Cool Breezes, Calm Seas: Restoring and Nurturing the Brain and Body
By Ronnie Biemans, Dec 16 2016 04:47PM
Over the past several years, I have read with considerable excitement the works of Daniel Siegel, Rick Hanson, Richard Mendius, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. Their writings have raised our understanding and appreciation of the impact of life’s daily stresses on our health and of the strategies that can help to protect our brains and improve our physical and mental health.
Research has shown that mindfulness practices and meditation address health issues by lowering blood pressure, boosting the immune system, increasing attention and focus, reducing anxiety and depression, fostering well-being, and lessening emotional reactivity. Research finds that regular mindful meditation thickens parts of the brain in charge of decision making, emotional flexibility, and empathy. There is increasing evidence, linked to new knowledge about the brain and how it works, supporting the wisdom of including mindful meditation practice and other meditation practices into our daily lives to protect and maintain healthy brain function. Both formal and informal practices can be of benefit.
Stress and Rest Basics: The Body-Brain Response
The sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system work in tandem to address crises as well as balance and repair damage to the body. Here’s how it works: Something happens—a perceived threat requiring action— the brain and sympathetic nervous system send signals to major organ systems and muscle groups. Brain chemicals norepinephrine and epinephrine and the adrenal gland stress hormones, cortisol and adrenaline are released into the bloodstream. These neurotransmitters and hormones ”fire up” the body to help you avoid threats and activate defenses. This is a necessary and functional survival response. However, in today’s fast-paced world with its often unceasing demands, there are numerous events that may trigger this “flight or fight” response. This constant “firing up” can exhaust the body , especially if the parasympathetic nervous system is never called upon or permitted , by this constant crisis state, to repair and rest the digestive, circulatory, immune, cardiovascular, and endocrine systems. In the natural course of things, the “rest and digest” function of the parasympathetic nervous system conserves energy and returns the body to equilibrium. Ideally, if the brain and body work in synchrony, it is the parasympathetic nervous system that is mostly activated, while the sympathetic nervous system is called upon to rev up and help us respond to an emergency , stay up late to complete a project, or swim hard in a challenging ocean current.
The Dangers of “Life on Simmer”
In the book Buddha’s Brain, Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius describe the modern phenomenon of incessant stressing out, what they call “life on simmer.” Our reactions to non-life threatening events can and often do stimulate a sympathetic nervous system -fueled “fight or flight response.” For many of us, rush hour traffic following a day of nasty office politics can keep us in a hyper-aroused state. We rush to work, fighting traffic all the way, stress out over differences with work colleagues, skip lunch, leave work late, and come home to grumpy children needing dinner . We might watch a little television before we check our work e-mail and hit the sack. Phew! No rest for the weary, and it continues the next day. Even weekends don’t provide the respite needed, as weekend warriors run their miles, maybe squeeze in a body pump class, and do household chores.
There is another way. It is possible to be kinder to your body and mind.
Activate the Parasympathetic Nervous System: Create a Cool Breeze
On a daily basis, we can create a cool breeze for our overheated, overstimulated selves. Here are some simple, concrete ways to give permission to your parasympathetic nervous system to do its work:
• Get 7 to 8 hours of sleep at night
• Create mini breaks for yourself during the day to take a few deep breaths
• Take 15 minutes to walk in a green space
• Talk to a friend
• Take time for a physical activity that you enjoy
• Listen to your favorite music
• Take time to stretch when you have been sitting at a desk for several hours
• Acknowledge something that you are grateful for. Write in your gratitude journal or simply acknowledge this to yourself
• Prepare a good meal and savor it
• Meditate, even if you only have 15 minutes to spare
• Think of positive times in your life, and remember to appreciate
Cooling the fires and resting at ease are possible in daily life. It’s a matter of making the commitment to yourself and taking small steps toward daily practice. Your body and mind will thank you for it!
Sources and Resources
Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, Ph.D. and Richard Mendius, M.D.
The Relaxation Response by Herbert Benson, M.D.
365 Ways to Live Happy written by Meera Lester
Five good minutes: 100 morning practices to help you stay calm and focused all day long written by Jeffrey Brantley, M.D. and Wendy Millstine
About the Author:
Informed by over 25 years of professional training and work experience as well as her many years of meditation and yoga practice, Ronnie Biemans, M.A., L.C.P.C., is guided by a core philosophy to focus on strengths, not deficits or pathology. By discovering, restoring and optimizing each person’s unique ability to thrive and meet the demands, of today’s fast-paced, stressful world, those who have encountered physical and emotional health challenges can discover ways to improve their lives and well being. Operating from her home office and in other community settings, Ronnie provides guidance and support to individuals, families and groups seeking to live healthy, balanced lives.