Are your mind and body working against each other?
Psychological stress is so powerful that it can practically tear your body apart.
Studies correlate stress with chronic pain, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer, dementia, infections, and just about every other medical problem you could possibly experience. Why? Because stress causes inflammation.
And inflammation inhibits your body's ability to repair itself, causing ordinary problems to spiral out of control -- turning into allergies, arthritis, hormonal imbalance, autoimmune disease, asthma, skin problems, hardened arteries... That's how powerful the mind-body connection is.
Worse, stress is sensitizing. Surviving a very stressful event doesn't prepare you to handle stress better in the future. Instead, you actually become more likely to experience adverse consequences every time.
What's the antidote? Relaxation.
In the 1970s, a cardiologist named Herbert Benson was the first to discover that when people engage in active relaxation, their physiological response to stress is reduced... along with all of its negative health effects. He called this natural healing effect the relaxation response.
A lot of people hear this and immediately think they need to spend more time kicking back in front of the TV with a cold beer. But there's a catch -- passive activities like watching television don't do the trick. (In fact, studies show that TV can actually induce physical stress.)
If you want to trigger your body's healing relaxation response, you need to practice a technique specifically aimed at doing so (such as diaphragmatic breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, or meditation.) And these activities actually provide a cumulative benefit -- they not only make you feel relaxed while you're practicing them, but over time they bring your body's baseline for stress down to a more comfortable level. That means that ongoing stressors in your life won't affect you as much.
The best approach is to work at the problem from both sides.
In the course of providing psychotherapy and counseling, I end up teaching most of my clients some form of meditation, relaxation, or self-hypnosis technique that they can use to achieve these benefits. They're very effective, and people really enjoy them.
But it's also important to work on directly improving the stress in your life. That's why I rarely stop at relaxation. Some of the other important ingredients for maintaining a positive, relaxed state are:
- Assertiveness: Learning to communicate clearly, authentically, and effectively -- so you build deep connection, minimize resistance, and get what you want more often
- Organization: A good organizational system can relieve stress while allowing you to accomplish more
- Focus: Attention and concentration are strengths that can be exercised and improved over time, using techniques like mindfulness meditation.
- Acceptance: Worrying uses up valuable time and energy without contributing anything positive. By learning to accept the uncertainty and chaos of life, you can increase your resilience and respond more effectively when stressful events actually occur.