During this special holiday time, I thought I'd share a guest post from Dr. Judith Boice, author of The Green Medicine Chest (http://www.drjudithboice.com), on how to relax (as well as why!).
Early in my practice I worked with Karen, a former Olympic athlete. At the time Karen was recently married, leaving a job in the Forest Service, and completing an acupuncture degree.
We talked several times about the magnitude of life changes she was undergoing, and the accompanying stress levels.“But I’m not stressed,” she assured me.
I finally convinced her to complete The Stress Map, a self-evaluation tool that reviews 21 life areas. Tallying the answers reveals whether someone is experiencing optimal function, balance, stress, or burn out in that area.
Karen scored “optimal” or “balanced” in every area except the final section, “symptoms of stress.” The chart revealed that Karen was extremely stressed physically, mentally, and emotionally. Her mind perceived she could comfortably handle much more than her body actually could. Like most athletes, Karen had learned how to use her mind to conquer her body, not collaborate with it.
Another patient, a former All-American college athlete, was unable to even entertain the possibility that he was stressed.
“You just don’t understand,” he said. “I have so much less stress than when I was working at jobs I hated. My life is so much easier now!”
I suggested that dropping from 20/10 to 10/10 stress might seem like a walk in the park. The body, however, continues to struggle when the mind is detached from the physical body.
This same brilliant athlete was unable to complete biofeedback exercises to increase circulation into certain areas of his body. How could he, when the mind-body circuit had been destroyed so many years before?
Both of these high-level athletes had spent years over-riding their physical bodies. Their mantras were: push through pain; drive past hunger; ignore thirst or discomfort; doggedly continue even when the physical body is permanently damaged.
I had my own experience of mind over matter backpacking as teenager. Our group leader missed a turn-off for the intended trail. Instead, we ended up backpacking down a 45 degree slope for 12 miles. My body was stressed far beyond normal limits. Bracing an extra 40 pounds of weight on the precipitous downhill journey, the flexor muscle in my right big toe faltered and then died.
Many years later, I continue to push my tired body to finish the millionth detail of the day. I over-ride my body’s signals for rest, nourishment, and rejuvenation.
Eventually, the body tires of signaling. A simple example is the body’s attempt to initiate a bowel movement. The nervous system mounts a wave-like signal, called a “mass movement,” to catalyze us into action. If we ignore the signal, the nervous system tries again in a few minutes, but with less vigor. After a couple more feeble attempts, the nervous system stops signaling.
Our bodies have similar patterns with all body sensations, e.g. shivering with cold, or cramping with hunger. The first signals, the early warning system, are the strongest. We ignore them at our own peril.
The “red flag” symptoms progress in their severity: heart palpitation, shortness of breath, anxiety, sweating, tremors, nervous tics.
If the disconnect between mind and body becomes chronic, our bodies develop more deeply seated illnesses: high blood pressure, diabetes, ulcerative colitis, Crohn’s disease – all namable diseases, rather than seemingly random symptoms.
In the last stages, body tissue begins to break down: cancer, emphysema, heart attack, arthritis, atherosclerosis.
If I learn to listen early, the severity of symptoms is less likely to progress. The body whispers before it screams. Do I have the grace to listen to the early, subtle warnings?
The simplest, most powerful bridge I know between mind and body is the breath. Standing in line at the grocery store, I ignore the tabloids and focus instead on the flow of air moving in and out of my body. Soon my shoulders recede from my ears, and my hands loosen. I feel the rope-like muscles on either side of my spine begin to unravel. The breath slips more and more easily in and out of the envelope of my body. The breath guides me in re-establishing harmony between body, mind, and spirit.
Mind over matter conquers rather than champions the physical body. Ultimately the body works best with the mind, creating a harmony that benefits them both.
Perhaps, it's time to take a breather. Even if just for five minutes.