REPS conference focuses on wellness
Steamboat Springs — More than 150 community members and health professionals dove into the topic of mental health Friday during the Fifth annual Yampa Valley Wellness Conference.
“As one of the organizers, I’m really pleased,” Mind Springs Health Regional Director Tom Gangel said. “Our speaker group has done their job of creating thought, and it becomes our job to continue the conversation.”
The one-day conference was hosted by Reaching Everyone Preventing Suicide, with support from the Craig-Scheckman Family Foundation.
Topics focused not only on suicide prevention, but also on promoting overall mental, physical, emotional and spiritual health.
“I always learn something every year,” REPS board member Meghan McNamara said.
In addition to breakout sessions, the conference featured a trio of keynote speakers, including Gaëlle Desbordes, a researcher and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
Her talk was titled “Compassion Meditation: How it Affects the Brain and the Body’s Stress Response.”
Desbordes spoke about research done on “compassion training.” She said by finding out how individual humans apply and interpret compassion, populations at risk of suicide can be identified.
In one study Desbordes spoke about, three people were placed in a waiting room with only three chairs, and then, a person on crutches walked into the room. Of the Boston residents involved in the study, only 20 percent gave up their seats to the person on crutches.
After eight weeks of compassion training, researchers found that 50 percent of the people gave up their seats to the person on crutches.
“We found there was an increase in the the number that gave up their seat, but it wasn’t as much as we had hoped,” Desbordes said.
The compassion training was centered around meditation techniques adopted from Buddhist traditions. Each week, participants would attend a two-hour class where they would practice guided meditation techniques. They were also encouraged to practice daily on their own.
During the first week, participants learned to focus on breathing and the attention and stability of the mind.
“Every time the mind wanders, just bring it back,” Desbordes said.
In subsequent weeks, the group focused on the development of appreciation and gratitude and the idea of compassion to others.
In the studies, researchers learned the participants’ reaction to stress by measuring heart rate, cortisol levels and other indicators. Brain scans were also used. The researchers found that those who practiced meditation the most were typically faster at recovering from stressful situations.
“All of these studies indicate there is something interesting happening there,” Desbordes said.
Gangel said Mind Springs and other therapists in the Yampa Valley incorporate mindfulness techniques in their treatment.
“Mindfulness and meditation can really affect the way your brain operates,” Gangel said. “The other thing that was important is the brain remains elastic.”
Even as people age, he said, the brain can change to create positive attributes.
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