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Vol. LXV, No. 17
August 16, 2013

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NIMH’s Ameli Has Novel Approach to Managing Stress
Dr. Rezvan Ameli participants complete a class exercise.

NIMH’s Dr. Rezvan Ameli (at left, and standing above) teaches a class on mindfulness at NIH. In the session above, participants complete a class exercise.

Photos: Bill Branson

Mind full or mindful?

With the amount of stress and responsibility in the world, Dr. Rezvan Ameli of NIMH believes that one must choose the latter to maximize well-being. According to her, mindfulness can be defined in various ways, ranging from the broad (Thich Nhat Hanh’s definition, “To be aware…it is to be in touch with your felt experience in each moment”) to the specific (Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, “Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, in the present, and non-judgmentally, to the unfolding of experience moment by moment”).

Ameli believes mindfulness to be a threepronged mental state requiring intention, attention and acceptance. Intention is the first step in becoming mindful, because, as she explains, “With intention as a base, the aim is then to cultivate attention and acceptance.”

In addition to practicing focused attention, at the core of mindfulness is the ability to accept all experience and suspend judgments and expectations. In the same vein, one should not fixate on the expected outcome of mindfulness because, Ameli warns, “It is a little like Catch-22. If you become invested in the results of mindfulness, you will diminish its effectiveness.”

Ameli treats mindfulness as “a practical tool…[that] can be integrated into everyday home, work and social life with relative ease.” Although mindfulness can be practiced both formally and informally, she suggests that “any amount of regular practice can be beneficial.”

In order to aid others with the incorporation of mindfulness into daily life, Ameli accepted the invitation of the American Psychological Association, a nonprofit organization, to write 25 Lessons in Mindfulness: Now Time for Healthy Living, to be released in August. She hopes the book will serve as an enjoyable read and “as a combination of a manual and a textbook” for the public, mindfulness devotees and mindfulness teachers.

By practicing mindfulness, one can improve his/her well-being. Ameli compares mindfulness to brushing one’s teeth because “[in] the same way regular tooth-brushing assists in dental hygiene, regular practice of mindfulnesscan assist in mental hygiene.” In fact, research shows the empirical benefits of mindfulness to be far-reaching. Ameli notes that some of the “initial reports of efficacy were for pain, anxiety, psoriasis and immune functions.” fMRI studies have further proven that the brain is directly affected by mindfulness, resulting in increased gray matter, increased cortical activity and decreased amygdala activity, demonstrating a significant relationship between mindfulness and emotion regulation.

After learning of the positive effects of mindfulness at a work meeting more than a decade ago, Ameli decided to learn mindfulness by attending classes, workshops, trainings, lectures and retreats. Although she admits it was difficult to maintain a regular practice at the beginning, she gradually “began to notice [her] own transformation in handling various forms of stress: family, person, work and social.” Although studying mindfulness has been a personal rather than professional journey for Ameli, she wanted to share her experiences with the NIH community and volunteered to teach mindfulness classes in cooperation with the NIH Recreation & Welfare Association.

Mindfulness, as taught by Ameli, encourages focused attention and a genuine positivity designed to promote both physical and mental health. Various meditative practices, yoga and the application of mindfulness to activities such as eating and walking are used to infuse mindfulness into daily life and can lead to feeling calmer and less stressed. Ameli’s advice to her students is that it is a process that must be nurtured. “Learning and practicing mindfulness is not a 30-day diet to fix all problems,” she said, but rather a persistent growing experience resulting in physical and emotional benefits.

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