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Thursday, Jan. 12, 2006 02:54 am

Mental health

Local therapist teaches how to manage pain and stress

Eva Muller: Stress reduction requires a long-term commitment.
Eva Muller says she learned how to be a therapist as a child, sitting on her mother’s knee and listening as her mother related memories of the Holocaust, including being separated from her husband and forced to give birth to her son amid the horrors of the Bergen-Belsen death camp. As her mother’s stories of pain flowed out, Muller says, she became an expert “empathy-giver,” an attribute that led to a career of helping others work out their problems. Muller’s parents and older brother all survived the war and were reunited in Zurich, Switzerland, where Muller was born. In 1954, they came to the United States, landing in New York City. In 1968, Muller was among the last graduates of Hunter College in the Bronx, earning honors in psychology. Hearing of her desire to become a therapist, her teachers directed her to get into a doctoral program, and she wound up earning a Ph.D. in clinical and school psychology from Indiana State University. “I worked with children until I had my own and I had to tell other parents they needed to be consistent when I was struggling with that myself,” she says with a chuckle. In 1987, when she turned 40, Muller read a book that changed her life: Stephen Levine’s Meetings at the Edge, a collection of meditations on death. “It let me see there were options to deal with pain,” she says. “It could be turned into a deep spiritual experience.” Muller had watched as the traumatic past had pushed her mother away from God and spirituality and had concluded that part of her mother’s constant pain stemmed from her spiritual alienation.
Around the same time, Muller attended her first meditation retreat, at Vipassana Meditation Center in Shelburne Falls, Mass. “I had three children and decided that whatever training I participated in, it would be the very best.” She went to a 10-day retreat conducted in silence. Muller was introduced to sitting meditation, breath work, body scans, and controlled introspection. “On the fourth day of sitting, I had a breakthrough. I had the overwhelming sensation of ‘I can tolerate any body sensation, but I’ll not sit with it.’ ” She describes this experience as similar to the feelings expressed by that survivors of horrendous abuse, but, she says, “my parents didn’t raise a hand to me; I knew I had experienced no childhood trauma.” Then came another insight: “The reason I was so terrified to be in my own body was because of the experience my mother had been through. I’ve been blessed with doing healing my mother was never able to do.” Continuing to explore meditative practices, Muller was led to the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn after seeing it highlighted on Bill Moyers’ PBS series Healing and the Mind. Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts, founded in 1979, has been replicated in hospitals and institutions around the nation and is lauded for its clinical results in individuals dealing with stress and illness. More than 500 research studies on the effectiveness of the mindfulness techniques have been conducted at 200-plus institutions. One of the most impressive findings concerns lasting benefits: Four years after completing the Zinn Stress Reduction course, 93 percent of the participants still used mindfulness-based stress-reduction techniques regularly.
Muller’s stress-reduction clinic is modeled on Zinn’s work. The goal is for participants to learn effective stress-relief and pain management skills through a 36-hour structured group experience conducted over the course of eight weeks. The program is not a quick fix; it requires a commitment to a daily practice of the gentle yet rigorous mindfulness techniques. The reward is less pain, less stress, more self-control, and more joy in living. Muller says that the program has helped her control her weight and stop smoking and that over the past 10 years she’s seen such participants as a mother of five who wanted to expand her ability to appreciate the moments of her life to a man coping with colon cancer.
For more information, contact Eva Muller at Professional Counseling Offices, 1124 S. Fifth St. (217-744-3525).
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