As part of our complementary therapies week, we interviewed Dr. Emma Seppälä, Ph.D,  who is the Science Director of Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education and author of The Happiness Track (HarperOne, 2016). Dr. Seppälä has received numerous research grants and service awards. Her research focuses on well-being, compassion, social connection, complementary and alternative practices, and trauma resilience. In fact, her research on yoga-based breathing for military veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan was highlighted in the documentary Free the Mind. Dr.Seppälä regularly consults with and speaks at companies around the world on positive organizations, happiness at work and social connection.

PF Now!: How would you describe mindfulness and meditation? What is the concept behind it?

Dr. Seppälä: There has been so much attention on mindfulness and meditation that we’ve started to equate the two. Yet there are many ways to meditate and the “mindfulness” technique is just one among them. One reason scientists are so interested in mindfulness meditation is that it is a cognitive exercise. Scientists like cognitive exercises.

Here’s what I mean: you have to observe your thoughts (scientists love to observe) and label them (scientists love putting labels on things), in a nonjudgmental way (isn’t objectivity the epitome of good science!?). Mindfulness meditation is the most scientific spiritual practice ever. But we’re not all scientists, and what works for them won’t necessarily work for everyone. If mindfulness meditation hasn’t worked for you, don’t beat yourself up. There is no end of effective meditation strategies to calm the mind. I’ve worked with arguably some of the most stressed individuals in our society, like veterans returning from war in Iraq and Afghanistan. Their trauma is heavy, they have insomnia, anxiety, depression and some even live bunkered up in their basements.

Sitting with their eyes closed and doing nothing is not something these people really get excited about. In fact, it could be anxiety-provoking. What tends to work for people who have been under incredibly high amounts of stress is shockingly simple: breathing. I gave a TEDx talk on this topic which led people to ask me how they can learn more.

Yoga-based breathing exercises can help those of us who can’t be inactive because it is an active meditation. It requires that you do something, instead of trying not to do something. It also leads to immediate results. (Breathing can slow your heart rate in minutes, as opposed to mindfulness meditation, which takes repetition over time). In our study, veterans’ PTSD scores normalized within a week of practicing yogic breathing, and the benefits remain as much as 1 year later, suggesting permanent improvement. Similarly, we are just getting ready to publish a peer reviewed study that showed that this type of breathing had more impact on depression, stress, mental health, positive emotion, social connection and mindfulness than a mindfulness based stress reduction program or an emotional intelligence program. The kind of breathing we researched is called Sudarshan Kriya which is taught through the International Association for Human Values and the Art of Living Foundation)

PF Now!: Do you think this may be an effective practice for someone who is suffering from a chronic lung condition? Why?

Dr. Seppala: Yes, because it helps boosts your health and:

1 – Increases immune function

2 – Decreases pain

3 – Decreases inflammation at the cellular level

It reduces stress and boosts your HAPPINESS (which we know further impacts your immune function and health)

4 – Increases positive emotion

5 – Decreases depression

6 – Decreases anxiety

7 – Decreases stress

PF Now!: Do you have any thoughts or data on how mindfulness and meditation may enhance a pulmonary rehab/breathing exercise program?

Dr. Seppälä: Breathing practice that involves gentle breathing exercises like the Sudarshan kriya may be beneficial. 

PF Now!: What’s one piece of advice you would give to someone with a chronic lung condition such as pulmonary fibrosis who is looking into meditation and mindfulness as complementary therapy?

Dr. Seppälä: Since having a breathing condition is very stressful, it can help to calm your nervous system with the relaxation response.

The relaxation response directly counteracts reactions that increase distress, tension and pain. To get there, try diaphragmatic breathing or other yoga-based breathing exercises, like this one. Guided relaxation helps to deeply calm the mind and body. Doing it is simpler than you think: you can download an audiofile onto your smartphone, put in your headphones, close your eyes and follow along on a journey to a peaceful state.

Guided relaxations calm the nervous system by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate and muscle tension while increasing blood flow. When your mind is in a state of stress from pain or anxiety, your breathing becomes tense and shallow. But research shows that when you consciously change your breathing, you can quickly change how you feel as well. In doing so, the mind is lulled into a state of peaceful relaxation. When the physiological “attack” signals are silenced, mind and body enter a state that signals “trust and safety,” which promotes physical and mental wellbeing.

In our research with Iraq and Afghanistan veterans with trauma, we found that one week of intensive breathing practices (called sudarshan kriya yoga) normalized anxiety—and the results were maintained one month and one year later. There’s more to the expression “take a deep breath” than we think.

Meditation is another technique that cultivates the healing relaxation response. Brain scans of regular meditators show reduced activity in the regions of the brain associated with pain and increased activity in regions associated with emotion regulation, along with many other benefits. People with chronic pain or anxiety who learn to meditate report that their pain or trauma has less of an impact on them; it may still be there, but it matters less and therefore is less distressing. Research we conducted at Stanford University on compassion meditation showed that it significantly reduced chronic pain.When diaphragmatic breathing, relaxation or meditation are used regularly, your mind and body are retrained to be less reactive to pain and other stressors—and your nervous system is calmed.

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