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I often refer to the Four Pillars of Wellness: Diet, Exercise, Cleansing and Stress Management. The fourth pillar, which related to how we deal with stress, is probably the most poorly understood and handled. Emotional distress plays a significant role in virtually all medical problems and a simple yet extremely powerful tool for healthy stress management is meditation. Unfortunately, many individuals particularly some fundamentalist Christians, are strongly opposed to this practice.
WHAT IS MEDITATION
You may not have realized that the word meditation comes from the same root as medicine and medical, and the word originally described a technique for being healthy and whole. In fact meditation is medicinal and it can help to promote optimal health.
The human mind is a powerful facility that gives us the capacity to think. Scientists estimate that the average person thinks about 60, 000 thoughts each day and most of those thoughts are the ones we have day after day: we repeat the same thoughts over and over again. Our thoughts have power and influence our health, our peace and our fortune. This makes the mind an extremely powerful tool that can heal us or harm us.
Meditation is simply the science and the art of stilling, quieting and controlling the restless mind. The fact that it was developed in the east and is a central theme of eastern religions has created fear and resistance in many western people but meditation itself can be practiced by anyone without any religious context or connection.
WHY MEDITATE - THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
Apart from its spiritual applications, a great deal of scientific research as well as the accumulated experience of millions of meditators over thousands of years has provided compelling evidence of the many benefits of meditation. A major shift in the physiology of the body occurs during meditation. This is often referred to as the relaxation response.
The relaxation response involves balancing a part of the nervous system that is normally outside of our conscious control called the Autonomic nervous system. This important system has two branches – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems.
With excess stress, anxiety and tension the sympathetic branch is dominant and active. In relaxed states and in meditation the parasympathetic system overrides. An active parasympathetic nervous system is the antidote to stress and confers many physical and mental benefits on the individual.
HORMONAL BALANCE: The nervous system influences the various hormones in the body. In fact the conductor of your hormonal orchestra, the pituitary gland is located at the base of your brain. Stress disturbs the autonomic nervous system causing the release of a flood of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This exerts an ongoing effect on virtually all the other hormone systems in the body.
On the other hand, meditation induces the relaxation response that releases other hormones like DHEA and endorphins that buffer the negative effects of stress.
IMPROVED IMMUNITY: The relaxation response seems to boost the immune system in recovering cancer patients. A study at the Ohio State University found that the daily practice of relaxation techniques reduced the risk of breast cancer recurrence. In another study at the same university thirty days of relaxation exercises in elderly patients improved their resistance to tumors and to viral infections.
INCREASED FERTILITY: Investigators at the University of Western Australia found that women with fertility problems were more likely to conceive when they practiced to relax rather than when stressed. Other researchers in Turkey discovered that stress lowers both sperm count and sperm motility, suggesting that relaxation may also improve male fertility.
RELIEVES IRRITABLE BOWEL SYNDROME: Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is a common disorder of the digestive system. When patients suffering from IBS began meditating twice daily, their symptoms of bloating, diarrhea and constipation improved significantly. The benefits of the meditation practice was so impressive that the researchers at the State University of New York recommended that it be used as a treatment.
LOWERS BLOOD PRESSURE: A study at Harvard Medical School found that meditation lowered blood pressure by making the body respond to stress hormones less, somewhat similar to the action of some to blood pressure-lowering medication. A report in the British Medical Journal demonstrated that patients trained to practice relaxation had significantly lower blood pressure readings. In my experience many people with high blood pressure that does not respond to conventional medication find the use of relaxation techniques very effective.
REDUCES INFLAMATION Researchers at Emory University point out that stress encourages inflammation, a state linked to cancer, heart disease, arthritis, asthma and skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema. Relaxation can help prevent and relieve such symptoms by calming the stress response. A study at McGill University in Canada demonstrated that meditation clinically improved the symptoms of psoriasis.
EMOTIONAL BALANCE essentially means freedom from the unsettled behavior that results from the traumatized ego and its past conditioning. Ordinarily this is very hard to fully realise, but meditation is one powerful way to relieve oneself of such unhealthy emotional states. As the mind is cleared of distressing memories, greater freedom and better balance is developed. One’s responses are no longer colored by the burdens of the past, but are now valid and appropriate.
The meditative mind can observe thoughts that occur and witness them without reacting, For an ordinary mind, thoughts create reactions that are mostly uncontrolled which may go on and on and create distress. Although upsetting thoughts can occur for everyone, for a meditator they are just thoughts that are seen for what they are and are allowed to arise and fall away.
Many oriental traditions like yoga and the martial arts teach meditation techniques. Using some of these teachings and the music of my colleague Dr. Winsome Miller-Rowe I have created an instructional CD called a Time to Relax. This teaches the listener to learn how to enter a meditative state and elicit the relaxation response. Dr. Miller-Rowe had produced several other CD to aid relaxation and meditation.