With COVID-19 still consuming the news and throwing our lives into complete uncertainty, many of us are living in a heightened state of negativity and stress at all times. Besides being very unpleasant mentally, stress and victimhood can actually have a serious and lasting impact on your physical health, according to Dr. Bojana Weatherly. Fortunately, there’s a way to combat this: through the benefits of mindfulness, which she describes as “a truly transformative, evidence-based practice.” Read on to learn Dr. Weatherly’s personal healing story, as well as how victimhood impacts health, effective mindfulness techniques to try, and much more.
*This is a short clip from our interview with Dr. Bojana Weatherly. Click here to watch the whole thing.*
Discovering the Benefits of Mindfulness Firsthand
Dr. Bojana Weatherly is the mother of two, a double board certified physician, practicing both internal and integrative medicine, and a board member and medical advisor to several organizations. In other words, she seems like a super woman. But while she was a resident, she woke up one night sobbing, overwhelmed with her life and convinced she couldn’t do it all.
So how did she turn things around? Simply by implementing mindfulness techniques, which ended up totally changing her life and the way she practiced medicine. “I think it was really when I started practicing mindfulness myself that I was truly able to effectively use that to help my patients,” she says.
The personal experience that brought Dr. Weatherly to the benefits of mindfulness began when she was an internal medicine resident. She spent her days racing around the hospital, in and out of the ICU, running herself ragged trying to save lives. She also became pregnant two times during the course of her residency.
It was during one of her pregnancies that she hit a wall. She became flooded with negative self-talk and fell into a victimhood mentality, feeling unable to control her circumstances. Her lowest point came when she woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, convinced that she couldn’t be a good doctor and carry a child at the same time.
So Dr. Weatherly got on her computer and began doing research on PubMed (a medical literature search engine) on the link between stress, long work hours and pregnancy. What she found reinforced her fear: the studies showed that being under stress was associated with negative pregnancy outcomes.
Seeing those results, she was faced with a pivotal decision. “I had a choice that night,” she says. “I had a choice to say, ‘I’m a victim. I give up. I can’t do this.’ Or I had a choice to say, ‘You know what? This is a challenge and I’m going to figure it out. I’m going to step up to this challenge.” She chose the latter.
For Dr. Weatherly, stepping up to the challenge meant finding the best possible tools to allow herself to be the best doctor she could be, as well as the best mom-to-be. Those tools included prenatal yoga, hypnobirthing classes, acupuncture, and chiropractic visits. One thing those tools all had in common? They all tapped into the benefits of mindfulness, and they completely transformed the way she viewed her situation and reacted to her circumstances. They allowed her to leave her victimhood mentality in the distant past.
Though she’d experienced firsthand the benefits of mindfulness, she decided to take a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course to help her fully implement mindfulness techniques into her practice. She saw patients with a wide variety of chronic conditions — depression, anxiety, IBS, chronic pain, inflammation — who felt completely powerless and overwhelmed in their situation, just as she had.
So she decided, step by step, to introduce some mindfulness techniques and see what happened. The results spoke for themselves: “I just started seeing some beautiful, wonderful responses that are backed by the evidence we’re seeing with Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction,” Dr. Weatherly says.
From then on, mindfulness techniques became an integral part of her practice. “This really became a tool that I universally started using with all of my patients,” she says. “It can be truly transformative, but the key is that we actually practice it. It’s not a magic pill. It’s not a magic supplement. It’s a practice.”
How A Victimhood Mentality Impacts Healing and Immunity
In that pivotal moment when Dr. Weatherly woke up in the middle of the night sobbing, she felt like a victim of her own life, and made the conscious choice to shift away from that mindset. Along with the mindfulness techniques she implemented, it turns out that the very act of stepping out of that victimhood mentality may have been a major factor in transforming her physical and mental well-being. That’s because, as she explains, victimhood actually physically impacts our brains and bodies.
To understand how this works, you need to understand the concept of neuroplasticity, or the idea that our brains are constantly changing and rewiring themselves based on your neural activity, which is defined by your thoughts and actions. As Dr. Weatherly puts it, “neurons that fire together, wire together.”
So when you’re in a negative thought pattern — which includes things like negative self-talk or a pessimistic outlook — your brain reinforces these negative pathways. “What we establish is a certain pattern of negative self-talk, of ‘this is happening to me,’” she says. “The more we have those thoughts, the more we will have those thoughts again, because it’s the path of least resistance.”
Fortunately, the opposite is also true. If you take a step back from the victimhood mentality and challenge it by reframing your circumstances positively, you can help your brain create more constructive patterns. When you do that, you help push yourself toward a growth mindset, where you can take advantage of your brain’s neuroplasticity and the fact that our brains are always learning and growing.
Victimhood is also associated with stress (Think about it: if you feel like you’re a victim of your circumstances, you feel powerless and overwhelmed by your life and always expect the worst. Stressful, right?). Stress, in turn, is associated with heightened cortisol levels and being in a constant state of fight-or-flight mode. That means your sympathetic nervous system is constantly turned on, raising your heart rate and preventing the parasympathetic nervous system from kicking in.
That’s important for your health because the parasympathetic nervous system, aka the “rest and digest” system, is responsible for many of our vital functions, including digestion. So when that system is perpetually turned off, there are consequences. “It’s not allowing for a normal digestive process. It basically just goes into survival mode, and that’s no longer a priority,” says Dr. Weatherly, noting that this can lead to or exacerbate conditions like IBS or Crohn’s.
The parasympathetic nervous system also controls our immune function, and so your overall immunity is lower when you’re living in a state of victimhood. That means you’re more likely to get sick or develop chronic conditions, and have a harder time healing once you do contract something. Fortunately, none of this is permanent: stepping out of the victimhood mentality allows you to reduce your stress levels such that your parasympathetic nervous system turns back on.
So how do you make that mental shift? You guessed it: by leveraging the benefits of mindfulness.
The Science of Mindfulness and Stress Reduction Practices
For Dr. Weatherly, it’s absolutely essential that any practice she implements for herself or her patients be backed by evidence showing its effectiveness. That’s one of the reasons why mindfulness has been so integral to her life and career: because study after study have reinforced the scientific basis for the benefits of mindfulness.
“It’s so fascinating to me as a physician to actually see that there are biochemical studies that look at markers of inflammation — objective markers — and can correlate them back to a mindfulness practice or stress reduction practice,” she says.
One such study that she cites involved patients with inflammatory bowel disease, such as Crohn’s disease or colitis. They randomized the subjects into those doing a mindfulness meditation practice, and those not doing a mindfulness meditation practice, and compared their inflammatory markers over time. What the researchers found was that inflammatory markers like CRP (C-reactive protein) went down significantly in the group with the mindfulness intervention.
Another incredible scientific argument for mindfulness is the fact that it can actually change your gene expression, which effectively means it can change your genetic fate. We’re all born with genetic material — DNA — in the nuclei of our cells, but that genetic material is not an inevitability. As Dr. Weatherly says, echoing another WellBe expert, “our genes are not our destiny.” See, not all genes are always turned on, or “expressed” into a protein with a function in the cell. “Our body very, very carefully regulates what genes are being turned on and off and when and in response to what circumstances,” she says.
And one of the circumstances that’s been shown to have an effect on gene expression is mindfulness. Dr. Weatherly explains that people who engage in mindfulness impact the expression of several genes that are implicated in inflammation, “so we’ll get less prone inflammatory genes expressed in people who are meditating versus those who are not. It’s mind-blowing.”
Proven Mindfulness Techniques to Implement
One of the biggest influences in Dr. Weatherly’s practice is the concept of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, a very specific practice of mindfulness. It is a tool developed in the 1970s by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Buddhist monk who also had a PhD in molecular biology from MIT and is currently a Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts. Kabat-Zinn’s dual backgrounds meant that he wanted MBSR to be accessible to people of all faiths and secular positions, as well as backed by hard research. To achieve the latter, he conducted trials with the sickest patients at Massachusetts General Hospital, monitoring their symptoms as they engaged in MBSR over time. Universally, he saw improvements.
Basically, what MBSR does is utilize specific mindfulness techniques to help people reduce their stress. While the idea of mindfulness is very buzzy in the wellness world, many of us don’t fully understand what, exactly, it entails. Dr. Weatherly explains that it’s simply the practice of being present and fully engaging with what’s going on in the current moment in time. “So it’s not worrying about the past or thinking about the future. It’s about the right now. Engaging in the present moment purposefully and intentionally,” she says.
This could mean noticing the different objects in the room you’re in, paying close attention to your emotions or thoughts, or focusing on your bodily sensations — anything at all, as long as it involves paying attention to what’s going on in the present moment, physically or non-physically.
But that’s not all: you also need to be able to pay attention to all this without passing judgement on anything. Dr. Weatherly points out that this, of course, is an impossible goal, because as humans we’re constantly judging ourselves and others. But the point here is to practice acceptance, even when you notice judgmental thoughts, and continue to strive for a zero-judgment mindset.
“We’re going to have a lot of thoughts, so mindfulness or meditation is not about suppressing thoughts,” says Dr. Weatherly. “It’s about getting curious.” That means that when you notice you’re judging yourself for, say, eating a chocolate bar instead of an apple, or thinking negatively about the future, you can take a step back and observe that thought objectively, rather than simply believing or reacting to it. “You can say, ‘Oh, that’s interesting. I’m judging myself. Is this judgement trying to tell me something?” Dr. Weatherly explains.
In terms of MBSR, Dr. Weatherly highly recommends a structured course to fully understand and implement the practice (there are many courses available, both online and in-person). But if you can’t commit to a course right now, Dr. Weatherly suggests one super simple, quick mindfulness technique that utilizes MBSR principles: a body scan. This means simply pausing for five minutes and slowly noticing every piece of your body, from head to toe. This simple act will ground you in your body, helping you reduce any anxiety or stress you might be feeling.
Dr. Weatherly also recommends meditation as a way of tapping into the benefits of mindfulness. She explains that there’s many different types of meditation, and none are better than any other — what matters is finding what works for you. “What I often tell my patients is that there is no one-size-fits-all, and we really have to find what we respond to,” she says. Some types of meditation she suggests are:
A structured meditation program, like Deepak Chopra’s 21 Day Meditation Experience
A meditation app, like Calm, Headspace, Simple Habit, Ten Percent Happier, and many others
Breathing-focused meditation, where you simply pay attention to your inhales and exhales
Mantra meditation, where you focus all your attention on a particular mantra
Dr. Weatherly is also quick to point out that mindfulness doesn’t mean meditation. So if meditation is not something you want to practice right now, don’t worry, you can still reap the benefits of mindfulness. Some meditation-free ways mindfulness techniques include journaling, which could mean a reflective journal at the end of the day, a gratitude journal where you write down what you’re thankful for, or a morning journal where you set intentions for the day. She also emphasizes the importance of getting enough sleep, which sets you up to make intentional choices and have a mindful day.
However, according to Dr. Weatherly, mindfulness doesn’t even have to be that structured. “I think we can be mindful when we’re doing anything,” she says. She describes one mindfulness class she took, where the instructor challenged students to simply do one mindful thing per day. That could be brushing your teeth, eating a meal, making your bed — anything, as long as you’re fully present and paying attention to the current moment.
Watch the full interview to learn how Dr. Weatherly sees the coronavirus or COVID-19 pandemic impacting people’s mental state and chronic conditions, how many thoughts each of us has in a given day, what to do when you feel like there are too many “self-care” tools to choose from or you’re struggling to make something stick, the one wellness practice she does everyday that increases your ability to fight off respiratory illness like COVID-19, and more!