Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thaddeus Pace | Mindfulness Training May Assuage Early-Life Trauma

Via Scientific American Mind.
Dr. Pace studies biological mechanisms linking psychological stress to illness, and novel ways to combat stress to promote optimal health. He is Assistant Professor in the Colleges of Nursing and Medicine (Department of Psychiatry) at the University of Arizona, and also the director of the Arizona Stress and Health Collaboratory (based in the College of Nursing at Arizona). Dr. Pace received his Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology from the University of Colorado at Boulder for his studies on brain regulation of the cortisol response to psychological stress. His work at Arizona explores endocrine and immune system changes in people who suffer from stress-related psychiatric illness, including major depression and posttraumatic stress disorder. He has also studied endocrine and inflammatory immune alterations as a result of adverse early life experiences. Informed by this work, Dr. Pace investigates the effectiveness of novel contemplative interventions to optimize psychological, inflammatory immune, and endocrine responses to stress including Compassion Meditation (in collaboration with Dr. Chuck Raison and Emory's Dr. Lobsang Tenzin Negi). He is also interested in novel, natural anti-inflammatory compounds such as curcumin to promote health and wellness. Dr. Pace is the recipient of a NARSAD young investigator award, and his research is supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health. He is also a 2012 Pop!Tech Science Fellow.
This guy sounds like someone I would like to know!

Mindfulness Training May Assuage Early-Life Trauma

By Thaddeus Pace | August 11, 2014 

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

We live in an increasingly stressful world. There’s an aspirational sense things should improve with time, witness the U.S. War on Poverty or the U.N. Millennium Development Goals. But in the last 50 years, many risks, perceived and real, have grown worse: extreme weather, violent conflict, economic dislocation, poverty (especially for children), abuse and domestic violence. Traumatic and chronic stress affects millions. Many become sick and marginalized because of it; others manage to survive and thrive. What explains the difference?

“Resilience” is a popular answer these days. But it’s a buzzword in danger of losing its meaning through overuse. As the need for resilience grows, it’s important to be specific about the term. A new white paper, “The Human Dimensions of Resilience,” of which I’m a co-author, reviews relevant research and proposes evidence-based ways of defining and building resilience. Published by the Garrison Institute, a non-profit that promotes “contemplative” solutions to social and environmental concerns, the paper is intended to advance conversations about our wellbeing.

Intel employees participate in Awake@Intel in 2013, a program that teaches mindfulness techniques to improve performance and reduce stress at work. (Credit: Intel Free Press via Flickr)

Science views resilience as part of the response to stress. Not all stress is bad; short stressors can inspire outstanding performance. But extreme or acute stress can be traumatizing and damaging. When physiological responses to stress like cortisol, adrenaline and inflammation persist even after a stressor has ended, they can undermine mental and physical health. Unchecked behavioral responses to stress can lead to sleep and diet problems. Besides PTSD, exposure to chronic and/or traumatic stress can also lead to other serious conditions including heart disease, hypertension, type 2 diabetes, anxiety, depression and cognitive problems – maybe even DNA damage.

Traumatic stress can undermine and shorten peoples’ lives, especially if they’re exposed before age 18. They’re more likely to have lower achievement and wellness, and experience more illness. “Early life adversity”—experiencing abuse or household dysfunction during childhood—correlates not only with more psychological problems, but also with elevated inflammatory markers like C-reactive protein or higher insulin levels that persist into adulthood. Studies show a strong, graded relationship between early life adversity and risk factors for the leading causes of death in adults.

Resilience can mitigate those effects. Extraordinarily resilient people can thrive in adversity and use difficult experiences as opportunities for growth. But resilience isn’t an inscrutable, innate personality trait you’re either born with or not. It’s likely a spectrum of qualities that people possess in varying degrees that help them survive challenges, shut off aspects of stress response when they’re no longer needed, and return to a pre-stressor, baseline state. As such, resilience is something we should be able to analyze and teach, and anyone should be able to learn.

Buddha has left the building. (Credit: Mindfulness via Flickr)

Studies show contemplative practices such as mindfulness meditation, compassion training, yoga, etc. can reduce harmful impacts of stress, and they can be helpful in building resilience. However, recent media coverage gushing over how contemplative practices like mindfulness make you happier, healthier, sharper and richer spreads confusion about how those practices work.

Contemplative practices weren’t invented to fight cancer or boost performance, but rather to tackle big issues like living purposefully and facing death with equanimity. One fundamental skill they build is attention, the simple act of consciously choosing what to focus on instead of letting the mind wander. Having strong attention is an important component of resilience, because it develops a sense of agency and choice in directing one’s thoughts and influencing one’s inner landscape – a powerful counterweight to the sense of helplessness or passivity that traumatic stress can produce.

Colleagues and I recently studied teenagers in foster care in Georgia who were exposed to early life adversity. They were taught a form of meditation called Cognitively Based Compassion Training. After six weeks, the kids who really practiced not only reported feeling better and coping better with anger and stress (“At school, someone threw M&M’s at me and I ignored him. Normally I would have thrown things back and been negative.”). Pre- and post- saliva testing also showed their C-reactive protein levels dropped, which means they actually had less inflammation in their bodies. That suggests increased resilience, because it shows some better functioning and movement back toward baseline.

We recently launched a similar Cognitively Based Compassion Training program in Arizona. The next horizon for research is determining whether kids in such programs perform better in school and generally thrive. Failure to thrive—not taking advantage of the opportunities that arise in life and work—is a symptom of traumatization. Effective resilience building should be able to ameliorate it.

If contemplative practice can help accomplish that for these kids, imagine what it might do for people working in fields with high trauma exposure and burnout risk, like first responders or humanitarian aid and relief workers. For example the Garrison Institute’s Contemplative-Based Resilience Training program designs trainings for aid workers that incorporate meditation, yoga and other contemplative techniques to help them cope with stress, avoid burnout, and thrive in their work. It hypothesizes that more resilient individuals make for more resilient communities, but how and why that’s the case is a subject for another blog.

About the Author: 
Thaddeus Pace, PhD, is Assistant Professor in the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona. He is also Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychiatry in the College of Medicine at Arizona and Director of the Arizona Stress and Health Collaboratory. His research explores stress, health, wellness and nonpharmacological, contemplative-based ways to limit stress responses and improve health.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.
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