Never before in my career have the stakes been this high. Sure I’ve had stressful jobs involving tight deadlines, big budgets and even bigger egos, but The Connection is the most important thing I’ve done professionally. I’ve just had the final premiere of the world tour in London. In the last few weeks I’ve been to Melbourne, back home to Sydney, then New York, Boston, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Tucson, New York again and now finally London before I head home.
Given my travel schedule and the financial pressure of releasing an independent film, it’s easy to imagine that the autoimmune disease I was diagnosed with in my mid 20s would rear its ugly head. It would usually flare up during or shortly after a stressful period in my life. But I’m sitting here in a hotel room in London at the end of the tour and I feel pretty good. I’m a tad jet lagged, a bit tender and there’s an ache in my heart for my son and husband back at home, but I am certainly not riddled with arthritis and chronically fatigued like I once was.
One of the major realizations I had during the production of the film was during an interview with Dr. Sara Lazar from Harvard University. She studies the brains of people who meditate and has found that people who have never meditated have different brain structures to people who meditate regularly.
One of the interesting things she found is that when people who had never meditated before were put through an 8-week meditation program, the region of the brain called the amygdala got smaller. The amygdala are two almond shaped regions at the base of the brain known to play an important role in stress. The shrinking measurements were consistent with the self-reporting of the meditation students that they were experiencing less stress and greater feelings of peace.
But the research takes on a whole new level of meaning when we compare this to studies done on rats and mice at the National Centre for Biological Sciences. Researchers took their test animals and stressed them out for 10 days. They observed them behaving anxiously and their amygdala getting bigger. Then they removed the stressors and 10 days later they measured the brains of the test animals again. Not only were the animals still behaving anxiously but their amygdala were still large, despite the fact that the stressors had been removed.
As Dr. Lazar explains in this video sliced from The Connection, the study with animals shows the opposite of what she was observing with the meditating people. The people’s lives were the same as they had always been. They still had their stressful jobs and difficult people in the lives, but their amygdala were shrinking and they were reporting less stress. The animals on the other hand had no stressful things in their life, but the amygdala were still large after the stress they had previously experienced.
It was a break through moment for me when I realized that simply doing relaxing activities like having a massage or going to the beach every now and again wasn’t enough. I had been under constant stress for years and there was a good deal of amygdala shrinking to be done, so I began actively practicing mindfulness and meditation daily.
I use these techniques constantly. I meditate anywhere and everywhere - before bed or in the morning, on a plane or in a car traveling from A to B. On this tour before every screening I have taken a moment in the bathrooms to take 20 mindful breaths. It focuses me, brings me into the present moment and prevents my stress response from being triggered too severely right before I need to speak in public in front of hundreds of people.
I haven’t had my brain measured but I’m hoping that at the very least my amygdala aren’t getting any bigger and like Dr. Lazar’s novice meditators, I can reliably report less stress and greater feelings of peace in my life. But of course for me the greatest benefit I have found is that the flare ups of arthritis, muscle tension and exhaustion that would typically come during a stressful period haven’t come. Just one week out from the release of The Connection and it feels to me like any other day. (Well maybe just a bit more exciting!)