Bonnie Marks is endlessly intrigued about the resilience of human beings, that quality of rising above our misfortunes, to recover and take charge of our lives when things don’t go our way. It is her work to foster such resilience as a psychologist at New York University’s Langone Medical Center and Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine.
She is part of a Brain Injury Program that helps patients recover from traumatic brain injuries, concussions and other traumatic life-changing health events.
Additionally, she also works with various levels of athletes including Olympians at the NYU Langone Sports Performance Center who are looking for solutions to optimize their performance or to cope with injuries. Over the last 17 years, she has helped elevate mindfulness and meditation as vital tools in therapy from the alternative fringes to greater acceptance in mainstream healthcare.
On my desk at home, I have this small sign that says, “No One Can Stop You But Yourself.” It is one of my favorite sayings. Often, we “step on our own neck” and get in our own way. In my work, it’s a stimulating challenge to help people find out what’s getting in their way to reaching their goals. But I don’t believe that you need to go back through childhood history to figure out where it all started. It doesn’t matter. What matters is from today forward. We can start making lifestyle changes at any age or phase of life, even if we begin with very small goals, like simply doing daily meditation for five minutes a day or just 15 minutes of exercise. Every small step of progress is to be celebrated. It’s never too late to begin.
Giving patients mindfulness training as part of their rehabilitation is not just a way to help them recover. It often goes far beyond it. Not only do they make significant progress, but many actually go on to rebuild their lives.
It’s one thing to be able to walk or talk again after a car accident or brain injury, but to move beyond that to really improve their lives is truly remarkable. It’s shocking to hear people say, “My life is more meaningful now than before the accident.” That’s powerful.
Quite often, new patients report after practicing a week or two of mindfulness techniques that they’ve had fewer negative feelings and thoughts. They might say, “I didn’t beat up on myself as much this week.” Another common response is “I attempted something new that I’ve never done before.” One particularly striking example was a patient with brain cancer who experienced debilitating anxiety made worse by all the surgeries and chemotherapy. She was given some mindfulness exercises and affirmations to practice.
Her husband reported back, “She’s so much calmer. She is no longer afraid to leave the house.”
I don’t believe there’s enough written about how mindfulness techniques benefit pain
management. This is an especially important option today given the highly addictive nature of pain medications. Jon Kabat-Zinn, who works with patients in severe pain, stresses, “It’s not the pain but our perception of the pain that matters most.” What we resist persists. When we resist pain, our bodies tense up, and the pain becomes worse. Added to that is the fear of re-injury, which becomes a major block for both patients and athletes. For most of us, the pain itself is not going to disappear. When we learn how to breathe through it, and not fight it, the pain becomes more tolerable. Recent studies at the Benson- Henry Institute have shown that the “relaxation response” when practiced daily for 8 weeks, reduces inflammation that causes disease and it alters genes that may cause certain diseases.
Why does it often take a major life-changing event like an accident, illness, or a painful loss to open us up to these simple but profound life-enhancing tools? Most of us are on “automatic pilot.” Life is good. We rush through our day and cram it full. We take care of our families, and we’re busy with work. We’re doing a million “to-do” lists.
Then all of a sudden, we’re distracted while crossing the street and get hit by a cab. Life suddenly stops as we know it; we are no longer on “automatic pilot.” Once out of the shock mode, we begin to value our lives and look at things differently. When a person has been diagnosed with a terminal disease, they suddenly become more mindful of what matters most. “How do I find joy and 2giftglobal.org
meaning in the time that I have left?” “Who are the people that really matter?” But these are questions we should all be asking, even if we don’t have anything particularly tragic in our lives. Fortunately, more and more people are reading about the benefits of mindfulness. They may not be facing lifechanging events but they want to be happier and feel more satisfied. They feel that there’s something missing in spite of their successes.
I, too, was a late bloomer to this field. At midlife, I went back to school to get my doctorate. As part of my education, I happened to take a three-day weekend course at Harvard Medical School by Dr. Herbert Benson, who created the pioneering Relaxation Response mind/ body approach to stress reduction. Dr. Benson explained a scientific study he had done in the 1970s where they connected meditating Tibetan Buddhist monks to an EEG. He was curious how the monks were able to control their involuntary responses such as reducing heart, metabolic and breathing rates.
Dramatically illustrated in his study was how the monks were able to raise their body heat to dry out cold, wet sheets placed on their shoulders in a frigid room. From that day on, my curiosity continued to grow. A few years later, Jon Kabat-Zinn came forward with his science-based, westernized approach to the whole area of mindfulness. So what was once Bonnie Marks worked with US Olympic fencer Dagmara Wozniak on mindfulness to enhance her sports performance dismissed by the medical field progressively grew into greater mainstream acceptance. There is now imaging evidence that mindfulness improves brain function, improves short-term memory, focus, mental flexibility, mood, and self-control. Studies have proven that it increases compassion and empathy.
In the beginning, I was a little nervous when I give a talk before a group and led them through a meditation exercise. I used to think, “What if no one closes their eyes or walks out? It could be embarrassing.” However, at the end, people came up and expressed their gratitude. I’m always surprised and pleased how much calmer people feel. And I think to myself, “Mindfulness meditation can really help people feel better, get better, and experience deeper satisfaction.”
For More Information on Bonnie’s work, visit www.nyulangone.org