Stress and Illness / Mindfulness and Relaxation

by Timothy R. Walker, Ph.D

Why is it that some people maintain their health while others become ill and develop symptoms, when both groups are exposed to the same pathogenic agents or the same environmental stressors? Why do some people heal from spinal injuries due to automobile and other accidents easily, within a month or two of the original trauma, while others continue to experience chronic pain with no relief for years and years? What is the actual relationship between our physical health and our social/emotional, mental and spiritual well-being? These are the kinds of questions propelling a new field of medical research called psychoneuroimmunology.

Combining psychology and neurology with research into the immune system, this new field has established that the immune system is influenced by at least three communication pathways: the autonomic nervous system, the central nervous system and the neuropeptide chemical messenger system. These developments are slowly bringing about a marriage between “hard” medical science and the established practices of mind-body healing. Empirical studies have shown that the way that we perceive ourselves and our environment, our self esteem, our attitudes, our moods, the quality of our relationships, our sense of power and control at home and at work, our ability to find meaning in life, and our faith can all have a profound effect on diverse physiological functions, on our health and our ability to heal ourselves.

Medical research into the effects of stress on the body has been mounting for almost half a century, since the early 1950s when Hans Selye first coined the term. His definition of stress was “the nonspecific response of the organism to any pressure or demand.” The negative effects of stress on the immune system have been demonstrated in numerous studies, as have their effects on an increased susceptibility to cancer, heart disease, strokes, nervous disorders, gastrointestinal problems, skin disorders and virtually any health problem. Our genes and the environment may cause a weak link in our health but it is usually stress that eventually causes that weak link to snap.

A stress reaction, similar to the fight or flight reaction with which many people are familiar, is a state of physiological and psychological hyperarousal characterized by strong emotions which vary from anxiety, fright and terror to frustration, anger, rage and violent outbursts. This reaction involves a complex rapid firing of the autonomic nervous system and the endocrine system which releases stress hormones, the best known of which is epinephrine (adrenaline). Extraordinary muscle tension and strength are one result, as well as an increased heart rate and heart strength, raised blood pressure, rapid upper chest breathing, heightened sense perceptions and intense vigilance and alertness.

In this state of hyperarousal the blood flow to the digestive system and organs of the lower abdomen is greatly restricted to make more blood available to the arms and legs for running or fighting. This is familiar to most of us as the feeling of “butterflies in your stomach” when you have stage fright or when you are hyped for a competitive sport. This is also why you will not digest your meal very well after having an argument with your spouse, because digestion stops and the food goes sour in your system. The fight or flight reaction takes a tremendous toll on the body and is therefore “designed” only for short term (10-15 minutes) and infrequent use.

Interestingly, the fight or flight reaction in animals evolved to trigger not only when threatened by another larger and more aggressive species but also when their social or territorial status was being threatened by members of their own species or their own group. When we translate this into the complex social structures we struggle with within the human animal kingdom, it is easy to understand why it is that stress researchers say that the average person in today’s society is more or less constantly in at least a low-level state of fight or flight hyperarousal.

Added to these given factors of our physiology, there is our high pressured, fast paced, economically unpredictable society with its ever-accelerating pace of change. And, if this is not bad enough, the real killer, from my perspective, is that no one ever taught us how to deal with this experience of ever increasing stress. On the contrary most people grew up in families and in schools and in jobs that we can all jokingly admit were “dysfunctional”. From one perspective we could say that the primary dysfunction was the way in which these systems, and in particular those who were at least nominally in control, dealt with stress and stress reactions. For people (and there are many) who grew up in alcoholic families or families ruled by authoritarian rage or other distortions, the physiological stress reaction became a way of life very early on—and once the body-level habits of maladaptive stress reactivity are set, almost anything in later life can trigger it. No wonder we are such an unhealthy society!

What is the antidote? The autonomic nervous system is made up of two types or branches of nerves: the sympathetic branch which activates the stress reaction, and the parasympathetic branch which activates a state of rest also known as the relaxation response. This is where we can exercise our power to make a choice, through our conscious awareness, to either enhance our immune system’s functioning and to self-regulate other important physiological systems of the body, or not.

One highly successful program that trains people how to switch out of the habitual state of hyperarousal and into the relaxation response is the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester, Massachusetts. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s bestselling book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, describes the program in detail and is highly recommended as a comprehensive manual on how to transform one’s negative and harmful stress reactions into more healthy and conscious responses. In January of 1996 the EastWind Stress Reduction Program, based on this model, opened in Halifax. This spring an adapted model was implemented at the new Environmental Health Clinic in Fall River.

The centerpiece of this program is mindfulness meditation practice. Sometimes people are intimidated by the notion of meditation as something foreign, esoteric or mystical. However, mindfulness meditation is as simple and direct as drinking a glass of water when you are thirsty. Mindfulness simply means paying attention to one’s immediate experience in this present moment. Mindfulness involves cultivating a precise attention to what is, without judgment or preconception. It means fully being with the vivid qualities experienced through each of our senses; the blue of the sky, the tart, sweet and juicy flavour of a strawberry and even the stinging pain of a pinched sciatic nerve or the bubbling heat of anger. When we fully experience what is happening in our bodies, in our minds and in our emotional lives, we begin to awaken a natural and inherent wisdom, the wisdom of healing and the wisdom of becoming whole.

The tendency to avoid pain and to seek out what seems to be secure and comfortable is a common pattern in human experience. Our materialistic culture, driven by advertising and the media, promotes and takes advantage of this tendency in all of us. To a large degree our medical system has also bought into this way of thinking, with its quick-fix approach of prescribing drugs that merely mask the symptoms without addressing deeper underlying causes. Yet our natural intelligence, our common sense also points us in another direction.

If the oil light in your car suddenly came on while you were driving you would naturally stop ASAP and get some oil. Symptoms are like that oil light, they are signals that give us messages about deeper problems of imbalance in the overall wellness of our body-mind system. From this perspective symptoms are feedback about disregulation. If we ignore or suppress these messages from our bodies, it may lead to more severe symptoms and more serious problems later on. From the perspective of enhancing our natural intelligence with mindfulness, we don’t want to ignore or rupture the essential connections that can complete relevant feedback loops and restore self-regulation and balance. We want to listen to the messages, fully hear them, learn from them and respond to them in appropriate ways. One appropriate response might be to take a pain killer or an anti-inflamatory medication, but others might include a change in lifestyle, diet and exercise, psychotherapy or massage, and most importantly, learning to relax habitually tight muscles which are like rigid armor developed in one’s fight with the world, or flight from a world perceived as hostile and unfriendly.

The first mindfulness practice that people learn in the stress reduction clinic involves combining mindfulness with deep relaxation in what is called the body scan meditation. This gentle introduction to mindfulness meditation allows people to gradually become reacquainted with their often long-lost and forgotten bodies. Part by part in a very intimate and conscious way, people learn to re-inhabit their body, literally breathing life-giving energy back into it. The notion of making friends with yourself, your body, your mind and your emotions is central to the program. Developing a mental space of quiet observation without judgment or intellectual commentary eventually fosters a spontaneous and heartfelt attitude of acceptance and loving kindness toward oneself, which becomes the ground of healing, natural changes and transformations.

The mindfulness approach to stress reduction is a comprehensive way to foster a complete change in attitude. This kind of change in attitude may not be a cure, and there is certainly no guarantee that it will remove all of your symptoms, however it does transform your view of the problem. And frequently it is our perception of the problem and our way of thinking about the problem that has created the problem in the first place. As Einstein put it “the world we have made as a result of thinking we have done thus far creates problems that we cannot solve at the same level at which we created them.”

Some resources

Benson, H. The Relaxation Response. New York: Morrow, 1975
Boryesnko, J. Minding the Body, Mending the Mind. Toronto: Bantam. 1987
Kabat-Zinn, J. Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. New York: Delta. 1990
Kabat-Zinn, J. Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. New York: Hyperion. 1994
Locke, S., Colligan, D. The Healer Within. New York: Dutton, 1986
Moyers, B. Healing and the Mind. New York: Doubleday 1993
Healing and the Mind, a 5-part video series available through Bantam Doubleday Bell and at the public library.
(# 3 documents the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the U. Mass Medical Center),