Stress comes in all forms. It’s the busy multi-tasking daily routine, the chronic pain condition, the challenging relationships with family and coworkers. This chronic tension, whether we recognize it or not, triggers our sympathetic nervous system, creating a heightened “fight-or-flight” mode in which stress hormones increase, immune function decreases, and inflammation ensues. This state is a survival mechanism designed to remove us from danger at all costs. And cost us, it does.
Our nervous system exists in a state of balance between the sympathetic “fight-or-flight” state, and the parasympathetic “rest-and-digest” state. Some organs, such as the digestive tract, require activation of the parasympathetic nervous system to work optimally. This is perhaps why our elders guided us to sit at the dinner table free from distraction, and chew our food thoroughly. We must relax to break down and absorb our food efficiently. (A significant number of digestive concerns are alleviated by practicing these “eating hygiene” principles.)
We must also be in this relaxed parasympathetic nervous system state to heal. Healing requires a lot of the body’s resources and you can imagine that if your biochemistry is signaling danger chronically, no matter how low-grade, resources will be allocated to fighting or fleeing. In the body’s wisdom, the healing can happen later. But, for many of us, later often only comes at night if we sleep well. This lack of time spent in restfulness contributes to an incredible host of symptoms and chronic illness.
A quick glance at the number of scientific studies linking stress to common chronic ailments, is staggering. Fortunately, the body of research evaluating the benefit of mindfulness or meditation on these ailments, is starting to catch up. For example, a 2016 study on chronic low back pain published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, determined that mindfulness-based stress reduction classes resulted in significantly more pain reduction than some conventional care options. Another 2015 study published in the Lancet found that mindfulness-based stress reduction programs were just as effective as anti-depressants for preventing relapse of depression.
Enabling healing through being in a restful state doesn’t always mean meditation. The practice of mindfulness can be as simple as taking stock of where you are, in the present moment. It’s a mini escape from the anxious thoughts about the past and the future, and it’s enough to shift your biochemistry in a healthful direction. In his book “Wherever You Go, There You Are”, Jon Kabat-Zinn writes that mindfulness is about “getting unstuck, back in touch with our own wisdom… a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives”. Simply pay more attention, more often, to the present moment. Use your senses to feel the running water, hear the birds singing, and feel your body shift into a more peaceful place.