I was a lab rat for mindfulness. It was one of the things that saved my health. But, I wouldn’t know this fact for several years.
Before we get into the story, I’ll share a bit of information on mindfulness and its benefits by delving into the nitty-gritty on my participation in the clinical trial.
Mindfulness is staying focused on the present moment despite the tendency of the mind to spiral through thoughts at a rapid pace. It’s knowing when your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the present moment. It’s refraining from judging what you're thinking about no matter what comes up. It’s the process of learning to let go.
The benefits of mindfulness range from a boosted immune system, to decreased respiration and heart rate, to a kinder and less reactive disposition. This is just a small sampling, but know there are many advantages to one’s personal and professional life. Learn more here.
Now back to the story on how this all lab rat experience came about…
When I moved to Raleigh in 2012, I was determined to put myself into a clinical trial at either Duke University or the University of North Carolina. (Let’s not think too hard about why I felt this way.) If this wasn’t weird enough, I didn’t care about what type of trial I would be in. But definitely nothing too weird, like a fecal transplant or shock treatments. What I signed up for was a 6-week MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) study at Duke through their Integrative Medicine division.
My experience of mindfulness and meditation before this was zip, zero, and nada. I had heard of this word but wasn’t sure what was involved. I was just happy that there were no experimental vaccines involved.
What follows is how the mindfulness experience went down:
The process began with a blood draw at Duke hospital. Afterward, I had to think of and share a stressful situation with the researcher in-extreme-detail. Answering questions like when, where, how, and why?
From here, I waited 15 minutes in a room (no phone usage allowed-ugh what’s a girl to do during this time?) before my blood was drawn again. Then I was able to go home and lick my emotional wounds.
The next step was to participate in a 6-week mindfulness program through Duke. The process involved weekly visits to Integrative Medicine for instruction from a mindfulness practitioner and daily mindfulness meditation practices.
I was given guided mindfulness to listen to and needed to sit still for 30 to 60-minutes and follow my breath over and over. To let go of judgments that came up no matter how snarky my thoughts were.
Not going to sugarcoat it, it-was-challenging. My mind was super noisy! It never seemed to quiet down. But I kept at it because the program kept me accountable and I strongly value integrity (known as doing what you say you’re going to do).
Eventually, I began to get into this mindfulness groove. The process of monitoring my thoughts became easier. At one point, I remember thinking that I could live a life completely present in the moment. How very Zen of me!
Day of Silence
After weeks of instruction, I spend one whole day in utter silence with a bunch of other Duke mindfulness people in a retreat. It was a requirement for me or else I might have made up some reason why I “couldn’t” attend.
Honestly, I thought it would be terrible and I would be swiftly kicked out from laughing like a hyena. But, to my delight and surprise, it was the opposite. It was downright lovely. Who knew silence could be so golden? At the end of the retreat, I didn’t want to turn even on my radio and I persisted to “shh” everyone for hours afterward.
Back to that hospital for the same old blood draw and the in-depth discussion of another stressful event one last time. I had one last period of sitting still for 15-minutes before taking the final blood for analysis. This time the period of waiting was much easier and time flew by.
From here, I was off the hook. The MBSR clinical trial was officially completed. I was free to live a life on auto-pilot and be completely absorbed in my thoughts again.
And I did just this for a few years until I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disease. At this time, my health demanded that I take stock of what’s important. (If you want to know more, you can read more about my battle with this disease here.)
It seemed that living a distracted life didn’t mesh well with a body that was fighting constant inflammation. The more I tried to ignore and push through the pain I experienced, the worse I felt. I became tired of fighting.
I remembered back to my time at Duke, all the hours learning and being mindful, and all of the benefits mindfulness offered me. As I already felt crummy, I figured it couldn’t hurt to give mindfulness thing a try again.
Slowly, I put it into my daily routine. I carved out time to follow my breath in and out. I sat still even though my mind zoomed around. I drank my tea each morning and was fully present. I turned off my radio and drove in silence. I worked on not getting lost in my thoughts.
My body and mind responded positively. I felt less stressed and my pain decreased. My mind felt more centered and I was less bothered by people and situations. My lab reports showed a positive change as well. My rheumatologist says that I should keep doing whatever I’m doing as it’s working and I don’t need any medication to manage this disease.
Now mindfulness alone doesn’t account for all the positive growth, but it helped me get a grip on the progression of my autoimmune disease and further chillax (as my teenager says).
In the end, mindfulness has taught me to be more present in this one life I’m living and better manage what comes my way. Pretty cool lab rat experience indeed.