Finding Your Inner Space to Live Better for Longer
We all experience stress—it’s a hard-wired response that can be advantageous in the short term when we’re working to deadline or having a particularly busy day. In the long term, stress has negative effects on both the mind and body. As a health practitioner who works daily with patients dealing with the stress-induced effects of increased pain, fatigue and inflammation, I realised it was time to expand my field of physiotherapy into the mind-body approach. For me, it is an exciting time to be part of a strong evidence-based shift towards recognising the influence of our mind over the health of our physical body.
Recent advances in science has shown that chronic stress can change the shape of your brain and the expression of your genes. The brain is a target for stress and the stress-related hormones, adrenaline and cortisol. Your brain’s survival instinct is fine-tuned to protect you. Chronic stress has been show to increase the size of the area of the brain that is designed for survival (it’s called the amygdala). Our natural instinct is to protect our existence by rapidly responding to repeated threat with a triggering of the “fight, flight or freeze” response to get out of the way of danger. This uses primitive brain structure called the limbic system. You react instinctively without rational thought or reasoning. Real dangers do exist like running from a burning house, a snake-bite or a speeding bus, but really they are few and far between.
The real problem of modern day stress is the perceived threats we create when handling difficult situations or people, managing expectations, meeting deadlines and attaining goals. These are often more what we think is going to happen, rather than what actually happens. Many of these threats are simply based on our thoughts, rather than the reality. “Don’t believe everything you think’! Negative thoughts are incredibly powerful. How you think about yourself and your life has a lot to do with whether you experience life in health and fulfilment or….. you don’t. Your thoughts affect every cell in your body and also have an effect on how you feel. These reactions have either positive or negative effects. Stress responses influence all our metabolic systems including our hormones, our cardiovascular and digestive systems, and our immune responses in fighting illness and inflammatory responses.The body is not designed to withstand chronic, ongoing exposure to these bio-chemicals Stress wreaks physiological havoc on the body.
The brain is trainable and malleable. This is called neuroplasticity. We can actually see changes happening in the brain, right up until the end of your life. Modern technology is allowing this to be observed with functional MRI scans and monitoring brain electrical circuits (EEG). The more stressed we are, the bigger the brain amygdala grows, as shown by MRI scans. In addition, chronic stress has also shown diminished areas of the brain responsible for memory (hippocampus) and creativity and body awareness (insula). We tend to lose touch with our bodies, and become “out of our minds” when we are in overload. The brain fog sets in. It’s a real thing. Your brain cannot compute, process large amounts of information or see the big picture when you are stressed. The brain does not have the insight to create solutions, (even simple ones that are right in front of our faces!)
With the busy pace of life we lead today we often feel compelled to increase our ‘doing’ and rarely give ourselves permission to for simply ‘being. However, growing body of established research is suggesting that mindfulness-based stress reduction and regular meditation with mind-body practices can make a difference. Amazing scientific advances also show that stress chemicals can shorten the length of the telomeres on the ends of our genes, which has been linked to the earlier onset of chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, and diabetes. The flip side of this is that when we stimulate the ‘relaxation response” (the opposite to the stress response) we can actually influence not only our genes to increase our life expectancy, but there is a possibility we can “turn-off” the potential expression of disease. We can alter gene expression to reduce inflammation in our bodies, provide relief for our immune system, and lower certain health risks, leading to healthier aging.
Investigations into the neuroplasticity of the highly developed brain structure (neocortex) indicate that the attention-control parts of the brain (prefrontal cortex) are involved in self and emotional regulation and can continually be developed. Studies on the effect of mindfulness meditation (focused-attention training) on the brain and body are indicating a down-regulation of the stress response and its associated physiological reactions. They are observing physical brain changes that are are responsible for thinking, remembering, reasoning, focus and attention. Where attention goes, energy flows.
I am passionate that people can reap the health benefits of mindfulness by understanding that meditation is not all in your mind. It begins and ends in the body. It’s never too late to invest in your health. A simple short meditation you can do in the moment is called the “Head, Heart, Gut Check-in. It is focused specifically on creating moment of higher-resolution self-awareness to be able to recognise your experience of stress. It works like this:
You take 3 breaths, at your own pace. Each breath is a reminder to ‘scan’ one area of your body- the three regions where we have the most neurons (specialised cell carrying nerve messages). Most people are surprised to learn that there are neurons not only in your head (brain) but also in the gut and heart. There are estimated to be 100 million neurons in the gut, and 40,000 in the heart, compared with an estimated 85 billion in your head.
With the general recommendation of 10 minutes daily of meditation to simply sit still and focus your breathing, it’s not as hard as it seems. Using mindfulness, we can foster both mental and physical wellness. Simply taking a deep breath, and then releasing tension with the exhale, has an effect on your nervous system responses. The slow breath out tells your brain that you are safe, and reduces the reactivity of the “flight –fight” reaction.
Calm your Breath
Calm your Body
Calm your Mind
The recent commencement of our project called Connect with Compassion is underpinned by the vision to embed mindful awareness into our lives for achieving some balance in body and mind. We intend to use a white scarf as a symbol of self-nurture and to cultivate an ability to share gratitude, kindness and generosity to others. The sharing of the white scarf will be underpinned by education of how mindful awareness and compassion can nourish self and serve others. Find out more in blogs to come.