Some years ago, I was out for a walk when I encountered a much older woman who was fetching her mail. A quick hello turned into a 20-minute conversation I’ll never forget. Despite silver hair and deep wrinkles, she seemed spry, chipper and full of life. I was surprised when she told me she was in her mid-90s since she exuded so much vitality. What was the secret to her apparent youthfulness? “I just love everybody and everything I do,” she said. Her answer just seemed to strike a chord. Positive emotions, I thought to myself, promote health.
Scientific studies appear to confirm her wisdom. Stress can be a silent killer, boosting blood pressure, impairing the immune system and depleting energy. Mounting evidence suggests there is indeed a mind-body connection and that negative thoughts can undermine health. But how, exactly, can our emotions make us sick? And just as importantly, can practices like exercise, meditation and yoga engender positive emotional states that promote well-being?
Stress and the immune system
Human beings have evolved complex biological mechanisms to cope with threats. When danger is present, you need a jolt of hormonal energy to get your heart pumping and blood flowing. That way, you can deal with whatever hazard is present. Scientists call this the “fight or flight response,” where the body floods your system with adrenaline so that you have extra energy to make a stand — or flee as fast as your feet will carry you.
An adrenaline rush is a great thing to have if you are facing an imminent danger. But experiencing the fight or flight response to relatively minor aggravations — the passive-aggressive co-worker, a nagging in-law or an obnoxious driver — can take a toll. That’s because substances like cortisol, the so-called stress hormone that works with adrenaline, can adversely impact the immune system when levels stay too high for too long.
Stress can damage our physical health
Recently, studies have indicated that stress is correlated with:
- Elevated cholesterol levels
- Increased blood glucose levels
- Higher levels of inflammation
- An increased rate at which tumors grow
No doubt, negative moods frequently encourage many people to consume unhealthy amounts of “comfort food,” which can precipitate many of these symptoms. However, the evidence suggests that chronic stress in an of itself alters our hormonal balance enough to desensitize the immune system to cortisol, which has the effect of heightening the body’s inflammatory response. Consequently, chronic stress can make the body more vulnerable to immune disorders, cardiovascular disease and cancer.
On the other hand, exercise, meditation and practices like yoga can not only help to dissipate stress but also short-circuit deeply ingrained and dysfunctional responses to stressful environmental cues. In other words, disciplines like meditation and yoga can help retrain the mind-body to respond more constructively to stressful circumstances.
How exercise improves mood and physical well-being
Exercise helps improve mood in many ways. To begin with, vigorous physical activities, like running, boost feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin. In addition, getting a good workout stimulates the production of the body’s natural painkillers — most particularly endorphins and endocannabinoids — which counteract oxidative stress and inflammation.
As it happens, endorphins are the body’s natural opioids and endocannabinoids are THC analogs. That’s right! Exercise is an entirely natural, non-addictive and legal way to get high.
In fact, studies show that boosting endorphins and endocannabinoids through exercise can reduce depression, food cravings and improve your relationships. For example, researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that elevated endorphin levels work with the hormone oxytocin to promote bonding behaviors in couples.
Meditation as a mood stabilizer
Research suggests that regular meditation may be as effective as taking anti-depressants when it comes to relieving mood disorders. That finding is not entirely surprising. After all, chronic stress overworks the adrenal glands, which flood the bloodstream, brain and other organs with cortisol. Tension headaches, cramps and heightened anxiety are often the result.
The practice of meditation is thousands of years old. Its purpose is to focus awareness so that mental and physical energy are concentrated more efficiently and the mind and body are more harmonized.
Meditation, as the name implies, works by mediating the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in the stress response. In short, meditation helps modulate the body’s stress response so that we gain a greater degree of mastery over it. There’s nothing mystical about this. In fact, it’s like taking a deep breath when something bad happens so that we can respond more calmly instead of just reacting. Of course, meditation takes this skill to a whole new level.
Tips for meditation
There are many different forms of mediation, but here’s a simple approach to get you started:
1. Pick a quiet and restful spot where you relax for five minutes every day.
2. Keep your mind focused on your breath. Don’t allow frustrations or negative emotional states to creep into your mind. Just focus on your breathing. Think of your breath as being like a river.
3. Observe how your mind and body become more relaxed with each breath.
4. Observe how calmness, peace and balance are your natural state.
Studies show that regular meditation can lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety and improve immune function. As Burke Lennihan, a registered nurse who teaches at the Harvard University Center for Wellness notes, “True, [meditation] will help you lower your blood pressure, but so much more. It can help your creativity, your intuition, your connection with your inner self.”
The healing power of yoga
Yoga is similar to meditation, in many respects, in so far as it is an ancient practice that fosters greater mindfulness. Indeed, yoga is a form of meditation, though it emphasizes physical movement to help dissipate energy blockages that impede the free flow of psychic energy. These blocks are called granthis in Sanskrit, which means “knots.”
When prana, which means “life force,” flows freely, then we experience emotional balance and well-being. In yogic thought, prana is the principle of cosmic vitality, which enters the body via the breath. So, as you might expect, yoga places a great deal of emphasis not just on graceful body movements, but also on breathing mindfully and properly.
In yogic thought, negative emotions lead to toxic energy buildups, which impede the free flow of life’s energy. The practice of yoga, on the other hand, reduces stress so that these “knots” can be loosened and ultimately dissolved. Studies confirm that yoga can help alleviate depression, anxiety and stress.
Heal your mind (and body) today
The mind and the body are inextricably linked. Anger, frustration and anxiety are a part of life, but too much chronic stress can leave you both emotionally frayed and physically depleted. Coping strategies like exercise, meditation and yoga can help you lessen the emotions that can make you sick.
— Scott O’Reilly