One topic that I frequently address here on “Wellness Wednesday” is stress management. Unmanaged stress is the root cause of up to 70 percent of common medical problems. Consider a short list of common health problems that are directly associated with stress:
- Difficulty focusing
- Neck and back pain
- Acid reflux
- Surpassed immune function
- Inflammation, including joint pain and rashes
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
And that’s just the direct linkages; there are plenty of other side effects of stress that aren’t as obvious. It’s not difficult to draw a straight line from stress to poor dietary choices and the resulting weight gain, diabetes, liver toxicity, kidney stones, and I could go on and on. Haven’t you ever tried to make up for a bad day with a bottle of wine or a pint of ice cream?
Leaving the Siren On
From a simple biochemical perspective, stress floods your body with neurotransmitters like adenosine, adrenaline, and cortisol. Those chemicals are important for your health and well-being—they form the basis of your body’s “fight or flight” Emergency Alert System. While most of us aren’t being chased by tigers and bears like some of our ancestors, we still respond to fear, anxiety, and danger the same ways we always have, so it’s good to have a properly-functioning internal defense system.
The problem is that those neurotransmitters were meant to be activated only in the presence of immediate danger, and only for a short time. If the civil defense sirens in your neighborhood rang out 24/7, we would all go insane, or we would tune them out and they would become useless. In the same way, if we leave the adrenaline faucet on all the time, it gradually burns out our adrenal glands and damages our other organs.
Stress is unavoidable in this life. In fact, a little stress is necessary to keep us from slipping into a sedentary state, which is also unhealthy. What I see here in America is that our stress loads have exploded far beyond what our psyches can handle and that our physical health is suffering as a result.
Old Ways of Managing Stress
Most people, when they feel sick, take medicine to cover up the symptoms. So now, in addition to their sickness, they have the side effects of the drugs to contend with. If they are self-aware enough to recognize that their symptoms are rooted in stress, they might take steps to alleviate the stressful situations, take some time off, or engage in some counseling to process their over-active emotional state. Some people just blow up or quit their jobs. We all have our coping mechanisms. Last week, I listed several ways people cope with their stress—some healthy, most not so much.
As we are moving through the month of February, I want to bring meditation to your attention—maybe from a new perspective.
The (Good) Power of Meditation
I know plenty of people who are highly skeptical of meditation, particularly Christians who have long been taught that meditation is a spooky practice of Eastern religions that opens you up to demonic influence. Such practices do exist, and you need to be aware of them.
That said, most Christians aren’t aware that there are forms of meditation that have prominent places in Scripture. God told Joshua to meditate on the law day and night so that he would have wisdom in leading the nation of Israel into the Promised Land (Joshua 1:8). David wrote poems (we know them as Psalms) about how he loved to meditate. It’s not spooky.
On February 8th, I’m so excited to introduce you to my friends, Marty and Patti Hulsebos, who are excellent teachers on the physical and medical wellness benefits of meditation. They are going to be able to coach you through some principles of meditation that can transform your health, without violating your spiritual principles. If you’re in the Naples area, I encourage you to join us for that fun and interesting dinner, and I’ll tell you how in just a minute.
For now, I want to give you a simple technique that you can apply right now and start seeing a difference in your life…almost immediately.
- Regularly feel bombarded with stress
- Live in constant dread or anxiety
- Have been experiencing symptoms that make you afraid that you might be developing dementia,
…then I want you to walk through this with me.
This technique is not only proven to help lower high blood pressure in as little as three months, it has been shown to grow and thicken the synaptic branches of the brain, and manage the function of the amygdala, which is the part of the brain where most emotions are processed.
A Simple Meditation Technique You Can Use Now
Some people like to do this exercise first thing in the morning, others before they go to bed at night, while still others set aside at least one block of time during the day.
Get Alone and Quiet
Find a quiet place to sit by yourself for about 20 minutes. No phones, no computers, no kids, no other people, no distractions. This is critical. I get it: you’re a busy parent. If it’s difficult, find a way.
Put On Gentle Music…or Don’t
You can put on some quiet, soothing music if you would like. The Japanese have amazing music for meditation.
Here’s a side note that a musician friend of mine told me once: Western music (American and European) tells a story; it begins at point A and goes to point B. It evokes emotion and engages the mind. Eastern music, on the other hand, creates an environment. There’s no story to follow, no progress, no building or climax. It just is. It releases the mind and quiets emotions. That’s why it is so great for meditation. You’ll hear it in spas and massage centers all the time.
If you can get ahold of a CD of Japanese meditation music, put it on quietly. If you are concerned about the spiritual dynamics in the music, I recommend WholeTones, which is a meditation music series by a Christian musician. That’s an article for another time.
Focus On An Item
Find an item to focus on for the 20 minutes. I sometimes like to focus on my breathing, giving all my attention to the air going in and out of my lungs. Whether you sit or lay down, be mindful of the sensation of air moving into and out of your lungs. When other thoughts try to pull your attention away, just go back to your lungs.
Another technique is to lay on your back with palms flat on the floor at your sides. Slowly clench the muscles around your toes for three seconds and slowly release them. Think about how they feel. Then clench the other muscles of your feet for a few seconds and release them, focusing on how they feel. Work your way up your legs, back, abdomen, lungs, shoulders, upper arms, lower arms, hands, fingers, neck, and face. Give careful attention to the feeling of tension and release in each muscle group. You will be amazed at how quickly 20 minutes drifts by.
Some people use a flower, a candle, or rocks to focus their attention on. Some people will repeat a phrase over and over again until their mind starts to unwind. Eastern meditators call this a mantra. I prefer to use favorite verses from the Bible. Just pic out a verse and repeat it to yourself, letting your mind turn it over and over like a diamond, examining its facets. This is actually how God suggests we study His word—taking each verse and mulling it over in our minds, allowing Him to reveal specific wisdom for our lives.
Make It A Priority
If you are too busy to do this even once a day, then you are too busy, and we have identified the root of your stress. You need to unload something—delegate a task, redefine a priority, or just say no. If you can’t do any of those things, you need to ask yourself what you are hiding from. Fearful people hide behind overwhelming busy-ness to mask their fears or to make themselves appear (or feel) important. If you can’t set aside 20 minutes every 24 hours to relax a little, you have to ask yourself why. That’s not living.
More Health Benefits of Meditation
As this period of mindful quiet lowers your heart rate, it can also help to release muscle tension. There is some research into the benefits of meditation to minimize the effects of pain on the nervous system. As you begin to relax, you will shut down the flow of “fight or flight” neurotransmitters, and release the healing benefits of oxytocin, serotonin, and other “good-feeling” or “comfortable” neurotransmitters. Your body will thank you.
Multitasking Is The Problem, Not The Answer
One more quick thing I want to mention this week is a strategy for meditating while you are busy. While some forms of meditation emphasize emptying the mind, mindfulness training focuses the mind on one task at a time. Multitasking, by contrast, dilutes their productivity.
Some people believe their ability to multi-task makes them productive (or more valuable), but an increasing pile of research shows that to be false. Multi-tasking actually impoverishes your performance in every task you do because it segments your attention. Every interruption of your thought process requires up to 10 or even 20 minutes to regain flow. It’s not worth it.
Mindfulness on tasks is a form of meditation.
Mindfulness allows you to give each task your full attention. I have talked to countless people who have said that they cut their working hours from 100 hours per week to under 30 simply by blocking off time for focusing on one task at a time. Multitasking also overstimulates the synaptic responses of the brain, especially around the amygdala, so the rush of adrenaline you thin you are feeling is actually your emotional core panicking because it can’t focus.
If you will force yourself into the habit of doing one thing at a time, you will find that each task takes less time than it did when you were switching back and forth.
One More Tip
If you are like me and have a difficult time focusing when you are trying to study something important, try this: when a disrupting thought comes into your mind, write it down on a notepad and forget it. The act of writing it down gives your conscious mind permission to release it. Your conscious mind knows that, because you wrote it down, it won’t be lost; you will come back to it later. Now that distraction can be silenced. As you get good at capturing those distracting thoughts, you will find they happen less often.
I think that’s enough for this week. Next week, I want to go deeper into some of the health benefits of meditation, as we prepare for our Fundamental Foods and Friends Dinner with Marty and Patti Hulsebos. I can’t wait for you to meet them. Join us at my office behind the YMCA on Pine Ridge Road in Naples on Thursday, February 8th. Please RSVP on my Facebook page now so we can save a seat for you. These dinners get more popular each month, so I don’t want you to show up and not have a seat.
In the meantime, I bet you can think of someone who would benefit from what I shared today (as well as what we covered last week). Please take a few seconds to share this on your favorite social media channel now. I’m always shocked at how my articles get lost in people’s news feeds, and then nobody gets helped. Be part of the solution by helping overcome the indecipherable news feed algorithms.
And have a peaceful week.
While you’re here, why don’t you continue on to part 3 here? I think you’ll enjoy it.
“At the end of your FEELINGS is NOTHING. At the end of your PRINCIPLES is a PROMISE.” — Eric Thomas