Chapter 10 - Anti-Aging Stress Reduction
Stress is a killer. Researchers estimated that stress contribute to a majority of our major illnesses, including cancer, cardiovascular and metabolic diseases, skin disorders and infectious ailments of all kinds. Stress is also a common denominator in many psychological difficulties such as depression and anxiety.
While stress is an unavoidable part of life, it can result from many different factors, both physical and psychological. Pressures and deadlines at work, problems with loved ones, financial obligations and the simple acts of getting ready for holidays are some obvious sources of stress for many people. Less obvious sources include everyday encounters with crowd, noises, traffic, temperature changes, new job, birth or adoption of a child. Overwork, the lack of sleep, as well as physical illnesses are some common physical factors that increase stress in our body. Some people are able to deal with stress in a creative way and minimize distress when it occurs. Some people even thrive on stress and for these, they create their stress and not knowing it. Most people, however, are negatively influenced by it.
Stress can cause fatigue, chronic headache, irritability, change in appetite, memory loss, low self-esteem, withdrawal, high blood pressure, shallow breathing, nervous stitches, low sexual drive and a variety of gastro-intestinal disorders. The writing on the wall is clear - stress is a killer!
Research has shown that some events causes more stress than others. Events in life that causes the most stress is the death of a spouse, followed by divorce. This is followed by the following events, in decreasing order of importance: death of a close friend, legal separation, job loss, new marriage, serious trouble at work, major injury, sexual problems, change of jobs, vacation, and allergy.
It has been found that the more stressful situations, the greater the chances of illness.
A group of Dutch researchers studied a group of 80 people for a period of 6 months. They found that individuals with highest level of stress are more prone to illness than the control group.
Almost all body organs and functions react to stress. The pituitary gland increases its production of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) which is a precursor to the release of two hormones called cortisone and cortisol. These two hormones have the effect of inhibiting the functions of disease fighting white blood cells and suppressing the immune response. This complex of physical changes is called "flight or fight response". While most of our stresses in the modern day society are not result of physical threats, the body responses regardless of whether the threat is physical or psychological.
The increase in production of these hormones is responsible for most of the symptoms associated with stress. Increase in the production of these hormones causes the body to step up its metabolism of protein, fat and carbohydrate to quickly produce energy for the body to use during to its "fight or flight" response. This response causes the body to excrete amino acid, potassium and a variety of minerals like magnesium that are vital to the body's defensive mode. Furthermore, the body is not able to absorb digestive nutrients well when under stress. The intestinal tract is often affected. In severe cases, bleeding may result due to the high level secretion of gastric acid during times of stress. Many disorders that arise from stress can also be the result of nutritional deficiency, especially deficiency of B-complex vitamins, which are very important for the proper functions of the nervous system.
While stress is part and parcel of everyday life, it should be remembered that it is not stress that is detrimental to your health and decrease longevity. All human life needs stress to a certain degree to survive well and productive. Its your reactions to the daily stresses of life that and your body reactions to it that is responsible for how long you live.
Regardless of what the stresses are, the key to longevity is to identify and to minimize key stresses but not eliminate all stress.
Physical activity can clear your mind and keep stress under control. Some people like to run or walk by themselves while other prefer different team sports. Any type of exercise is good and it is even better if it is regular. Stress is built up through a period of time and gradual reduction is the best way to reduce stress. Next time you feel stressed out, go to the gym or simply take a walk. This is a good first step of any stress reduction program.
Learn to relax
Relaxation is often more difficult for some people than others. Some are born relaxed while others are tense. This is particularly true of type A hyperactive individual, who thrives on a high degree of stress and chaos in their life.
Here is a simple but effective way. It involves learning to tighten and relax the body's major muscle group one at a time, being aware of each sensation. Start at your feet and work your way up to your head. Tense the muscle for the count of ten, concentrate on the tension and then let the muscle go lax and breathe deeply, enjoying the sensation of each release. Performing this simple and progressive and relaxation exercise while you are lying down in a quiet room can work wonders!
Gain sufficient sleep
Many people cannot sleep with stress. A restful night is a key ingredient to help many deal with the daily stresses of life. If you have a lot of stress, getting a good night's sleep is an important thing to do. Some people, however, have a tendency to escape stress by resorting to excessive sleeping during stressful situations. If you are one of these people, then you should not sleep more than the usual.
For centuries, meditation has helped thousands of people to relax and handle stress. Meditation does not necessarily have a spiritual or religious connotation. There are a wide variety of ways to meditate. Some of which concentrate on a religious belief but others have no specific beliefs associated. One can meditate on such words as "calm" or "relax". Like anything else, meditation has short-term benefits as well as long term effects. Long term effects are usually the most pronounced but only after consistent performance on a daily basis.
This is perhaps the most simple and easiest stress reduction technique. Deep breathing, whether you are at home, at work or in a car, is convenient as well. Breathe with your mouth closed, hold your breath for 3 seconds, then exhale slowly through your mouth, with your tongue placed at the top of your teeth. Do this 4-5 times, or till the tension has passed.
Create a stress-free home environment
Keep the noise level down as noise contributes to stress. Create a meditation room where you can be in a quiet environment with water sound on the background, without the noise of TV and cars. Use as much natural lighting in your home as possible as unnatural florescent lighting can be especially aggravating.
This is the art of using highly concentrated distilled herbal essence, called essential oils. Add 10-12 drops or more of these oils to a warm bath and relax in the tub. Or simply dab a couple of drops of oil on a tissue or handkerchief and inhale the aroma during the day.
If you cannot handle the stress in your life, consider outside help. Professional counselors are available to help you to enlighten your thought processes. It is often beneficial to talk to someone who can offer an objective response and gives us a different view of how we should look at the world. Qigong
Qigong is a Chinese form of meditation plus yoga-type exercises requiring years to master. Many millions of people around the world practice this quiet form of yoga-cum-meditation art that is originated in China. There are many qigong clubs around the country so you may want to join some to get started.
Without a doubt, meditation is a simple and effective way to reduce stresses of our daily life. This is practiced by thousands of people throughout the world on a daily basis. Meditation is by no means simple. It allows us to reach our fullest "humanhood", what it means to be human. In Maslow's (one of our great psychologists) term, it is the goal of self-actualization - actualizing what we truly can be that brings true fulfillment to the human, and meditation is a tough minded and hard discipline that facilitates the achievement of this goal.
Throughout history, and all over the world, human beings have been participating in such a practice. Meditation is a process much like other components of anti-aging exercise program such as cardiovascular training. There is no end point where you can reach and say "now I have arrived, I can stop meditating". As you learn more about yourself and the universe through meditation, your thinking becomes clearer and so does your desire to continue the meditation process in order to discover your fullest human potential.
Meditation can be viewed as another form of psychotherapy. By having a clarity of thought, your decision-making and ability to organize your thoughts is highly improved. Because of this, you are able to handle more stress and the daily disruptions of the society.
HOW MEDITATION WORKS
The road to meditation is not easy. The first shock comes when you realize how undisciplined your mind really is and how your mind refuses to abide by your will. Just attempt 5-10 minutes of counting your breath and not thinking about anything is a difficult process for many. The ultimate objective is to train your mind towards what you want the mind to think. In the case of meditation, it is to think of nothing. Until this is achieved, your mind is always preoccupied with the conditions and stresses of daily life which refuse to leave your mind alone. It is only through hard work and continuous effort that you are brought to a certain realization that you have attained insights into who you really are, what you really are and how you really behave.
It is only through a thorough understanding of yourself, which meditation helps, that you can attain peace and serenity. After you find inner calm, it you must change your perceptions, feelings and behavior to gradually bring them into synchronization with your understanding. There are no sudden personality changes during meditation. There is only enlightenment that will help you to direct your life gradually towards a state of peace and tranquility.
HOW MEDITATION BENEFITS YOUR BODY
Meditation seems to produce a state deep of physiological relaxation. Meditation lowers the metabolic rate and decreases in heart and respiration rates. Our parasympathetic system is stimulated, causing a reduction in an overall relaxation response. This is exactly opposite state that is brought on by anger or anxiety and the "fight or flight" response commonly associated with stress and anxiety.
The lower rate of metabolism, the lower rate of oxygen and heart rate causes the decrease in carbon dioxide yield and lactic acid concentration of the blood. Blood lactic acid levels are related to anxiety and tension. A low level found in relaxation and meditation is very likely related to the relaxed state of meditators. In fact, it has been shown that the blood level of meditators is nearly 4 times as low as those who are meditating compared to those who are not. There is still a great deal that we do not know, but research is under way and will likely fill in some of the gaps. One factor, however, seems to be related to the basic aspect of meditation: that is focusing on a single thing will allow our body to have a simple and focused mind and more coherent thoughts.
For those who are interested to get started, here are two simple but effective methods to start. Do it once a day, starting at 5 minutes each time. You can do this as often as you wish or as long as you wish. The key is to get started and keep it up. You may not experience immediate effect. Give yourself a few weeks to start noticing slight benefit. You have built up stress all your life, and it takes time to reduce it.
Choose a central word that had good feeling associated with it, such as words like flower, love, peace, light, color, grass, tree, home etc. Try not to use words like anger, cry, sad, hurt.
Once you have chosen your central word, get comfortable, concentrate and wait. Let the central word comes to you. If you have the tendency to drift away, then return to the center word and let further thoughts come to you. For example, use the word "love" as the center. Your first association may be "family". Focus on the two, love and family, as a mental image with a path between them. Focus on this relationship for 3 or 4 seconds. Try to understand the association and the connection between the two words. After 3-4 seconds, return to love. The next association that comes with the word love may be "forest". Focus on the relationship between love and forest for 3 or 4 seconds as before. Continue. At the end, you will run into cluster association. For example, in the series above, you may end up with a cluster of words such as forest, beach, family, warmth, hug together with the word love. This is normal and good. Continue this process for 5-10 minutes a day in the beginning, leading to 15-20 minutes a day. This meditation often leads to surprising insights about your life if you are consistent with it. These insights are generally good and useful when they happen but may not be regarded as the main purpose of this discipline. You will be surprised after you have done this practice for 10-15 times, how when you face certain situations and face certain stresses of life that the insights will come to you on how to resolve. Start with 5 minute sessions once a day for 2-3 weeks then go to 10 minutes or even half an hour a day for the next 3 weeks to 1 month. How long you do meditation really depends on you. Some people spend hours doing this and feel rejuvenated at the end of each session.
The key in type of meditation is to ask yourself "who am I" during the meditation process. This is an exceptionally vigorous and difficult meditation to perform. This is an advance technique that should only be recommended after several months of daily practice with structured meditation such as the word-oriented meditation you have done earlier. When you start the meditation, you begin by asking, "who am I?" And in the response to each question, you will find a highly structured answer that the society has taught us for many years. For example, you would say "my name is John." Ponder on this answer and follow up with another answer to ask the question "who gave you this name or why are you John and not somebody else? " Alternatively, you can ask yourself also, "who has the interpretation to who am I?" After each response, there is an active and dynamic search for the next answer. There is no rest. This meditation must be done with a kind of continued fierceness and constantly review and rejection of the previous answer and search for the next answer in order to go to a deeper level of insight.The Buddhist version has different variations of this meditation. In essence, this is a direct search for the real essence of human and the real essence of who you really are. Sometimes, you may not find an answer for a long time but other time, with consistency and discipline, the answer will come.
Be realistic. Most of us are not trained to meditate. Begin slowly with just 3-5 minutes a day for the first few days and weeks. Do not start with a 30 minutes session as a beginner. Do not feel sorry and rejected if your mind keeps drifting away. This is normal. Take into account the kind of person you are and the complexity of your life. If you are a very hyperactive person, 1 or 2 minutes of your time can be equivalent to 5-10 minutes of a much more relaxed person.
Rome is not built in one day and meditation does not work overnight. Set a realistic goal of 4-8 weeks to start your meditation program. Do not expect dramatic and immediate results because this will sure lead to disappointment. The inner part of you is striving for evolution, not revolution. Enlightenment takes time and slowly it will come but whatever comes will stay with you.
You re-evaluate your program on an ongoing basis. After 4-8 weeks of meditation, ask yourself if you have improved. Ask yourself if you have been enlightened about yourself and if you know more about yourself than before. If you have, be happy, be joyful and continue. If you have not had any benefit, then ask yourself what you have been doing wrong that has caused a disruption in your meditation process and try to find ways to achieve in harmony, peace and joy.
Maintain your privacy
Meditation as a process is a very personal experience. What you experience is totally yours and no one else. In the true sense of the word self-actualization, you are achieving a state of realizing who you really are and your maximum potential. All creative work need some privacy and this includes meditation. It is not necessary to share creative ideas and insights found in meditation unless you want to.
By now you should see that no one of us can escape stress 100%. Stress is a necessary part of any successful life and is beneficial if you know how to handle it. Stress reduction by various forms of meditation and deep breathing may not be sufficient. A successful stress reduction program needs to include cardiovascular exercises as well as nutritional supplements. Vitamin A, C, E, Selenium, zinc and the family of B-complex vitamins have been shown to have significant effect in stress reduction. A proper diet composes of 50-75% raw food is also recommended. Fresh fruits and vegetables not only supply valuable vitamins and minerals, they also contain compounds called flavonoids, many of which scavenge and neutralize free radicals. Limit your intake of caffeine. Caffeine as found in coffee and tea exacerbate the "fight or flight" response and disrupt sleep patterns due to its stimulatory effect. While some of these substances may temporary relief from stress and allow us the energy to deal with certain stresses, they do nothing to address the real underlying problem and they are harmful to your health. Incorporating a 5-10 minutes program of deep breathing or meditation into your daily routine is perhaps the safest and most effective way to reduce stress.
Anybody who meditates for a long time will tell you that sometimes, like anything else, you reach a plateau and no longer getting the insights from time to time. This is totally normal. Things will get harder before you make a break through. It's like a marathon runner "hitting the wall" at the 18-20 mile mark. The key is to have the persistence and the discipline to continue on and break the wall. Anything good takes time to achieve. Growth and changes are not easy. Working hard feels hard and the reason is because it is. Easy tasks that will come with easy results are not long lasting, generally speaking.
Remember that all your actions and decisions in your life reflect who you really are. Until you know whom you really are, all your directions and actions are just reflective of the constraints and conditions that the society places upon you. By knowing whom you are, you are then able to express yourself in a way that fully maximizes your internal strength, degree of creativity and actualizing yourself to be the best you can as a human being. Meditation is a road to enlightenment and path to a stress-free life.