News reports indicate that soldiers are using mind-body connection training to protect their well-being during combat and to adjust to their return home. Unfortunately, many of us feel like we live in a war zone of stress, with financial worries, problems at work, and illnesses.
Learning to relax provides a number of positive results, says Margaret Baim, MS, NP, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and clinical director at the Center for Training at the Benson Henry Institute of Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital.
Harvard researchers have been studying the mind-body connection for 40 years and have found that meditation decreases oxidative stress in the body (this kind of stress literally wears the body down); that aerobic exercise can increase cells’ production of antioxidants, which neutralize the effects of stress; and that stress increases the release of neurohormones that drive us to eat comfort foods.
“So when we’re stressed, most of us overeat foods high in sugar and fat, but learning to relax helps us to avoid overeating and weight gain,” Baim says. “Stress also increases muscle tension and the production of inflammatory markers. Many symptoms and illnesses associated with inflammation, such as arthritis, heart disease, migraines, and tension headaches—actually most illnesses—are made worse under this influence. Eliciting the relaxation response counters these changes and reduces these symptoms and flare-ups.”
Baim suggests two methods to let go of stress. “Try focused and sustained awareness toward an image, word, or phrase. This moves your awareness onto something neutral or positive.” She explains that focusing elsewhere allows you to take a break from stress-activating thoughts or beliefs.
Second, she recommends trying to maintain “an open and receptive attitude, so wanting what isn’t or not wanting what is won’t charge your mind. Both of these states of mind lead to stress.”
People who come to Baim and her colleagues for guidance also learn to practice mindfulness. “Hold your awareness in an open, focused curiosity, especially during automatic activities like eating, bathing, driving, and while relating to others,” she says. “This is often referred to as mindfulness meditation. It is an awareness that moves us beyond negative conditioning and thus frees us to see ourselves, others, and life from a more positive perspective. Mindfulness often calls to mind positive memories and potentialities.”
Practicing a relaxation response for 20 to 30 minutes a day will reduce the effects of stress implicated in most causes of insomnia, says Baim—a wonderful message for the millions of Americans who have sleepless nights. Also, learning to nurture thoughts of positive expectancy counters fear and other stressors. “Biologically,” Baim explains, “positive expectancy activates a region of the brain (mesocorticol–mesolimbic, also known as the brain’s reward and motivation circuitry) that produces dopamine and serotonin to enhance mood and feelings of well-being.” — Michele Deppe