In previous posts on stress I talked about how, while limited stress can be a good thing, the body’s natural responses to stress are not well adapted for long-term anxieties and pressures common to modern life. Long term stress can slow healing and create other health problems, such as reducing our ability to process fatty food. I did mention that personality can play an important role in how we respond to stress, as well as the nature of interpersonal and institutional relationships we might be in, but today I want to discuss how we can overcome the limitations of our personality or environment by taking positive action to reduce stress.
In my very first post on the topic I discussed Tibetan Monks who are able to do remarkable feats through meditation: lowering their metabolism by 64 percent (it normally drops 10-15 percent when we sleep), and producing enough body heat to steam-dry an ice-cold blanket while sitting in a 40-degree room! Such feats take a life time of religious devotion, but they are not necessary to effect significant and important changes to your own stress levels using similar techniques. Even simple techniques, like those on this “relax in a hurry” web site can make a huge difference. More practiced mediation, such as what you might learn through yoga or studying in a meditation class, can have measurable affects on a person’s ability to handle stress. Millions swear by the effects of whatever it is that helps reduce their own stress, whether it is taking long walks, hypnosis, yoga, meditation, or tai-chi. But how these activities work to reduce stress is still not fully understood.
The best explanation I’ve heard was on Scientific American Frontiers with Alan Alda, where he interviewed a researcher by the name of Sara Lazar who does work on the effects of meditation. She looks at hormone levels, breathing, heart rate, brain activity and other factors while people meditate inside an MRI. In one study she found that people who just slowed down their breath, but did not have training in meditation, were not able to reduce their brain activity anywhere nearly as dramatically as those who had received such training. But what interested me was this: It seems that the part of the brain known as the amygdala is significantly more active when one is meditating.
ALAN ALDA Do you know other stuff about that part of the brain that throws light on what functions are otherwise performed by it?
SARA LAZAR M-hmm, it’s involved in vigilance, so paying attention to things. And so certainly, events which provoke fear, i.e. lions and tigers and snakes, would activate the amygdala. But also other things, and so since, when you’re meditating, you’re being vigilant on yourself, on your mantra, and on your body, and on your subjective state, that’s why we think we see the amygdala during meditation.
ALAN ALDA What other kind of vigilance are you talking about?
SARA LAZAR If you’re hungry and you’re driving down the street and you want to pay attention to which restaurants are there, that might be something similar. So it’s vigilance to things which are biologically relevant, I guess that’s a better…
ALAN ALDA Ah, I see.
SARA LAZAR …more precise. But probably not vigilance of say, you’re reading a book, or watching a movie. It’s not the same attention. It’s more– it’s got to be biologically relevant, they think.
ALAN ALDA Isn’t that interesting, that meditation which is supposed to be so spiritual, lights up the part of your brain that a sirloin steak does.
SARA LAZAR Exactly.
This fascinates me because for three years now I have been studying Iyengar Yoga. Iyengar is a very physical form of yoga — much more focused on body positioning then, say, on chanting or meditation. It is popular primarily for the rigorous training of the instructors who are usually quite knowledgeable about anatomy. Many people who start taking yoga as a substitute for physical therapy (as I did) often end up doing Iyengar yoga. Sometimes people come looking for a more “spiritual” form of yoga and are disappointed by the physicality and focus on the body in the Iyengar style. Iyengar teachers often respond to this by asserting that mental focus on the positions themselves is itself a form of spirituality. I don’t know about “spirituality” but I do know that when you are completely focused on trying to twist your body, maintain your balance, keep your breathing steady and stretch your hamstrings — all at the same time — you are way too busy focusing on these “biologically relevant” issues to think about any of those things which normally stress you out. I’m pretty sure that the amygdala is going to be activated by this, although I don’t have any evidence to back this up — other than my own sense of profound stress relief when I’ve done my practice.
Final revisions on my thesis are due this week and I’m at a higher level of stress then I’ve ever been in, but (apart from a few losses of control now and then) I’m handling it much better than I have, even much lower levels of stress. For instance, I used to not sleep at night because of neck pain associated with stress, but with the yoga that is gone. Also, I used to get so stressed out on big assignments that I would become dysfunctional, unable to work. Well, that happened to me today, but I did an hour’s worth of yoga and I feel completely refreshed — even had the energy to write this little post before getting back to the task at hand. Not to mention the feeling of accomplishment that comes from being able to bend forward a few millimeters more than you could the day before…
That concludes my series on stress for now. At some point I plan to write about other health benefits associated with yoga, trying there as well to provide a context in which they make sense without resorting to the usual mumbo-jumbo you hear people use when they talk about “alternative medicine” and the like. But that will have to wait till 2005!