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Sensory-Based Meditation for Anxiety vs. New Drug-Based Therapies
Submitted by jon-lybrook on Sun, 6/17/2012, 2:33am
An article in Wired Magazine from March 2012 titled "The Forgetting Pill erases Painful Memories Forever". describes an experimental therapy for removing negative memories to help patients struggling with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), in addition to more common anxieties. The approach involves giving patients blood pressure meds lasting just 3 hours as opposed to full strength, which may last all day. Once the medication, which has a calming effect, sets in, the patients are then asked to describe the traumatic or negative memory in as much detail as possible.
According to the article, during the times we remember or relive an event, we rewrite it to our memory along with the subjective emotional state we are in at the time we recall it. Because the cardio medication weakens general excitement, the memory is re-experienced and "rewritten" to the mind from a more objective perspective instead, with less emotional reactions, thus weakening the attachment to the memory of the event.
What I found intriguing about this piece in Wired was that the treatment is in many ways similar to the technique of Vipassana meditation I practice, where meditators are asked to sit motionless with eyes closed and specifically pay close attention to sensations on the surface of the body. While doing so, they are instructed to keep focused and not to react with craving or aversion to these sensations on the body (no matter how delightful or objectionable) or anything coming up in the mind, and to simply notice them with kindness and equanimity. The sensations on the body are, as stated in Vipassana teaching by S.N. Goenka, paired directly with emotions and memories in the subconscious. By acknowledging the sensations, we are tapping into subconscious memories and re-experiencing them more directly. The word 'recognize' literally means to re-think. By recognizing the truth and remaining equanimous, or accepting the truth about how we feel regarding our experiences at the deepest level, we become free of them.
If they aren't accepted by the mind and integrated in to the life-experience, eventually and through repetition, these layers of emotions bound to the initial experience deepen, as do the physiological and biochemical reactions. If negative, these emotions can cause mental and physical tension in response to a fight or flight response. If positive, the emotions can result in clinging or craving, resulting in an addiction to the experience. More accurately, an addiction to the biochemicals is produced by the emotions relating to the memory of the experience.
The danger is that the biochemicals, regardless of whether or not the subject sees the memory as helpful or harmful, create a base craving for more of this natural chemical, which is why anger or depression can sometimes spiral out of control. The angrier we get, the more we tend to generate additional anger, feeding back into an upward spiral of fury. Similarly, downward spirals of depression create a feedback loop of feelings involving angst, futility, and misery.
In either case there is at its center, a physiological reaction to the emotional response: the flow of biochemicals results in things such as an increase of adrenaline, back and gastrointestinal constrictions, and/or an increase in blood pressure, to name a few of the effects. This can manifest in the form of back pain, stomach problems, migraines, insomnia, heart disease, and even cancer. It goes without saying, this causes trouble in personal relationships - which can and often does result in another cycle beginning. Over time the expanding physical and biochemical changes in the body can and do make us unhealthy, yet these changes originate in the mind. In this way, meditation for anxiety has similar benefits to the drug-based therapy.
Whether under the influence of a calming medication, as described in the Wired article, or under the influence of a disciplined mind through meditation, there is a decreased reaction to the memory of the negative experience by not reinforcing the memory in an environment supporting strong emotion. Through multiple exposures to the memories under "safe" and non-volatile environments, the self-generated and self-perpetuated emotional power is diminished, as well as the physiological and biochemical responses.
The main difference between this new therapy and sensory-based meditation is that with Vipassana meditation at least, concentrating on the conscious memories and reliving experiences during meditation are discouraged. One in instructed to only pay attention to sensations directly on the body and keep focused on that activity, since sensations are tied to the more important memories and emotions residing in the subconscious.
While the application of drugs in conjunction with talking about the memories could perhaps tap in to the subconscious to some degree, results of the therapy described in the Wired article are inconclusive. My sense is it will have limited success with victims of PTSD or other forms of anxiety, since the issues are only being dealt with closer to the conscious level.
In certain cases, there is certainly no substitute for modern medicine, especially where symptoms need to be diminished in order for the person to heal. Ultimately though, we are our own masters and need to take control of how our mind reacts to the past, present and future for our own health and benefit and those around us.
Jon Lybrook is an artist, printmaker, and website developer. He practices Vipassana meditation for improving all aspects of life. His blog can be found at http://meditation.jonlybrook.com.
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