Our feelings matter, and so does the level of stress we experience on a daily basis. Recent research out of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, conducted by Professor Raz Yirmiya and his team, have identified microglia brain cells as being involved in the development of depression following chronic exposure to unpredictable stress. They also found the effects of chronic stress may lead to decreases in the volume of some structures in the brain, a scary thought since we all experience stress!
While the research by Prof Yirmiya is based on chronic and unpredictable stress, one wonders how every day stress impacts us, and rather than face depression and possible changes in our brains, is there something we can do to avoid such an outcome?
As an example, Ellen, a successful attorney and single mother of two teen-aged children recently re-married after a year-long courtship with a man she met through friends. Ellen and her children re-located to her husband’s larger home in North County, some 20 miles from her previous neighborhood, increasing her commute to and from work every day. While she felt her new marriage was strong, Ellen was not used to considering her husband in day to day decisions and found herself grappling with shared decision making. While most changes were positive for Ellen and her children, she felt stress in her new life and found herself dealing with some symptoms of depression. Although Ellen’s depression was mild; a loss of energy, some feelings of sadness and lack of interest in things she previously enjoyed, she did not know how to improve her feelings, or as she put it, “to snap out of it.”
While Ellen considered taking medication, she felt her feelings were situational and wanted to explore other avenues for alleviating her depression. Ellen decided to try weekly counseling sessions in conjunction with mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is the sense of being present in the moment, not focusing on the past or on the future, as all we really have is this moment; mindfulness allows you to tune into your current experience and accept it for what it is. Meditation is used to quiet the mind and one method is to focus on the breath while meditating. Meditation teaches us to re-direct our mind as it wonders and to label thoughts as just that, thoughts, and refocus on the breath. The breath is seen as an anchor and keeps us present in our bodies.
Just as the impact of stress may be negative and pervasive, the benefits of meditation may be widespread and have a positive impact on the mind and on the structure of the brain. If a stressed-out person commits to meditate daily for six to eight weeks, research has shown the structure of the brain improves, coping with stress becomes easier and we become more resilient. Ellen successfully used mindfulness meditation, becoming an observer of her difficult emotions, she felt space from her stress and was able to ease into married life as her depression lifted.
(The names and circumstances of clients depicted in this article have been changed to protect confidentiality).