Monday, April 30, 2012

Mindfulness and Brain Health

I preached this weekend about mindfulness and brain health. In specific, how mindfulness has been proven as a treatment for things like anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder and other forms of mental illness. It is works for chronic pain, eating disorders, and many other illnesses. Mindfulness is something we all can use in order to help our mental state, and it is part of the Dr. Andrew Weil's  regimen in his book Spontaneous Happiness.

Mindfulness means we are fully in the present moment, we do not judge the moment as good or bad, we accept it as it is. We are not looking to the future, worrying about the past, or multitasking. The way we cultivate mindfulness is through meditation which can be done in a variety of ways. You can meditate in the Zen style, sitting still, counting each breath up to ten and when thoughts invade your mind, bring yourself back to breathing and start over at number one again. You can do object mediation where you focus on something like a candle flame. You can practice art meditation such as Zentangles which helps focus the mind.

Here are a few excerpts from my sermon, On Purpose from April 29, 2012. I hope you will find ways to incorporate mindfulness into your life.

Much of the research that has been done showing how mindfulness and meditation affects the brain has been done with the Dali Lama and his monks. Over the years, monks with between five and fifty five years of mediation experience have been tested by neuroscientists. Even occasional home based Buddhists, the ones like you and I who might meditate at home and go to a few retreats have been tested. They were hooked up to brain imaging machines and studied in many different ways. Overall, they have found that people who are mindful have the ability to focus their brains so well they can change their moods, feelings, and outlook on life. You can physically see the difference in their brains through brain imaging. The monks produced gamma waves that were 30 times as strong as the non-meditating participants in one study. Also, larger areas of the monks brains were active, especially in the left prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain responsible for positive emotions... (research found in Buddha on the Brain by John Geirland)

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder is a mental illness that is very hard to treat. For years, and still now, many doctors use a method called Exposure and Response Prevention, or ERP. This is when a doctor exposes their patient to their deepest fears in order to show them that they are not really scary. For someone who believes the world is full of germs, the doctor would make the patient touch doorknobs and public restrooms but not allow the person to wash their hands afterwards. While some people improve, ERP is so traumatic that most people can’t finish the process. Finally in the late 1980’s Dr. Schwartz from UCLA came along and said, not only does this not work, but it is cruelty. Instead, he decided to research if mindfulness could be an effective form of treatment for OCD. 

Technically, OCD is a misfiring of the wiring in your brain. Your brain tells you there is some extremely terrifying thing that really does not exist. Dr. Schwartz believed training people to be mindful would allow them to observe the misfire in the wiring, the sensation and thoughts of fear, but to let those thoughts pass, seeing them as a glitch in their mind that is not real. This switches the thinking from “The world is full of germs and I need to wash my hands until they bleed” to “That is a brain-wiring problem, I don’t actually need to wash my hands.”

Meditation cushions. Photo by Jeff Norris
Dr. Shwartz set up a study of mindfulness and OCD and used positron-emission tomograhy, or PET scans, to measure what was going on inside people’s brains. The PET scans showed that the people who practiced mindfulness were able to calm their brain. With OCD, there is an over activity in the orbital frontal cortex of the brain. The PET scans found readings in that area of the brain decreased with mindfulness training, people were rewiring the faulty circuiting, altering their brain chemistry. Not only did this show up on the scans, but the people with OCD actually got better and stayed well, with no medication used. (OCD research found in Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain by Sharon Begley)

Now mindfulness is used for treating anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness. The science is able to see the faulty brain chemistry through different types of scans, so it proves there is a medical problem, but the mindfulness practice then proves that there are other things, besides medication, which can change that chemistry. Our brains have the ability to heal themselves. Some people with severe mental illness have been able to decrease their medications to the point that they can go back to work because adding mindfulness to their treatment meant they rewired enough of their brain to need less medication. As you know many of these medications make you shake, sleepy, almost comatose, and severely impair cognitive functioning. Mindfulness has enabled people to not only manage their illness, like the medication does, but get their life back, which often the medication takes away... Management does not mean cure, but it does mean a better quality of life, which everyone deserves. 

Here are some of my favorite resources about mindfulness and meditation:
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
Spontaneous Happiness by Andrew Weil, MD
Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Gunaratana
Buddha Mom by Jacqueline Kramer 
Baby Buddhas: A Guide to Teaching Meditation to Children by Lisa Desmond


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Montessori For Mental Illness

I attended a two day Montessori-based dementia training with the Center for Applied Research in Dementia with Dr. Cameron Camp this week. You can read about my initial thoughts here. As a result we will be using Montessori principles to help my Mom who has Lewy Body Dementia.

As I took the training I realized how much my Montessori education from Pre-K to eighth grade led me into ministry and my philosophy of life. Montessori is also what allowed me to be successful despite having bipolar disorder, anxiety, and ADD since I was six years old. Montessori showed me that I did not need to be defined by what I couldn't do. Instead, I learned to focus on what skills I have in order to function in the world. I learned that I was important and could contribute to society no matter what my limitations were.
Dr. Maria Montessori 1870-1952

I had forgotten though how many Montessori principles I can still use in order to help manage my mental illness. For instance, with the ADD I have a horrible time figuring out how to do certain tasks that seem to have so many steps that I get easily overwhelmed. In the Montessori method you break things down into simple steps. The teacher demonstrates how to do the task and you repeat what they did. You also have everything all set up in one spot with no distractions around the area you are working in. No wonder I have a hard time cooking dinner. Too many steps, all written out in a big chunk of words, needing to be completed on a tight timeframe. If I took the time to break the recipes down and rewrite them so they are easier for me to follow, I could make dinner much faster with a lot less stress.

Also, everything in Montessori has a place. When the kids use work, they know exactly where to put it back. I tend to be disorganized mostly because I don't have have a place for everything. Which is where someone to help me organize will be helpful. But then you need to keep everything organized. Again Montessori can help here. If you forget the steps to things like sorting papers and mail, then write out all the steps and put it in a visible place so you remember each time, until it becomes a habit.

Montessori also uses music to signify different times of the day. Some schools use a certain song to end the day or to let the kids know when to clean up for lunch. I have always used music as a way to signify a change in mood. For instance, if I am feeling anxious, I have certain music I listen to that calms me down. I have other songs I like to use when I am depressed or manic.

I have looked around for any place that uses Montessori in the treatment of mental illness, but all I found was work with kids. I would love to find a place that works with adults so if you know of anything, please let me know. I will be doing some more research and trying out ways to use Montessori to help with my treatment and I will keep you posted. Dr. Camp also introduced me to spaced retrieval which I think will work really well for mental illness so I will write about that in the future too.


Rev. Katie

Friday, April 20, 2012


As I wrote the other week, it is getting easier for me to navigate my bipolar disorder through the daily ups and downs. I have found though that the triggers, like a specific event, are much harder to navigate. Those are the times when the bipolar just shows up without enough time to ease the impact.

Trigger: (noun) anything, as an act or an event, that serves as a stimulus and initiates or precipitates a series of reactions.

I have to say, it has been so interesting watching my brain on my new treatment plan. I can see the disorder so much more clearly and it has really given me a new understanding of just how much of an illness this is. I can't will it away, it is just something in my brain. I also have a new understanding of how much I can do to manage it though. I know that this takes hard work, with the lifestyle changes and such, but I feel like I have all these options now. Each day that the disorder sneaks up on me, with my new treatment, I am better able to figure out how to minimize the impact.

It is frustrating though to be doing so well and have a setback, even if it is just for a little while. It amazes me how vigilant I have to be to my program in order to keep things on track. My husband was saying my treatment is a three legged stool of diet, exercise, and sleep. If one leg goes out, you can balance on two, however, if any two of those legs get out of whack, things get much harder. For instance, I stayed up really late a few times this week and also did not have food that I could eat with me so I became very hungry which led to eating unhealthy food. Staying up late once or twice would have been fine if I had kept the other legs of the stool in place, but I didn't. However, now I know that if I just get back onto schedule, I will be feeling better right away. I have a lot more hope now than I used to and I know we will get the systems worked out so I can do even better.

Over the past month I have a new respect for my mental illness. I don't like it any better, but I understand it better. I understand it's power and I understand more how to work with it.


Rev. Katie

Monday, April 9, 2012

Seeing Bipolar Disorder From The Inside

The change in my nutrition in the past three weeks has given me a totally different look at my bipolar disorder. The new lifestyle has made me better without medication, but at the same time it has not gotten rid of my illness. It is weird because now it's like I can see my illness in my own mind. I will try to explain this as best I can, but it is a bit hard to describe.

Whereas before my illness could just take over quickly, in a flash, now I am better able to see it coming. It's like the new diet has slowed down the mood changes enough for me to see them as they are happening. It is weird to be able to fight against the bipolar disorder as it is happening in my mind. I can hear the thought patterns - such as life being pointless and there being complete despair - but at the same time I know that it is not real. Before, I could not see that it wasn't real.

When medications worked (before the side effects got too bad), they just stopped the illness at times, and often I felt nothing or was in a daze. Now I still feel everything but I am better able to see the reality of the situation. I can differentiate what is bipolar disorder and what is not. It is interesting to think I can actually live with this illness in my life every day, yet still function well. It is like the diet change has taken the edge off my illness and I can actually use all the mindfulness techniques I have learned. The ability to see thoughts in your mind and just let them go. Be in the moment rather than get trapped in circular thinking, depression, or mania. I could never figure out how to use mindfulness before because the illness would take over so quickly. Now it's like the bipolar is slowed down a bit and I have the chance to be mindful and process what is going on.

I won't say that it's perfect. For instance yesterday was a hard day and I strayed a bit from the diet. I couldn't seem to get myself to control the bipolar yesterday, but it was not as big of a problem as usual. I ate some stuff I shouldn't have, sat around and watched TV, but there was no big blow up. No huge problems, and today I have eaten well again. The one difficult episode did not spiral out of control like it usually does. I do notice I am more depressed today and my anxiety is much worse but it is so much easier for me to see that this is not going to last. As long as I get back with my program, this will pass.

Clearly we will have to see how this goes over the long haul. You can never tell with this illness if you are actually getting better or you just have a reprieve in the symptoms for a bit. I still have a lot of work to do such as increasing mindfulness practice so it becomes easier to do. And I will have to figure out how to handle days, like yesterday, when I can not see the illness as clearly. I won't discount that things look promising right now, but I know there is still a long journey ahead.


Rev. Katie

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Making Lifestyle Changes: Paleo Tea Time

As you know, I have switched to eating a Paleo diet as a way to manage my bipolar disorder without medication. I am happy to report that it is working really well, better than medication has in the past, but I will write more about that later. Today I want to write about what it is like to make a drastic lifestyle change and how you do that in the real world.

I had a few family members over today for a visit to see our new house. Typically this would be a coffee and cookies kind of event, but we can't eat or drink any of that anymore. So, all we had in the house was tea and Paleo food. I almost went out and bought cookies for the family, but they said they didn't really need them. Instead, as you can see from the photo, we had Paleo Tea Time and everyone really liked it.

So, I have proof, you can have a nice time and not eat bad food. Who knew?
Paleo Tea Time with kale chips! Photo by Jeff Norris

Actually, you can have all different things about your life that don't match the "norm" and still have a great time. If you need to do something to treat your illness, then do it, you can find ways to be with friends and family and still take care of yourself. 

If you are changing your lifestyle and it doesn't match with what most of your friends and family do, I have a few suggestions:

1. Simply tell them what the change is, but not in too much detail. You may have people who argue with you about if your plan is "correct," but don't argue, just let them know this is what you and your doctor have decided on and leave it at that.

2. When entertaining in your own home, do what is comfortable for you. Have food you can eat (and be mindful of other people's allergies and dietary choices). Or end your dinner parties at a certain time if you have a sleep schedule to keep.

3. When you are at someone else's house, bring your own food or whatever you need. Take a walk outside if you get anxious, leave on time to get to bed. Do what you need to do without making it a big deal for everyone else.

Overall, if we lead by example, making what we do easy and non-intrusive, no one will think twice about it. You may have a few people who just feel the need to criticize whatever your decision is, just steer clear of them or limit interactions to shorter time periods. Mostly everyone else will get used to you choices and care more about you than whatever seems "weird" to them.


Rev. Katie