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We live in stressful times and in spite of the scare stories about health risks in diet, lifestyle etc. stress is actually the biggest threat to health, it depresses the immune system, leads to to develop unhealthy habits like comfort eating and it raised blood pressure and contributes to heart disease. So what can you do to help yourself. Centuries ago, people were far more in tune with the earth and their own senses than we are now. This may sound like new age stuff to you, a puff piece for a cult perhaps but I promise you I am selling nothing and you will find the opening statement true if you stick with me. The change began as the industrial revolution gathered pace and now, 250 years on, we in the United Kingdom live non stop lives fuelled by adrenalin. A constant procession of lifestyle coaches, self help gurus, and people paid by the all powerful advertising industry keep exhorting us to be “in the loop” to jump on the bandwagon of every fad, to buy our self esteem by owning the latest gadgets, the hottest designer’s clothes and all the rest. The most successful and most hyperbolic and manipulative marketing campaign ever was that on which the success of Apple was built. When the founder of that company dies serious
journalists were falling over themselves to bestow on him a Messianic status. Adrian Hon, a regular columnist in The Daily Telegraph, in an article that compared Jobs to Christopher Wren, the architect who designed the most beautiful buildings in London. Hon wrote “Everywhere you look, you can see people playing games and talking on their iPhones, reading books on their iPads, and browsing the web on their MacBooks”. Are they? I live in a heavily populated and reasonably prosperous are and I see people using mobile phones of many types, listening to MP3 players of many types and concentrating on driving their cars, doing their work or looking where they are going. Jobs was not a great innovator, a commenter on one of my blogs described him as having a talent for “syllogistic rebranding,” a wonderful phrase I wish I had thought of myself. Not being of the generation prone to Apple addiction I asked my son about the cult like following Apple technology has gathered. “I know quite a lot of people and none, as far as I know, has an Apple product he said, venturing, “I think the Apple fanatics tend to be in the London area, they’re the same people as buy clothes for the image wearing a designer projects or drive a type of car because it is “cool” Blogging that Jobs was the most hypocritical Buddhist ever and that the company he founded one of the most fascistic and litigious ever was not allowed (so much for free speech). Anybody who queried the great benefits Apple products had brought to our lives was subjected to ferocious hate attacks from fans. But do we need tablet computers or smartphones on which to browse the internet or communicate with friends while out and about? Crossing a busy street while watching yet another hilarious fart lighting video on YouTube is inviting disaster and texting while near water is a risk not worth taking as this CCTV footage proves. Many people wherever they are do now seem to have a constant need to communicate via phone, text or internet. Our ancestors did not fel this need so why are we addicted to these gadgets? It can only be due to insecurity but what has caused such insecurity in people who are materially better off than any previous generation?
The fact is we are so pressured with the idea that we must fill time profitably, networking, building contacts, learning, acquiring, when we are not actually working that we have forgotten how to be. While the hype machine rails against fatty foods, salt, cigarettes, alcohol, it is in fact stress that endangers our health most. We live much longer than our ancestors of only a few generations ago and still we are made to feel it will be some kind of personal failure if we live for ever. Thus rather than just enjoying life many people are manipulated into stressing out over their diet, weight, blood pressure and the constant fear of developing certain conditions. Stress has been identified as a factor on the onset of many illnesses. At The (Breast Cancer) Haven in London, a programme called Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is showing huge success for the Haven’s “Visitors” (not called patients). Run by Dr Caroline Hoffman, who is the centre’s clinical Director and Research Co-Ordinator, the course teaches people to look at themselves objectively by consciously bringing their mind back to the present thus controlling the urge to analyze past events or try to guess future happenings over which we have no control.. This approach works for people rebuilding their lives after a potentially fatal illness and can work for anyone who feels they would like to regain balance and peace of mind.
Caroline tells her visitors that “allowing your mind to wander and ruminate, keeps you in an impoverished mental state”. Most people will know what she means, I live a relatively stress free life now but such things would happen to me years ago; for hours I would lie away running over and over the projects I was managing, identifying a problem (usually a insignificant one) comparing one possible solution to another, reviewing work already done and trying to decide if we could have done things differently to avoid the current problem (as if we could go back in time and change what was done) and finally dropping off to sleep only to wake exhausted to the realisation that what I had been worrying about was not a problem at all. We might think we are thinking but really our minds are like a hamster running round a wheel, getting nowhere at all. The link between mind and body is territory into which many medical researchers, fearing ridicule, do not investigate. If only the science community behaved less like The Inquisition and more like open minded seekers of truth maybe this fascinating area would be explored more thoroughly. For centuries, doctors have recognised the placebo effect, in which the illusion of treatment, such as pills without an active ingredient, produces real medical benefits. It has been acknowledged in some serios studies that the placebo can in many cases be more effective than the clinically tested, peer reviewed drug prescribed by medical professionals. More recently, respectable research has demonstrated that those who frequently experience positive emotions live longer and healthier lives. They have fewer heart attacks, for example, and fewer colds too. Why this happens is only slowly becoming understood and progress is being hindered by an academic community that has far too cosy a relationship with Big Pharma. What is needed is an experiment that points out specific and measurable ways in which emotions act on an individual's biology. A study published in Psychological Science, by Barbara Fredrickson and Bethany Kok at the University of North Carolina sets out tackle that issue. Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok concentrated their attentions on the vagus nerve. This
nerve starts in the brain and runs, via numerous branches, to several thoracic and abdominal organs including the heart. Among its functions is to send signals telling that organ to slow down during periods of calm. How effectively the vagus nerve is working can be tracked by monitoring someone's heart rate as he breathes in and out (the vagal tone index). Healthy vagal nerve function is reflected in a subtle increase in heart rate while breathing in and a subtle decrease while breathing out. The difference shows how healthy the vagus nerve is. Heart and lung function is considered to be closely related to general physical health connected with health. A poorly functioning vagus nerve, for example, is linked to inflammation and heart attacks. What particularly interested Drs Fredrickson and Dr Kok was work in other studies that showed something else about the vagal-tone index: people with high tone are better than those with low at stopping bad feelings getting overblown. They also show more positive emotions in general. This may provide the missing link between emotional well-being and physical health. In particular, the two researchers found, during a preliminary study they carried out in 2010, that the vagal-tone values of those who experience positive emotions over a period of time go up. This left them wondering whether positive emotions and vagal tone drive one another in a virtuous spiral. They therefore conducted an experiment on 65 of the university's staff, to try to find out. They measured all of their volunteers' vagal tones at the beginning of the experiment and at its conclusion nine weeks later. In between, the volunteers were asked to go each evening to a website especially designed for the purpose, and rate their most powerful emotional experiences that day. Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok asked their volunteers to consider nine positive emotions, such as hope, joy and love, and 11 negative ones, including anger, boredom and
Brain & main nerves
disgust. They were asked to rate, on a five-point scale, whetherâ€”and how stronglyâ€”they had felt each emotion. One point meant 'not at all'; five meant 'extremely'. In addition, half the participants were invited to a series of workshops run by a licensed therapist, to learn a meditation technique intended to give the meditators a feeling of goodwill towards both themselves and others. Fredrickson and Dr Kok's observations showed that vagal tone increased significantly in people who meditated, and hardly at all in those who did not. Among meditators, those who started the experiment with the highest vagal-tone scores reported the biggest increases in positive emotions. Meditators who started with particularly low scores showed virtually no such boost. Taken as a whole, the findings suggest high vagal tone makes it easier to generate positive emotions and that this, in turn, drives vagal tone still higher. That is both literally and metaphorically a positive feedback loop. Which is good news for the emotionally positive, but bad for the emotionally negative, for it implies that those who most need a psychosomatic boost are least capable of generating one. Whether, besides improving general health, the mechanism Dr Fredrickson and Dr Kok have discovered helps explain the placebo effect remains to be investigated. But it might, because part of that effect seems to be the good feeling engendered by the fact of being treated. More generally, doctors in the ancient world had a saying: 'a healthy mind in a healthy body' (A more modern expression of that is the saying, "The mind suffers and the body cries out.") The results of work like that of Frederickson and Kok suggests that though this proverb is true, a better one might be, 'a healthy mind for a healthy body'. Coping with stress induced behaviour and conquering it is all about becoming self-aware. Recognize the behaviour pattern and learn to block it. The best way of doing this is by devoting time to yourself. Your reaction may be to think selfishness is being encouraged but nothing could be further from the truth. Devoting a little time to yourself and developing a few tricks to help your mind use it to release stress and built up tensions will make you less selfish. Developing our ability to concentrate on the “here and now”, using the techniques of meditation, prayers, losing ourselves in
music or poetry, walking in the countryside or a park and appreciating nature, all around us, oblivious to our human concerns, getting on with being, watching a stream flow or even a water feature in the garden or indoors, focusing on a candle flame as it burns; all these things can be used to anchor us so we are not swept away by the pace of modern life.
Finding peace in natural surroundings
One of my favourite pastimes in summer is to sit and watch the insects in my garden. I have filed the garden with plants that attract bees and butterflies (lavender is a good one and very easy to grow) while not thinking about my life but being aware of all that is going on, of the interconnectedness of everything, observing but not reacting other than to recognise oneself as a small part of a much greater whole. That’s a summer occupation of course but the winder brings its own opportunities to experience the same things. Learning relaxation techniques such as simply lying on your back and feeling the rise and fall of the diaphragm as you breathe, slowly, rhythmically, is as good as anything and totally free. Draw in breath slowly until your lungs feel full but not uncomfortable. Hold for a second. Now breathe out slowly, in a controlled way, feeling the tension flow out of you.
Told you it wouldn’t cost anything. Just do it. Follow your own course, find your own away. It will be very rewarding.
Illustration 1: Bees busy on lavender
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