How do YOU relax?
I have learned ask this question a little differently to my patients—“What do you do for stress reduction?” I used to say “stress management” but I have come to despise that wording. We don’t need to MANAGE our stress—we need to find ways to REDUCE it.
So now I ask about stress reduction techniques. The responses are often very similar—read or watch TV. Sorry. Those don’t count. What we really need, desperately need, are ways to get out of the stress-dominant state of our lives.
Our modern society wants us to pride ourselves on how busy we are, how efficiently we multi-task, and even how over-worked or over-stressed we are. We are encouraged to wear these as badges of honor. But, alas, they are killing us.
The body has a specific biochemical response to stress. Cortisol and adrenalin go up. Period. It doesn’t matter if the stress is perceived or actual, a true life-threatening emergency, or just too much to do. This is called sympathetic dominance, and many of us live our lives in this place.
The physiologic effects of sympathetic dominance are profound: elevated blood pressure; elevated blood sugar with its accompanying risk of diabetes, heart disease, and cancer; depression and anxiety; memory loss; intestinal hyper-permeability (aka leaky gut). The leaky gut can trigger immune activation, eventually increasing the risk of auto-immunity.
Breaking the cycle
It is much too serious to try to “manage”. We have to find a way to promote the relaxation phase, known as para-sympathetic dominance.
Believe me, I’m preaching to myself here too. I have a morning routine where I have quiet time, as I’m up at least 30-45 minutes before anyone else in my house. Some days, as I sit in my chair and look out the window, my mind races with all the things I have to do that day. One day it hit me—this doesn’t count as relaxation. Sitting in a quiet room with your mind racing with all the things you have to get done is NOT relaxing!
We have to find a way to quiet the mind. It takes practice. Permit me to introduce you to a powerful tool—meditation.
The science simplified
Meditation increases growth hormone, DHEA and GABA. Growth hormone is actually mis-named. It should really be called “repair hormone”. It promotes cellular repair. Cellular damage is what accelerates aging, so promoting repair of this damage is important maintain wellness. DHEA is anti-inflammatory and promotes brain health. GABA is a neurotransmitter that is calming to the brain, counterbalancing the excitatory effects of glutamate. Too much excitation in the brain causes inflammation, and GABA helps prevent this.
Learning how to meditate
There are many options for meditation instruction. There are free guided meditations on the internet (as well as paid memberships) and apps available for smart phones. Here are some that I frequently use:
- Deepak Chopra frequently offers 21-day free guided meditations in partnership with Oprah. Currently they are offering one titled Desire and Destiny, with the goal of relaxing into your destiny by following your heart’s true desires. It’s not too late to join: www.chopracentermeditation.com
- EquiSync is a program using sound technology to induce relaxation brain waves that are achieved by expert meditators. These 20-minute meditation sessions work to increase alpha, theta and delta brain waves that promote the parasympathetic phase. Check it out at www.eocinstitute.org.
- Headspace is an app for smart phones that offers 3-, 5- or 10-minute guided meditations. The guide has a soothing British accent that I really like. They offer a 10-day free trial. The default is 3-minutes, but you can change it to longer in the upper-right corner of the screen.
- Heartmath offers Inner Balance, a biofeedback tool for monitoring the relaxation phase. The technology is to monitor heart-rate variability. When we are relaxed, our heart rate varies around each beat—the program calls this “coherence”. The idea is to provide immediate visual feedback on your biochemical state—parasympathetic versus sympathetic dominant based you your heart-rate variability. This way you know when you are in the relaxed state. The goal is that once you are trained on how to achieve coherence, you can get there throughout the day by practicing the breathing techniques.
As a Christian, I used to shy away from meditation, thinking that it was too “new world” or “Eastern religion” and therefore contradictory to my faith. Now I have come to believe that God gives us many tools to achieve our potential, and meditation is one of them. The bible talks about “praying in the spirit”. Perhaps this is sitting quietly with an open mind and allowing His spirit to comfort our soul—sounds a lot like meditation!
The point is to make time for silence, stillness, peace. You must MAKE time for this. If you wait until you FIND time it will never happen. Take advantage of this simple, effective tool that promotes wellness.
If you have any favorite methods for relaxation, or thoughts to share, I would love to hear from you. Leave a comment!