In the past twenty years, thanks to modern technology, researchers have been able to scientifically prove that we have definite and distinct, physical responses to our emotions. There are currently thousands of books relating to stress and the toll it takes on the human body and psyche. The following is a synopsis of recent research demonstrating how stress kills and the protective, preventative effects of adapting stress management skills.In the past twenty years, thanks to modern technology, researchers have been able to scientifically prove that we have definite and distinct, physical responses to our emotions. There are currently thousands of books relating to stress and the toll it takes on the human body and psyche. The following is a synopsis of recent research demonstrating how stress kills and the protective, preventative effects of adapting stress management skills.
Stress is necessary for our survival. If our ancestors did not experience stress, we would not be here now. When a woolly mammoth comes charging at you, it is a very good idea to run. Day to day, common stressors are normal, and we have the hard-wired ability to cope. It is the chronic type of stress that is absolutely toxic; It's outright lethal to our health and well-being. It is vitally important that you monitor and manage the stress in your life and to make the commitment to take care of yourself. You will most likely always encounter stress. But, if you are living a balanced life, the way you perceive and react to stress will be healthier.
The Mind/Body Connection
One of the key principles in psychoneuroimmunology is the interrelatedness of the mind and the body. It used to be believed that the mind and body were separate entities, but current research is proving otherwise. I need to keep emphasizing this fact, because when you allow stress to affect your life, you are allowing it to influence every organ, every cell of your body. That is a high price to pay.
"The mind steadfastly refuses to behave locally, as contemporary scientific evidence is beginning to show. We now know, for example, that brain-like tissue is found throughout the body... So, even from the conservative perspective of modern neurochemistry, it is difficult if not impossible to follow a strictly local view of the brain." - Larry Dossey, M.D.
What Is Stress?
Stress is a combination of responses in the body. Stress can be short-term (acute) or chronic. Acute stress is the "fight or flight" response. If a car is careening toward you at a high rate of speed, you will (or should) experience acute stress. This is what can save your life. It is when you experience so many common stressors, such as heavy traffic, noise, money worries, illnesses, relationship problems, rising crime rates, or work frustrations, that stress takes a chronic form. In the short term, stress can be vital. Over time, it turns destructive.
How destructive can stress be on your body? Research has shown that prolonged stress can produce actual tissue changes and organ dysfunction. With the new MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) techniques, scientists are able to prove visibly that chronic stress can shrink an area in the brain called the hypothalamus. Researchers have found that the brains of war veterans, as well as women who have been victims of childhood sexual abuse, have a marked reduction in the size of their hypothalamus.
Stress also affects your brain by releasing powerful chemical messengers called neurotransmitters, such as dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine (also called adrenaline). The hypothalamic/pituitary-adrenal portion of your brain releases steroid hormones, including the primary stress hormone, cortisol. Cortisol affects systems throughout your body, including an increased heart rate.
Your heart, lungs, and circulatory system are influenced by the increased heart rate. Blood flow may increase 300 to 400 percent. Blood pressure increases and breathing becomes rapid. Your mouth and throat may become dry. Skin may become cool and clammy because blood flow is diverted away so it can support the heart and muscle tissues. Even digestive activity shuts down.
Once again, occasional stress is normal. Once you've handled the situation, the stress goes away and you heal from the episode. But, if stressors accumulate over time, eventually the body becomes inefficient at handling even the least amount of stress. The brain, heart, lungs, vessels, and muscles become so chronically over or under activated that they become damaged. It is this sort of stress which may trigger or worsen heart disease, strokes, susceptibility to infection, sleep disturbances, sexual and reproductive dysfunction, memory and learning dysfunction, digestive problems, weight problems, diabetes, pain, and skin disorders.
"Extensive multidisciplinary studies have presented unequivocal evidence that our psychological responses to stress and our perceptions of stress to a considerable extent affect our susceptibility to disease. In active relationship, the immune, neuroendocrine, and nervous systems respond to the brain and psyche. Virtually all illnesses, from the flu to cancer, are influenced for good or bad by our thoughts and feelings." - R. Lloyd, 1990
Healing Brain: A Scientific Reader
Depression, fear, anger, hostility, and other negative emotions depress the immune system. The immune system is our first line of defense against infections, germs, and bacteria. The neurotransmitters that help to protect our immune system are inhibited by stress.
"Severe emotions impair the immune system, while release from panic or despair frequently increase interleukins, vital substances in the immune system that help activate cancer-killing immune cells." - Norman Cousins, 1990
You Can Choose to Manage Stress
You need not be a victim to chronic stress. Stress can be insidious; working its way into our lives before we are aware of the consequences. You can curb this process by being aware of the symptoms and sensations of stress, and employing proven methods to reduce stress. Equally important, you must recognize and remedy situations that trigger the stress in the first place.
First of all, it is crucial that you tap into your own internal wisdom to heal your body of stress and live a life of wellness and vitality. You really do know how to heal yourself of stress-related symptoms. You know that you need balance in your life. You simply need the time and space to access this healing force. You have what it takes to find a more peaceful and pleasurable life.
"Each patient carries his own doctor inside him. We are at our best when we give the doctor within each patient a chance to go to work." - Albert Schweitzer
"It is wise to pay attention to how you view yourself. The internal, critical voice needs to be answered; its distortions refuted. Suppressed emotions need to be identified, owned, expressed, and processed. For example, to be healthy, express rather than repress such intense emotions as anger, rage, and hostility. These emotions, if chronic or unexpressed, cause a surging of hormones and chemicals with consequent increased risk of heart attack, stroke, arterial disease, headaches, and kidney problems. Releasing such patterns of emotional stress results in parallel biochemical unlocking. Identifying emotional roots of illness and making conscious changes in lifestyle, thoughts, emotions, and diet result in wellness in body, mind, and spirit." - Christiane Northrup, M.D., 1996
By incorporating techniques for physical, mental, and spiritual health, one can cause physiological changes in the brain. These changes will lead to responses that are positively healing. What are some of these techniques? First of all, you must make the commitment to take care of yourself. Many people have difficulty in doing this, yet it is of utmost importance. If you are not whole and well and happy, what good are you to those you care for? Also, by taking care of yourself and by becoming a calmer soul, you will also be more pleasant to be around. Making this commitment involves first identifying the stressors in your life. Do they involve your family? Work? Relationships outside the family? Financial stress? Time management? Fuzzy boundaries? Legal problems? I suggest that you list the primary stressors in your life and rate their level of severity.
Prayer and Meditation
Research into the value of prayer on the effects of stress and illness are astounding. Dr. Larry Dossey is at the forefront of such research. His studies are real, replicable, and relevant to medicine. Dr. Dossey believes that prayer-based healings are "one of the best kept secrets in medical science."
The medical profession cannot seem to believe some of the recent studies on the power of prayer. Here are some of the most recent findings gathered by Paul Pearsall:
* Among 232 elderly patients undergoing open-heart surgery, those who were deeply religious were more likely to survive the surgery.
* Eleven of twelve studies showed that religious commitment is associated with curtailed drug use.
* Heavy smokers who attend church regularly are four times less likely to have high blood pressure than smokers who do not go to church, prompting one scientist to say, "If you are going to smoke, take your butt to church."
* A survey of 91,909 persons who attended church regularly showed that they had 50 percent fewer deaths from coronary artery disease, 56 percent fewer deaths from emphysema, 74 percent fewer deaths from cirrhosis, and 53 percent fewer suicides.
* A study showed that patients receiving heart by-pass surgery who were prayed for had fewer complications than those who were not prayed for.
This is a process of tensing and relaxing all of your muscles. You begin by tensing the muscles in your feet, holding for a few seconds, then focusing on letting go. You gradually move up your body, all the way to your face. A true tension melter.
Deep, Controlled, Breathing
1. Breathe with the abdomen. Allow your belly to expand as you inhale, both to the front and to the sides. Make a really big belly. The bigger the better. So many of us have over trained ourselves to hold in our stomachs that we've lost the gift of a full and complete breath. As you exhale, bring your navel toward your spine by contracting your lower abdominal muscles. This not only helps complete the exhalation, it is also an abdominal strengthening exercise.
2. Bring your attention to your breathing, keeping it long and even. Make sure that the inhalations and exhalations are of the same length. I like to breathe in to the count of eight, hold to the count of four, and breathe out to the count of eight.
Norman Cousins calls laughter "internal jogging." Cousins had been diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, an experience that had led him to question Western medicine. Cousins found the treatments suggested by his doctors to be totally lacking, so he checked himself out of the hospital and checked into a hotel. From here on, he literally laughed himself back to health. He immersed himself in only funny movies and television shows. He enjoyed every one of the Charlie Chaplin movies, and watched "Candid Camera" episodes until his sides hurt, laughing. His illness disappeared. From this experience, he wrote an enlightening book, "Anatomy of an Illness." Cousins highlights scores of studies proving the health benefits of laughter and humor.
Spend some time in nature every day, longer on days off. Being outside is being in nature regardless of whether you're in a forest, at the beach, or downtown in a large city. Look at the sky! Even cities have skies over them. Bad weather is no excuse -- invest in warm clothes, good shoes, and a waterproof outer layer.
Say No To Sugar
Think of sugar as a drug with chronic effects right up there with more acknowledged "drugs of abuse." Sucrose, the white powder isolated from acres of green plants (sugarcane or sugar beets) turns into glucose, a key metabolic regulator of your bodymind, which acts on glucose receptors to control the release of insulin and numerous other neuropeptides from the pancreas, drastically altering how we feel -- sluggish or peppy, low or high -- and how we metabolize our food. Satisfy sweet cravings with fruit, which has a different kind of sugar, fructose, which less readily causes the release of insulin. Refined white sugar changes the profile of peptides released from the pancreas (in addition to insulin), which results in a sluggish, fat-storing mode. In general, work on exploring the impact of what you eat on the way you feel.
Drink eight glasses of unchlorinated water every day. So often we eat when we're really thirsty rather than hungry. Our internal signals have gotten confused because we evolved eating whole, natural foods (fruits and vegetables), which have a much higher water content than our current diets of chips and dips and numerous other packaged, processed foods.
Last, but definitely not least, health is much more than the absence of illness. Live in an unselfish way that promotes a feeling of belonging, loving kindness, and forgiveness. Living like this promotes a state of spiritual bliss that truly helps to prevent illness. Wellness is trusting in the ability and desire of your bodymind to heal and improve itself given half a chance. Take responsibility for your own health -- and illness. Delete phrases like, "My doctor won't let me..." or, "My doctor says I have (name of condition), and there is really nothing I can do" from your speech and thought patterns. Avoid unscientific beliefs about your need for medications and operations."
Benson, H., 1996. Timeless Healing: The Power and Biology of Belief. New York: Scribners.
Breathnach, S. B. 1995. Simple Abundance: A Daybook of Comfort and Joy. New York: Warner Books
Cousins, N. 1981. Anatomy of an Illness. New York: Bantam
Cousins, N. 1989. Biology of Hope. New York: Dutton
Cummings, N. A. 1991. "The Somatizing Patient." In Psychotherapy in Managed Health Care, By C. Austad. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Association.
Dossey, L. 1995. "Healing Happens." Utne Reader, no.71 (Sept/Oct)
Klopfer, B. 1957. "Psychological Variables in Human Cancer." Journal of Projective Techniques. 21:331-40.
Miller, E. 1997. Deep Healing: The Essence of Mind/Body Medicine. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House
Northrup, C. 1996. "When Women Listen to Their Bodies." Body, Mind, Spirit 15, no. 1 (Dec/Jan)
Northrup. C. 1994. Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom. New York: Bantam
O'Hara, V. 1996. Five Weeks to Healing Stress: The Wellness Option. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications
Pearsall, P. 1998. The Heart's Code. New York: Random House
Pearsall, P. 1996. The Pleasure Principle. Alameda, CA: Hunter House
Pert, C. 1997. Molecules of Emotion. New York: Touchstone
Selye, H. 1977. The Stress of Life. New York: McGraw-Hill