World” published by Rodale.

Shortly after the British mountaineer George Mallory disappeared while attempting to climb Everest in 1924, a journalist asked why the team had continued with their assault on the summit on that fateful day.

“The price of life is death,” replied one of the survivors.

That single sentence sums up the human condition more than any other. We are here on this earth for a short while, experience a panoply of bittersweet emotions, and then depart. We forget this at our peril.

Virtually all of us avoid thinking about pain, suffering, failure, loss, and death as much as we can, for as long as we can, usually until it is too late. While this is entirely natural, it carries a high but largely hidden price. For if we cannot face up to life’s difficulties, then we cannot deal with them effectively. Such “aversion” closes down the mind, reduces creativity, and leaves behind a deep-seated sense of fear and caution. And paradoxically, not facing up to them also runs the risk of dulling our awareness to all that is wonderful about life, in all of its tingling beauty.

The late Steve Jobs, a keen devotee of mindfulness meditation, realized this. In 2005 he told Stanford University graduates: ‘Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – all these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.”

Whenever we’re faced with a difficulty – whether it’s the stress of a job, illness, exhaustion, or malignant sadness – it’s only natural to try and push it away. We can do this in myriad ways, such as, endlessly churning through previously failed solutions in the mind’s eye, by ignoring it, or burying it under a pile of distractions.

But sooner or later there comes a point where these strategies no longer work because we either run out of steam or the difficulty we’re facing is truly intractable. When we reach this fork in the road, we have two options. We can carry on and pretend that nothing is wrong (and lead an increasingly miserable existence), or we can embrace a different way of relating to ourselves and the world. This different approach is one of acceptance of ourselves and of whatever is troubling us. It means turning towards it, befriending it, even if we don’t like it, or it fills us with fear and dread.

For many of us, the idea of “acceptance” is heresy of the first order, but this initial reaction stems from the frequent inability of individual words to convey true meaning.

Can mindfulness help manage pain, mental illness?

Mindful acceptance, which arises from the full conscious awareness engendered by mindfulness meditation, is subtly different to the usual passive flavor of acceptance.

Acceptance in the context of mindfulness is not the passive acceptance of the intolerable. It is not “giving up,” nor is it resignation or spinelessness. Neither is mindfulness anything to do with detachment.

Instead, acceptance is a pause, a period of allowing, of letting be, of clear seeing. Acceptance takes us off the hair trigger, so that we’re less likely to make a knee-jerk reaction. It allows us to become fully aware of difficulties, with all of their painful nuances, and to respond to them in the most skillful way possible. It gives us more time and space to respond. And often, the wisest way of responding is to do nothing at all.

Paradoxically, taking action in the conventional sense is often an automatic reaction that will simply force us to endlessly repeat past failures. It’s not proactive at all. And remaining a slave to our automatic reactions is true resignation to our fate.

In short, mindful acceptance gives us choices.

Of course, such acceptance can be extremely difficult to attain. In our book “Mindfulness: An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World”, we detail the “Exploring Difficulty” meditation. This short meditation encourages a different approach to dealing with life’s problems, one that is endorsed by the latest advances in psychology and by neuroscience in general.

If you bring a difficult situation to mind the natural response is to fight it or flee. The Exploring Difficulty meditation bypasses this reaction by asking you to briefly bring a difficulty to mind – and then observe how the body reacts. Often as not, the heart will begin pounding, beads of sweat may appear, the body might start to tingle, some parts might even begin to ache.

Why do we ask people to observe the body when it’s their minds that are suffering? Firstly, recent developments in psychology have shown that stresses and strains in the body can drive negative thought patterns. By observing such stresses, they tend to dissolve away of their own accord and so sap the momentum of negative thoughts.

Secondly, it puts a thin sliver of space between the meditator and whatever is troubling them so that they don’t become further entangled in their difficulties. It also helps people realize that negative states of mind tend to flux, so that they come to understand that anxiety, stress, and depression are not permanent features of their lives. For many people, this is incredibly liberating.

The exploring difficulty meditation is central to mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, which was developed by our team at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge in the UK, and Toronto in Canada. It grew out of the inspiring work of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the UMass Medical Center near Boston.

The eight week MBCT program not only helps people face up to the worst difficulties in their lives but has also been proven to help relieve anxiety, stress, depression and exhaustion in numerous clinical trials in America and elsewhere. It’s so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments for depression recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

There are countless solid psychological reasons why we should face up to life’s difficulties. But perhaps the best reason of all is the one which originally motivated Mallory and countless other explorers.

When asked why Everest should be climbed, Mallory famously replied: “Because it is there.”

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Filed under: Mind and body

October 7th, 2011
07:31 AM ET

Yoga helps addicts, homeless find peace

When I first met Sylvia Rascon she told me that what drew her into yoga was her own struggle to find balance in her life. When she found out she could treat people overcoming trauma she knew she wanted to become a teacher, and that’s what brought her to the Lower East Side Harm Reduction Center.

When you walk into the center it’s hard to imagine where they would hold a yoga class.

Medical supplies are off to the right, and immediately ahead of you is a small common area where visitors can watch TV, use computers and talk with friends. Signs advertise free and quick HIV testing, counseling sessions and community events.
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Filed under: Mind and body

'Sexy anorexia' Halloween costume controversy
October 7th, 2011
07:26 AM ET

'Sexy anorexia' Halloween costume controversy

It’s hard to imagine a deadly disorder being translated into a Halloween costume, let alone a sexy Halloween costume. Just when you thought it couldn't get any more inappropriate than sexy Cookie Monster, a costume has come along that reaches a whole new level of just plain wrong.

Anna Rexia.

The Anna Rexia costume features a black bodysuit style dress with a glittery, silk-screened skeleton print, bone headband, heart name tag, measuring tape ribbon belt, and the most shocking accessory of all - a matching measuring tape choker! We're not sure if the costume manufacturer intended for the choker to be a pun.
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Filed under: Mental Health • Mind and body • Nutrition

Never too late to find your path in life
September 22nd, 2011
10:27 AM ET

Never too late to find your path in life

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity - the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

“Late bloomers? Late for what? What is it we’re late for?”

I had called Shilloy to discuss late bloomers, chiefly because last year, in her early 40s, she made a dramatic shift in her career as a marketing exec and went back to school to become a therapist. But as I began our interview, it was clear that something was putting her on edge.
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Study: Some cartoons are bad for children's brains
September 12th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

Study: Some cartoons are bad for children's brains

Some children's television shows may be bad for young kid's brains according to a new study about watching cartoons. It appears that children may not concentrate and focus very well after watching fast-paced programming.

Researchers from the University of Virginia showed 60 4-year olds a 9-minute chunk of what they call an "animated kitchen sponge" cartoon. The experts then tested the children's memory and thinking skills and compared their scores to other youngsters, who had watched a slow-paced educational cartoon or drew pictures with crayons and markers.

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'This Kiss' writer: I've seen cancer from all sides
August 22nd, 2011
07:14 AM ET

'This Kiss' writer: I've seen cancer from all sides

Editor's note: Beth Nielsen Chapman, besides her own recordings, has written songs for many top artists from Willie Nelson to Elton John and has penned numerous hits such as Faith Hill’s Grammy nominated mega-hit "This Kiss." Beth also teaches workshops internationally on songwriting and creativity and serves on the Honorary Board of Healthy Child Healthy World.

Just a few changes to the Joni Mitchell song, “Clouds,” could sum up my relationship to cancer. “I’ve looked at cancer from both sides now....”

Having lost my husband to cancer in 1994 and then surviving breast cancer myself in 2000, I have experienced two perspectives on this journey no one ever wants to take.

I’m a singer-songwriter, first and foremost. My songs have been an important part of my healing through these big life events. But I’m also a teacher of what I call “Creative Flow.”

In 2009, doctors discovered I had a benign brain tumor, which was fast growing and pressing on my left frontal lobe, the part of the brain whose function includes putting emotions into words - a.k.a. writing lyrics.
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Seeking Serenity: Chilling in the back-to-school chaos
August 10th, 2011
05:07 PM ET

Seeking Serenity: Chilling in the back-to-school chaos

Editor's note: CNN contributor Amanda Enayati ponders the theme of seeking serenity - the quest for well-being and life balance in stressful times.

It has become inevitable that each year, at some point in August, my husband will begin talking about new classes, new wardrobes, new gear and the very long list of things we need to do in preparation for the kids to go back to school.

And every year, this is all I hear him say: “Blah blah blah blah kids go back to school.”

My own early school years were spent in Iran and several Western European countries (after I fled the revolution), where back-to-school just meant you got up early one morning in the fall and went back to school.
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Mind and body: Worms to help depression? Could happen...
Scientists are studying whether organisms such as tapeworms, magnified above, might help treat disease
August 10th, 2011
04:23 PM ET

Mind and body: Worms to help depression? Could happen...

When was the last time you, your children or anyone you know was treated for worms? If you’re under the age of 40, your likely answer is “Never!”

This is no accident. As a society we have become cleaner and cleaner, more and more antiseptic, more and more hygienic over the last half century.

As we’ve done so, a huge array of microorganisms - worms among them - have silently, and with no fanfare, vanished from our daily environments. Some worms have even gone extinct inside our pets.

Industrialized countries such as the United States began making serious efforts to sanitize their environments in the 19th century. These public health efforts have done more to reduce disease and enhance longevity than any medical intervention before or since.

But scientific evidence increasingly suggests that the victories achieved by cleanliness have come at a significant health cost that is only now beginning to be fully appreciated.

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What the Yuck: Am I narcissistic?
July 29th, 2011
09:56 AM ET

What the Yuck: Am I narcissistic?

Too embarrassed to ask your doctor about sex, body quirks, or the latest celeb health fad? In a regular feature and a new book, "What the Yuck?!," Health magazine medical editor Dr. Roshini Raj tackles your most personal and provocative questions. Send 'em to Dr. Raj at whattheyuck@health.com.

Q: I keep hearing how everyone these days is narcissistic. How do I know if I am?

The fact that you are asking probably means you don't have narcissistic personality disorder, because people who do have it generally don't have enough self-awareness to question their own behavior.
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July 26th, 2011
07:40 AM ET

Human Factor: From catastrophe to blessing

In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle - injury, illness or other hardship –- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn’t know they possessed. This week motocross champion Doug Henry shares how breaking his back may have paralyzed him from the waist down, but it didn't destroy his spirit.

Whenever something really bad happens to us, we ask ourselves, "Maybe things happen for a reason?" That seems to be the first thing we want to believe, hoping there is something good to come of a bad situation. Rarely do we say to ourselves, "We've been blessed."

Those of you who know my current set of circumstances may think I'm nuts for thinking I've been blessed but bear with me. I have lived a unique, passionate, fulfilling, life. I've seen the world, challenged myself, and pushed myself beyond what I thought I was capable of, and I've met so many beautiful people along the way.
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.

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