Go With 'The Flow'
The connection between your mind & wellness pitfalls
Imagine for a minute that you’re driving down a busy street. Suddenly, a car darts out in front of you. You jam the breaks, swerve, and barely miss oncoming traffic. Everyone’s safe. You’ve avoided an accident. You continue on your way, but the close call has your brain working overtime, in its most primal state, responding to the threat.
In that split second before you hit the brakes, your brain triggered a flood of cortisol and adrenaline as well as about 140 other chemicals. These chemicals instantly prepare your body for an entirely physical response – fight or flight. Your heart rate spikes, your muscles tighten, and many of your body’s critical functions, including your immune system, digestion, metabolism, memory, and rational decision-making, all take a back seat.
This chemical response was perfect for early humans who faced countless physical threats to their survival. As humans evolved, the part of our brains that controls the fight-or-flight response continued to be necessary for survival, and scientists believe it has changed very little over millions of years.
Today, threats come in all shapes and sizes: a confrontation with a co-worker, an argument with your spouse, a deadline you’re unable to meet, a sudden loss of income. The list of stressors modern humans face is endless, and for everyone, our bodies respond with the same flood of cortisol and adrenaline that early humans experienced when they were stalked by saber-toothed tigers.
“We’re not meant to experience prolonged stress,” says Dr. Roberta Bourgon, a naturopathic physician at Billings Clinic. “It sets us up for illness.”
Given enough stress, our bodies begin to ignore the constant stream of cortisol, but it’s still at work, Bourgon says, suppressing our immune system, digestion, metabolism, and brain function. As our bodies adapt to stress, serious health issues emerge.
“There is a clearly defined link between stress and heart disease, high blood pressure, and certain types of cancer,” Bourgon says.
Studies are underway that may eventually link certain gastrointestinal and autoimmune diseases to stress as well, she adds, and stress is also a contributing factor in obesity. Cortisol, Adrenaline and other stress hormones initially draw energy for a fight or flight response, but since your primal brain doesn’t know how long the attack will last, it triggers your body to store energy.
“When you’re stressed, calories are more likely to be stored rather than used,” says Ginny Mohl, a family medicine physician at Billings Clinic. Mohl says in response to stress, we tend to grab those simple sugars for energy. She says this might have helped us in earlier, more physical days, but, “They are not helping us now.”
The fight-or-flight response originates in a part of the brain called the limbic system, an area that neuroscientists believe is our emotional center and where we store long-term memories. It’s an open-loop, meaning that it takes in outside stimuli and processes it, creating an emotional response to everything we experience. It’s what triggers a mother to respond to the needs of her child. It’s the source of comfort and acceptance that arises among familiar and trusted people, and it has the power to lower hormone levels, regulate breathing and heart rate, influence sleep rhythms, and support a healthy immune system. The limbic system holds some answers to the problems created by stress.
“Everybody you meet can influence you either positively or negatively, every day,” Mohl says. “We have to be very mindful about creating mutual support networks.”
She encourages her patients to identify relationships that bring them joy, and invest deeply in those relationships by providing the kind support they desire to receive.
The limbic system is also influenced by pleasurable activities, and both Bourgon and Mohl encourage their patients, who are experiencing stress, to find a healthy activity they enjoy. It could be a hobby, spending time with loved ones, volunteering, or anything that builds self-worth.
“Ask yourself, what kinds of things fill your bucket, and make time for those things,” Bourgon says.
The commonality those activities have is they require focus, and by demanding your focus they draw your attention away from stressful experiences and minimize their negative effects. That state is called flow. In flow, your brain is producing endorphins, hormones that have a calming effect.
“What is your art?” Mohl asks her patients. “That’s where you find flow.”
In flow, you will notice your heart rate drop, your breathing will slow, and your mind will come into focus. It’s the reason so many people say their greatest ideas come to them when they working on something else entirely.
Living in perfect flow isn’t an option for many people, Mohl admits, but the more we seek out opportunities to get in flow, and the more time we spend in mutually supportive relationships the less impact stress will have. Sure, we will all still get zapped by cortisol and adrenaline now and then, because life is full of surprises. However, if we’re aware of the physical impacts stress has on our health, we can take measures to minimize our risk.
Consider that watercolor class you’ve wanted to take, the girls’ night you’ve been meaning to plan, and that walk by the river you’ve just never seemed to find the time to take. They are a prescription for good health. Take at least one a day for best results!
LESS STRESS, MORE PEACE
3 ways to deepen your relaxation
For most people, stress and all its triggers are a part of daily life. Andrea Fiscus, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist, teaches stress management through breathing techniques, mindfulness, and meditation. Here’s what she recommends:
When stress hits, our bodies naturally fall into a short, shallow breathing rhythm, and over time that pattern can become the new, unhealthy normal.
Counter that, Fiscus says, with three slow, smooth breaths. Fill the lungs completely from the bottom up, filling the belly, and gently releasing the breath. “This is a signal to your body to calm down,” Fiscus says. “We tell ourselves through our breath that we are okay, using long slow breaths.”
In just three breaths, you should notice a difference both physically and mentally, she adds, and the more deep breathing you do, the better and more lasting the effects will be.
“No matter what’s going on, you can breathe and slow it all down,” Fiscus says.
Building on the practice of deep breathing, Fiscus encourages her patients to practice mindfulness, another easy stress reliever. Mindfulness is achieved by bringing all your focus into the present moment, and reigning in all those racing thoughts that project fear into the future and infuse regret into the past.
“Just sit. Notice what you see. Colors, movement, sound, the feeling of air on your skin, the feeling of your feet on the floor,” Fiscus says. “Notice when your thoughts wander and bring them back to the present. Focus on your breath.”
As you practice mindfulness you’ll eventually identify a separation between your mind and your emotions and realize that you are not controlled by emotions you are feeling and that those emotions are only temporary.
“It’s easy for some people to live more in the present, but it’s a skill we all can learn,” Fiscus says.
Meditation has gotten a reputation of being difficult or complicated, but making the leap from mindfulness to meditation is easy, Fiscus says. Although there are many schools of thought and different techniques, meditation and mindfulness share the same goals: to focus on the present moment, engage your senses, and breathe.
When Fiscus teaches her clients meditation she reminds them that there’s no wrong way to meditate, but to do it effectively you have to manage your thoughts. She uses the illustration of the mind as a vast, clear, blue sky. Thoughts are just wispy clouds passing through, to be observed and allowed to continue floating away. If you engage in your thoughts and become distracted, just gently hit reset, and clear the sky.
“Like a puppy wandering off, gently bring your focus back,” she says.
A focus-point like a candle, symbol or object can assist meditation by providing an external focus, and guided meditation –via audio recordings or in a class – can be helpful as well because it provides imagery to maintain your focus.
“There’s no right or wrong way to meditate,” Fiscus says. “You just need to experiment and find what works for you.” She adds, try to make meditation a habit. Sitting in the car, on a walk, while doing dishes, standing in the shower – these are all opportunities to meditate, Fiscus says.
When to start your practice? Now.
Breathing, mindfulness and meditation can have a profound effect when you’re dealing with stress and anxiety, but even when you’re not under stress, it’s still a good habit.
“Think of it as a buffer for stress,” Fiscus said. “It’s an investment. You kind of put it in the bank, and when stress comes along, your reaction to it won’t be the same.”
It takes practice but in time, breathing, mindfulness, and meditation can become as routine as your morning coffee, and the relief you’ll feel won’t leave you with the jitters.
DIGITAL TRIGGERS TO RELAXATION
Check out these apps to practice mindfulness & meditation
INSIGHT TIMER: This is the most popular free meditation app in the iTunes Store, and it’s also the most flexible in its offerings, providing everything from silence or basic ambient sounds to accompany your meditation, to guided meditation from a network of well-known experts. This platform also allows you to connect with other Insight Timer users.
FITBIT: Both the Fitbit Blaze and Fitbit Charge 2 are equipped with a Relax feature that provides a guided deep breathing exercise. For added benefit, you can schedule your Fitbit to signal you at regular intervals for a session of deep breathing.