The Nine Essentials of Health #4: Meditation/Prayer
My arms and legs are heavy and warm.
My heartbeat is calm and regular.
My breathing is free and easy.
My abdomen is warm.
My forehead is cool.
My mind is quiet and still.
— Autogentic Training, as interpreted by Dr. Norman Shealy
This morning, I woke up feeling refreshed. After morning coffee with my husband, I went to my computer to start my day. I found an email from a friend of mine, the tone of which seemed tense with a miscommunication we apparently had earlier in the month. I had not known there was a miscommunication, but unfortunately, that is the nature of miscommunication. My friend had been sitting on this miscommunication for a while, apparently, and letting it get large in her mind and heart – so when she addressed it with me, it seemed extremely curt and accusatory. So, also, in the nature of miscommunication, there is now embarrassment and hurt feelings all around.
I am, by nature, a hotheaded American Irishwoman. My natural reaction to situations like this is, therefore, is to become defensive and to cast about for blame in everything and everyone other than myself. Along with that comes the shame of knowing that I am reacting poorly, and anger at myself for 1) miscommunicating, 2) causing hurt feelings, and 3) leaving a poor impression of myself.
So in a matter of moments, I have gone from calm and refreshed to anxious, angry, resentful, shameful, disappointed, and sullen.
This is what happens to our bodies when we feel shame, anger, resentment, and sadness:
Norepinephrine, a fight-or-flight neurotransmitter, rises. Norepinephrine tells the body it is under attack. It signals stress hormones to release into the system that raise our blood pressure, speeds up our breathing, and shunts blood to our brain centers that deal with immediate survival (and away from cortical centers that help us think through a situation).
Serotonin levels drop. Serotonin, among many other functions, is our “at ease” neurotransmitter. We feel content and safe when serotonin is at normal levels. When serotonin drops, we feel panic, aggression, and self-loathing. We crave carbohydrates, our blood pressure is high, and our kidneys work overtime (overactive bladder).
Dopamine levels rise. When in balance, dopamine works with the other neurotransmitters to bring us peace. When dopamine rises (safely) in concert with serotonin, we feel excitement and inspiration. However, when dopamine rises as serotonin falls, we feel anger and aggression. We also get interference to our digestive system, heart function, skeletal muscle control, and thyroid function.
Gamma Amino Butyric Acid (GABA) falls. This neurotransmitter, GABA, interacts with 25% to 40% of our brain synapses. GABA helps us think straight, calms us down, and helps us not feel pain. When GABA drops, we feel high anxiety, we can’t sleep, and everything starts to “feel wrong.”
Acetylcholine rises. Acetylcholine facilitates metabolic reactions throughout the body. It is the happy helper. Aside from its normal day-to-day functions, whatever other neurotransmitters are active in the body, acetylcholine helps their jobs along more efficiently. Wherever acetylcholine is present, your body’s attention is present. Wherever acetlchyoline is not, your body’s attention is not. Think of it like that extra shot of espresso that you put in your café mocha to give you that extra boost.
So. These neurotransmitters are in play. Therefore with regard to our hormones:
- Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) falls.
- Estrogen falls.
- Progesterone falls.
- Testosterone rises.
- Cortisol rises.
…and a whole host of other hormones go out of whack, the bulk of which lead to increased aging, all body processes getting gummed up, and inflammatory markers.
No joke: if I were to allow this situation to fester and last for weeks, months, and years, my skin will lose elasticity, I won’t be able to sleep well, I will not be able to digest my food correctly, and my oxygen intake will be reduced. I will develop heart disease, digestive disorders, bone loss, joint malfunction, skin aging, cognitive dysfunction, a high risk of cancer facilitation, obsessive-compulsive disorder, paranoid states, and suicidal thoughts.
Wow! All from one misunderstanding! Imagine if I suffered from misunderstandings every day!
Luckily, I know this about myself. Also, having the self-awareness to know that I’m a hothead, and that this is one of my not-so-socially-functional traits in my personality, I have trained myself not to react to anything that stresses me out.
Instead, I’m going to take a few minutes out to calm the f*** down.
I go to a quiet area, sit down, and make sure I’m comfortable and that my neck and back are supported in a straight line. I breathe deeply through my nose into my belly for a count of four…1…2…3…4…about four times, hold if for a second, then release my breath to a count of four with my mouth slightly open. Then, to this rhythmic counting of 4s, I say to myself the following:
[breath in] My arms and legs [hold; breath out] are heavy and warm.
[breath in] My heartbeat [hold; breath out] is calm and regular.
[breath in] My breathing [hold; breath out] is free and easy.
[breath in] My abdomen [hold; breath out] is warm.
[breath in] My forehead [hold; breath out] is cool.
[breath in] My mind [hold; breath out] is quiet and still.
I didn’t invent this. It’s called autogenic training, and a doctor named Norman Shealy first introduced me to it back in 2003. He modified it from that which a psychiatrist named Johannes Heinrich Schultz invented back in 1932 as a means of accessing the autonomic nervous system (fight or flight response) consciously. By repeating these steps to ourselves, we are training our bodies to respond to our conscious will, as opposed to simply reacting without conscious direction to its environment.
This isn’t the only way to do it, of course. Conscious breathing and relaxation techniques have been around since we began to harness fire, I suspect, when people started sitting around and interacting with each other and finding out that we can really irritate the sh*t out of one another. The first yogi was probably someone who had to deal with a batch of whiners around the fire pit every night. It makes me wonder if the human prefrontal cortex developed so quickly not because of cooked food, but because some of us had the good sense to walk away from the irritating complainer at the fire and sit for a few minutes to calm down.
Of course, we need our autonomic nervous system to run automatically. We can’t tell our heart to beat, our kidneys to filter, our blood vessels to constrict, and our breath to function every moment of our lives.
We also cannot anticipate when a bear is going to come out of the woods and challenge us for our picnic lunch. So when we are in danger from a bear at work tearing apart our salami sandwich, we need our bodies to react, either by beating the bear up (not likely) or running for our cars and speeding off (more likely). That’s where those neurotransmitters come in: to save our lives when thinking about the situation (“well, if I just reason with the bear, we can share the lunch”) is a dumb move.
But how often are we in the woods with a picnic lunch these days? More likely, we are at work reading e-mails that are miscommunications, or cut off in traffic by someone who has a completely separate crisis about which they are freaking out, and in the process, making us pissed off because of our own perception of inconsideration. That’s when those ancient reactions come into play these days…and they happen all the time now, almost every hour. You and I both know it.
When functioning optimally, our neurotransmitters react to our environment to help us survive and flourish. However, compared to our ancient environment, we live unnaturally and are in an almost constant state of self-induced environmental stress. By telling our bodies to calm down, we are consciously telling our neurotransmitters to respond differently than evolution has trained them to react.
That’s the beauty of having a prefrontal cortex! One of the things that makes being human such a fabulous thing is that we have a choice!
We all know that when we go see an action movie, or witness an aggressive exchange on the street or in the workplace, our own bodies get tense and ready for action. Our bodies react as if we are personally in danger! Likewise, if we receive a bunch of memes with kittens or puppies in our email box, or someone we love gives us a hug, our breathing slows and deepens and we feel a sense of “awww.” That’s our neurotransmitters evening out and calming us down.
So ultimately, it’s a good thing to have happy, clean, loving and natural environments, so our bodies are able to respond with calm and peace. Luckily, when we are unable to reach a calming environment, we can facilitate a peaceful environment in ourselves through deep breathing methods that lead to meditation.
Deep breathing is not like learning Mozart or Beethoven. You don’t need years of training before you can approach the work. You just need the will to take some time out and calm the f*** down.
We can do this through yoga, when we walk, when we run, when we exercise, when we sit, lie down, or stand calmly…when we choose to breathe deliberately, slowly. That is the major key: make yourself breathe deeply and slowly.
The second key is to think of something nice; or, at least, when that panic-y head chatter comes in trying to get your attention, let it go without focusing on it.
Even if you don’t think you are doing it right, immediately, as immediately as the irritant made you stressed, this kind of breathing will tell your neurotransmitters that you are safe. Your mental and physical health immediately improves, as well as your ability to deal with your situation and life in general.
If you do it every day, working up to 20 minutes twice a day, when personal or environmental irritants do enter your sphere, you have the capacity to respond rationally, as opposed to react haphazardly…and your mental and physical health improves by leaps and bounds. Also, for those of you who care about anti-aging, this is a great way to keep yourself young!
Chronic, self-imposed stress is quite possibly the #1 underlying cause of deadly preventable disease in this country today. Collectively, a great deal of heart disease, cancer, and self-destructive behavior like overeating and recreational/prescription drug taking can boil down to stress – to the inability to accept a situation that is, at least in the short-term, unalterable by the will of the one experiencing the situation.
If we are not able to accept our situation enough to be calm in its face, we will suffer stress. If we experience stress for a long enough period, we will make ourselves really sick. Being calm in the face of adversity is worth its weight in health platinum.
The easiest way to calm down is to close your eyes, sit, stand, or lie straight, and breathe deeply into your belly. Your breath is locked into your heart rate. If you will yourself to breathe deeply and easily into your diaphragm, your heart rate will slow down. If you calm your heart, you calm the mind. If you are able to do this regularly, you won’t freak out at stupid stuff. You also will have better mental faculties to deal with serious stuff. More, you can literally save your health.
I have used the title, Meditation/Prayer, as the #4 step to a good health; yet, I have not approached the topic of meditation or prayer yet. Just the effort to reach a state of meditation and/or prayer can lead you to better health. Once in meditation/prayer, the health benefits escalate at a geometric rate.
Meditation, technically, is not simply sustained deep breathing. Meditation is what happens after you reach a state of contentment after deep breathing, and your mind is open to possibilities. Scientists tell us that is when we meditate our brainwaves are at a frequency called Theta. Deep breathing gives us a state of Alpha, while meditation gives us Theta state. Delta state is deep sleep. Masters of meditation can reach High Gamma coupled with Theta, but let’s start with what we have: Alpha to Theta.
The way to reach meditation – Theta state — is to use conscious techniques for calming down on a regular basis. When you are in Theta state, you are in a state of self-induced hypnosis, and you can feed your subconscious mind positive direction and overwrite bad habits recorded there in youth. When you do this, your life will change for the better, seemingly metaphysically. That’s where body, mind, and spirit meet, and it is a bit beyond the scope of this post. Sufficed to say, your body grows healthy, your mind grows healthy, and your spirit is much more capable of navigating this thing we call Life.
I include the concept of “prayer” equally along with “meditation” in my recommendation. For those of us who have strong faith in Deity, prayer to a “Higher Power” has the same benefits as meditation.
Although prayer is commonly used to describe the act of asking a deity for help, when I use the term prayer, I mean that special communion one feels with their Deity when one opens oneself to that interaction through an induced state of calm.
So…now that I’ve taken some time out, breathed deeply, and calmed myself, I know where the miscommunication arose. It actually is my fault, because I thought I heard a response from my friend regarding a request I made of her…a response that I wanted to hear. I wasn’t listening to the fullness of what she was saying, not only in words, but in tone and knowing her personal situation. I heard what she said through my own filters. I heard what I wanted to hear.
It happens. No need to bash myself, and it certainly wasn’t her fault. Writing a response e-mail might lead to more misunderstanding, because she does not have the benefit of hearing the tone of my voice or seeing the set of my face when I respond. She might think my response is passive-aggressive or condescending, considering the state of mind in which she seems to be. However, I could be misreading the tone of her email entirely…
I’ll call her up and invite her to lunch so we can hash it out in person. That’s the civilized, right thing to do…to return to the fire pit and speak lovingly with my companions who I know, underneath bristly, hurt words, love me, too.
Plus, we’ll both live longer…and better!
Next time: #5: Laughter/Active Appreciation
Truthtime Question: Am I calm enough to forgive myself and others, and to get busy making things right?
Posted on 12/11/2012, in Uncategorized and tagged Acetylcholine, Dehydroepiandrosterone, GABA, Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, Health, Neurotransmitter, Norepinephrine, Serotonin, United States. Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.