Dr. Robyn El-Bardai, PsyD
CA License PSY26738
431 30th Street, Suite 130 D
Oakland, CA 94609
Stress is a normal accompaniment to living. Fortunately, we are biologically equipped during stress to invoke the fight/flight response to deal with life-threatening events, otherwise the existence of our species would be jeopardized. The trouble is that our emotional brains cannot distinguish between real life emergencies and the non-life-threatening bombardment of stimuli we are exposed to every day. To make it worse, our thoughts produce a virtual reality that tricks our brains to react as if the threat is immediate physical harm. Both our feelings and our thoughts can sabotage us.
What happens when we are stressed? Physiologically, we invoke a coordinated defense that provides needed energy to our muscles, heart, and other organs. Biochemically, our bodies secrete adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol to facilitate action. If the stress is psychological, our thoughts during anxiety-producing times, such as when facing family dilemmas or financial problems, provoke a similar reaction, overburdening the system, wearing it out.
Not only does this detrimentally affect our mental health, but our bodies suffer too. In fact, studies report that 60% to 95% of doctor visits are related to conditions that are caused or worsened by stress where the mind has affected the body! This includes: high blood pressure, heart problems, insomnia, anxiety, panic attacks, depression, anger, chronic pain, anxiety when facing surgery, cancer therapy, AIDS therapy, PMS, and infertility.
In recent times we have discovered the connection between the stress response and illness. If only we could use this knowledge to enlist our minds and behavior to turn it around.
We can! For thousands of years every tribe and race has practiced some type of mind/body healing; Tai Chi, yoga, repetitive prayer, mantras, biofeedback, breathing exercises, guided imagery, and progressive muscle relaxation all have such salutary effects.
In the west, Mindfulness Meditation is proving very effective. Sensory, cognitive and emotional processing is enhanced. Immediately after meditating for the first time, changes in the body’s response are seen in urine, breath, and blood analysis. The participant feels the difference. The mechanisms that accomplish this are being discovered. Genomic changes result in so short a time. Practicing 10 to 20 minutes for 8 weeks produces structural changes in the brain that can be seen on MRIs. And when the brain’s structure changes, you change. and
Research at Massachusetts General Hospital and elsewhere suggests that Mindfulness Meditation results in the slowing of telomere shortening (on the ends of chromosomes) associated with longer life and shortens other age-related declines in the brain. Long-term meditators show beneficial changes in gene expression such as in antigen processing and regulation of apoptosis (destruction of unwanted cells), decrease of the fatigue-producing release of inflammatory cytokines. (Examples of cytokines include interleukin and the interferon which are involved in regulating the immune system’s response to inflammation and infection). Also, there has been a recent surge of interest in heart rate variability (HRV), the space between the beats. HRV is an important indicator of both physiological resiliency and behavioral flexibility, reflecting an individual’s capacity to adapt effectively to stress. The effect of meditation on HRV is considerable.
Other benefits include reduced blood pressure; dramatic lowering of EEG beta waves that accompany stress; the thickening of the cortex in areas (eg. right anterior insula) that integrate and coordinate awareness of feelings and underlie emotional empathy; reduced sympathetic nervous system responsivity and thus reduced emotional reactivity as seen in anger outbursts; more efficient access to the decision-making area of the brain; and activation of areas responsible for compassion and loving feelings.