Several years ago I started having back pain. Like many people, I internalize stress – I’m not a screamer, and most people think I’m pretty even-keeled. That’s how I appear on the outside, anyway. A lot of people do this – but stress manifests itself in one way or another.
I think one of the ways stress manifested for me was this pain I was experiencing in my back. I was working about fifty hours per week, not sleeping well, and taking care of two kids by myself, with no family or support system nearby. It started to wear me down.
Pain becomes a vicious cycle because you’re stressed about the pain, which causes even more pain, which causes more stress…
Several doctors told me I needed surgery, but one of them mentioned trying yoga. He said it sort of as a side note – but when you’re faced with possibly having someone cut on your spine, you’ll try anything.
Yoga changed my life. I started practicing daily – it was the one time during the day that I could let everything else just go – and the difference I felt before the class versus afterwards was remarkable. It’s magical because it’s like a meditation in motion. You’re paying attention to what’s going on inside. There’s a sense of integration – you’re at one with your body – and isn’t it amazing what our bodies actually do for us?
I also decided to begin a daily meditation practice. This wasn’t easy, but I’d read enough to know that repetition was the key, so I made up my mind that I’d sit in silence for 20 minutes a day no matter what.
These two practices alone decreased my stress response. Nothing else in my life had changed, but by adding these two practices, my pain was significantly reduced.
If we can learn to switch the stress response off when it’s not required, we can effect change. Our body has a capacity opposite to the stress reaction - the relaxation response.
If your mind isn’t in some sort of balance, it doesn’t matter how healthy your body is. The two basic features of evoking this response are:
1. Repetition - it's more important to meditate every day than it is to have longer, structured periods of quiet. It takes a commitment to stick with it - especially if you're like me and have a hang-up with "doing nothing".
2. Disregard of other thoughts when they come to mind - after practicing to constantly refocus your awareness (getting lost in thought and coming back - over and over again), you'll notice that the duration and frequency of quiet gaps increase.
Another way I've decreased stress is by learning to appreciate the simple things. For example, I love the way the sunlight comes in my living room window in the morning. I could look at those visible, golden rays forever. I love the way wood has such beautiful grain. I love the way my dog's hair feels after I brush it.
Nature provides us with the most amazing things. There are a lot of challenges in life to overcome, but we can view them as learning experiences, and look for the little things to appreciate.
One of the ways we can practice this is to consciously look for things we like. For example, as you drive down the road, you can say to yourself, ''I like the way that tree has orange leaves; I like the way that house is painted; I like the way that hedge was trimmed up so neatly; I like the way that grass looks so green.''
You'll notice that when you actively look for what you like, you'll find lots of things. For some reason we are programmed to look for what we don't like - the potholes in the road, the horrible driver, the traffic...
Sure, all those things are still there, but we are choosing to see the positive things that are also there.
Jon Kabat-Zinn discovered the benefits of mindfulness when he did a study with some dermatologists on patients that had psoriasis. The patients were getting ultraviolet light therapy. He had half of them practice mindfulness techniques during the light therapy. The meditator’s skin cleared at 4x the rate of the non-meditators. They couldn’t believe it - so they replicated it, and low and behold again – 4x as fast.
It’s a beautiful example of the mind body connection. You’re doing something with your mind and the results are happening on the skin. It just doesn’t get any better than that.
There is a stress epidemic in our country. Modern illnesses are spreading – heart disease, metabolic disease, autoimmune diseases. There is a 1 in 2 chance you’ll end up with a chronic illness.
It was always obvious to the ancient traditions that there is a mind-body connection – in many cultures there is no separation – but in our culture we seem to have created a dichotomy where they’re separate.
Most of you have probably noticed that the more we feel stress, the worse our bodies feel. There’s an obvious connection. So what do we do?
I’ve worked in the medical field as a nurse practitioner for many years, and one of things I’ve noticed is that academic medicine seems to reject the idea that the mind has the power to heal. I think that because our technological advances in medicine have been so incredible, we focused all our attention there – and this notion of “if you can’t measure it, it isn’t there” is why we’ve had such huge advances and developed amazing treatments.
Now we can move to the next frontier – which is integrative medicine. We should use that capacity. Does that mean we give up drugs and surgery? Of course not – but we can bring in this other element to help ourselves.
The body responds to whatever the mind tells it to do. If the mind is tense, the body is tense; if the mind is happy, the body is happy.
So the body is always responding – all the way down to the core of our cells – even down to the level of our DNA.
If we imagine ourselves walking through a jungle and out jumps a tiger (and it’s a hungry tiger) our body activates the fight or flight response. There’s a turbo charge of energy – the heart rate and blood pressure increase; glucose is pumped in to keep our brain sharp and feed our muscles; our respiratory rate increases to get more oxygen; we sweat to keep ourselves cool while we’re exerting ourselves; our body pumps out inflammatory chemicals that activate our immune system to get ready to mobilize for repair; our attention center in our brain lights up like a Christmas tree – this is a major metabolic change in our system, and its designed to save our life, not to make us sick.
Unfortunately 99% of the time we’re actually running from the tigers in our mind, not actual, real threats. Over the long term this places a lot of undo wear on the body.
I have two friends – one is 52 year old attorney in a high-powered law firm, and one is a 50 year old banker. Both had heart attacks within the last couple years. The lawyer had his heart attack on the basketball court and the banker while running in Audubon park. Neither had any risk factors - no family history, non-smokers, exercised regularly, healthy eaters, very cognizant of their health on the outside. But both were very stressed by their jobs, the pressure to make more and more money, take care of their families, etc. Stress.
It’s our thinking that is stressful – it’s not a real tiger – it’s our fear – fear of losing our job, not being able to pay our bills, fear of illness.
Some people find this peace at church while praying. Cultures have been doing it through religion for centuries. It’s a bodily response that is evoked, and people are naturally drawn to it, because we notice benefits.
In experiments where people meditated, there are dramatic physiological changes, a decrease in the metabolism, a quieting of the body, decreased heart rate, decreased rate of breathing, slower brain waves. Exactly opposite to the stress response. It’s measurable, predictable, and reproducible.
To an outsider it may look like a person meditating isn’t doing much, but there’s actually a lot happening inside the brain. The amygdala gets turned down, consistent with a decreased arousal. We now have fMRIs that can look at the brain and show us amazing things.
A study was done on mice – they were stressed out for 2 hours. On fMRI their amygdala lit up. Then they were left alone for 2 weeks and their amygdala was still turned up. The stress response was still activated.
This is the opposite of what happens in people’s brains that meditate. Our lives can actually stay exactly the same – same stressful job, all the difficult people in our life are still being difficult, but the amygdala has gotten smaller, and we’ll actually feel less stressed.
So it’s not so much the environment, but our reaction to the environment, and the way we’re relating to the events and people in our lives.
It’s not about changing your life, it’s about changing your relationship to your life.
Many people ask me – what about other activities that require a lot of attention, like rock climbing, playing a musical instrument, etc. If we look at brain activity during meditation, many parts of the brain actually get turned off during meditation, some areas are more active, but mostly there is a turning off.
The focus is really inward. So when you’re focusing on doing something, it’s different than when you’re really aware of what’s happening in your body – you’re paying close attention to what’s going on inside – and you really notice things that you didn’t even notice were there before.
These practices have been around for thousands of years, it’s not the next fad, they’ve survived because the value is there.
When you think about your emotions you may notice that you don’t feel them in your brain. You feel them in your body. Your face may flush; your heart may race; your stomach may flutter. These responses are caused when hormones are released.
Decreasing stress will make you live longer. Happy people live longer than unhappy people. If you’re an optimist, you have about ½ the chance of getting heart disease as a pessimist.
In the 1960’s a town called Rosetta was an anomaly. Scientists were curious about it because no one had died of a heart attack or showed any signs of heart disease prior to the age of 55. The median death rate in was half the national average. A team of researchers took a look at what was going on. They looked at diet, family history, location, exercise habits – but on the surface couldn’t find anything. Crime rate and public assistance was 0. In fact, the town was made up of Italian immigrants who worked in factories, smoked cigars, and ate high fat meals. But they still held on to their old world ways – it was normal to find three generations under the same roof. 80% of the men in the town were members of at least one community group and would frequently gather together to play cards, and talk. The whole community celebrated together often. They were nourished by each other. The sense of being supported reduces stress. Over the next decade the multi-generational homes broke up, and by 1971, as opulent houses, expensive cars, and smaller families emerged, the first person under the age of 55 died of a heart attack. By the 80’s the rate of heart attacks were the same as in the rest of the country.
Just knowing that we’re not alone is so powerful. Many people don’t have an extended family that they see regularly; they don’t have generations of people that live in a neighborhood together; they don’t have a synagogue or church that they feel a part of.
We know that these things affect the quality of our lives, but now we know they affect our health as well. We are creatures of community - that’s how we’ve survived as a species - by learning to care and love and nurture each other.
I have noticed a huge decrease in my stress level over the past couple of years. When I think about it, my circumstances aren’t that much different, but I have a support system, a sense of community, and an inner knowing that my experiences are transient. That inner knowing has come gradually, as my meditation and yoga practice have deepened.
I challenge you to try developing a consistent meditation practice. I'd love to hear what your experiences are - email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I write about human behavior, meditation, body awareness, and a variety of other things that pique my interest.