The Systems Thinker - Center for Family Consultation's blog

Connecting Inflammation, Depression and Compassion Meditation Training

Authored by Leslie Ann Fox

Did you know that only 10% of the cells in our bodies are mammalian—that 90% are bacteria? When someone can think in evolutionary ways all the way back to when all life on earth was bacteria, and see that we humans are still primarily bacteria, it really gets you thinking differently about your family history…but I will leave that for another day.

At the 31st Annual Midwest Symposium in Wilmette, IL on May 2nd and 3rd, 2014, Charles Raison, MD presented his thinking on Fractal Compassion: Bugs, Immunity, and the Tribal Mind. Dr. Raison’s knowledge across a broad range of scientific disciplines reminded me of how Dr. Murray Bowen approached his early work in developing Bowen family systems theory.  Dr. Raison is a broad thinker—combining knowledge from his studies of medicine, microbiology, evolution, anthropology, ethnology, and Buddhism to find and research new methods of treating patients suffering from depression. From the results of research on hyperthermia treatments to compassionate meditation learned from the practices of the Tibetan Monks, his presentation stimulated my thinking about the relationship of inflammation, stress and depression, about how all three are deeply rooted in our evolutionary past. Of course, I now have more questions than answers.

For example, in ancient times, to survive past infancy or childhood, humans required protection from death caused by predators, or infections from injuries by predators. Parents and the tribal group protected the infant as it grew to maturity.  And, for the first 6 months of life the immunity passed on at birth by the mother helped protect it from infections. The stress response took over where the parents left off in avoiding predators, but what about protection from infections? Does the stress response to an advancing predator included initiating the inflammatory process in preparation to help recover from possible injury or infection?

If injury was avoided, the inflammatory response was no longer necessary and stopped. Today, living in an over-crowded, polluted, noisy, frenetic, and over connected world, there isn’t enough time for inflammation to turn off between threatening events. Thus we see the presence of inflammation in the modern-day chronic diseases that plague our society—such as cancer, cardio-vascular disease, diabetes, etc. However, Dr. Raison’s research also suggests a connection between inflammation and depression. That was a new one for me to consider and certainly would resonate with systems thinkers.

Dr. Raison suggested depression may have played a role in ancient times to help the larger group survive—the injured (infectious person) self-isolated from the group, a common behavior associated with depression. The behavior didn’t necessarily help the individual survive, but it was in the best interest of the larger group. Do the unrelenting threats, and almost continuous stress experienced in modern societies jump-start the ancient human physiological adaptive response—including the inflammatory process and accompanying depression that we don’t know how to turn off?

So how do we turn it off? That’s where compassion meditation training comes in. You can hear Dr. Raison explain that himself.

pic_lfoxLeslie Ann Fox

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6 Comments on "Connecting Inflammation, Depression and Compassion Meditation Training"

  • Kelly Matthews-Pluta says

    There are so many thoughts swirling around my brain from the rich discussions at the symposium. The inflammation process is of particular interest to me due to its internal nature. One cannot see someone else’s inflammation. Additionally, one does not “feel” one’s own inflammation. It has enormous implications to our health, now both physical and mental/emotional, but it is hard to detect. I think managing stress and anxiety are the real tangible ways to get at this modern challenge. The more research and clinical work done to connect stress and anxiety to our health the more Bowen Theory resonates.

  • Rosalyn Chrenka says

    Thank you, Leslie, for a concise and thoughtful articulation of one of Raison’s (many) interesting, integrative ideas. Also, his TEDx talk, “We’re Fighting the Wrong Enemy”, especially his comments on the equanimity aspect of the compassion meditation process, resonated with my understanding of the processes of standing for self, emotional cutoff, and the Bowenian stance, “Don’t blame, don’t withdraw, don’t get defensive” while moving toward differentiation and good emotional contact.
    In terms of learning about the actual meditation training foundations and implementation, I found this article, especially Table 1, to be detailed enough to get some idea of the process.
    Rosalyn Chrenka

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