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A Mindful Approach: Leveraging the Mind-Body Connection for Better Health

The world is a stressful place, especially now. Faced with a global pandemic, many are dealing with health fears, some are facing financial struggles, and all are forced to cope with drastic disruptions to their familiar routines. Add a painful racial reckoning and heated political division to the mix, and most Americans would acknowledge that we are living in anxiety-provoking times. But if you happen to receive an email from Deborah Norris, Ph.D. ’72, you will see that she frames our current reality a bit differently. Beneath her signature block is the observation,  "These are the times for which we've been practicing."

Norris

Debbie, a neuroscientist with a background in psychology, is the founder of The Mindfulness Center, a nonprofit wellness institute based in Bethesda, Maryland, that provides programs for  people across the nation and around the world. She also serves as psychologist-in-residence at American University, where she has taught classes in behavioral medicine, alternative medicine, and meditation since 1980. In addition, Debbie is the author of "In the Flow: Bridging the Science and Practice of Mindfulness," as well as numerous book chapters and articles.

Debbie describes the philosophy at the heart of The Mindfulness Center this way: “Our work is based on both scientific research and ancient wisdom. Today, people have confidence in things that are scientifically proven. There is a vast body of research that demonstrates the therapeutic benefits of mind-body practices, and everything we do at The Mindfulness Center is evidence based. At the same time, we know that meditation, yoga, and related practices were integral to ancient cultures. These practices have stood the test of time, and today we have the scientific tools to understand how and why they work.”

So how and why do they work? Debbie explains, “When we direct our focus inward, when we learn to focus on the sensations we are experiencing inside, it actually changes our neurophysiology. Research has shown that practicing mindfulness can alter the structure of our nervous system, resulting in growth in regions of the brain responsible for self-regulation. What are the physical manifestations of this? Decreased stress, certainly; when our cortisol levels are reduced and our serotonin levels increase, we feel better. With sustained practice, we can gain a greater measure of control over our bodies, regulating blood pressure, heart rate, and so forth. These are just some of the benefits of practices that tap into the essential mind-body connection that we so often fail to recognize.”

Debbie Norris and Daughters

  Debbie Norris with her daughters Jessie and Jacqueline

Debbie and her daughters Jessie Taylor and Jacqueline Hernandez founded The Mindfulness Center in 2009. She reflects, “This began as a family business, and it was tremendously rewarding for the three of us to build it together. The partnership continues; Jessie is our director of education, and Jacqueline is our business director. Over time, we brought other people into the community that is The Mindfulness Center – practitioners from a variety of disciplines, enabling us to provide a wide range of programs and services.” Debbie affirms the importance of all that her organization has accomplished, but there is a special note of pride in her voice when she says that, in 2015, The Mindfulness Center launched “the world’s first online training program for meditation teachers.” To date, the program has trained and certified more than 600 individuals, preparing them to share the benefits of meditation with their communities.

In addition to continuing that program and offering an array of other classes and services, The Mindfulness Center recently embarked on a new initiative. Debbie explains, “We are providing an online program for public schools in the DMV region, training their faculty, staff, students, and families in trauma-informed social and emotional skills, such as building resilience, communicating effectively, and increasing capacity for self-awareness and self-regulation. The term ‘trauma-informed’ means that we are focused on the use of these tools – which can be strengthened through mindfulness practices -- in situations where individuals are experiencing, or have experienced, trauma. Educators can use these skills in their own lives and leverage them to help children who have experienced trauma.”

She adds, “One thing that my research has shown is the importance of a sense of community in overcoming emotional pain and developing resilience. The teachers that we are working with consistently indicate that schools with a strong sense of community are less stressful environments overall. So building communities of support is very important, and that is another of this project’s intended outcomes.”

Right now, stress and trauma are not unfamiliar concepts to most Americans. Debbie observes, “Some people are dealing with the current challenges better than others. Some are really suffering – from fear, isolation, a sense of loss and uncertainty. I believe that mindfulness practices can be a key differentiator for well-being, a means by which people can find some peace and comfort.” So these really are the times for which we’ve been practicing. But what about those of us who haven’t been practicing, those who have yet to climb aboard the mindfulness bandwagon?

Debbie smiles, “Now is always a good time to start.”

In the Flow

In the Flow: Bridging the Science and Practice of Mindfulness will change the way you live your life! In clear and captivating style, neuroscientist, Dr. Deborah Norris, lays out new theories in the science of mindfulness, revealing how simple practices are able to remove our roadblocks to health and happiness. You can get back In the Flow and live the life of your own choosing by identifying and using mindfulness practices that work for you.