Over the past few decades, scientific research has proved that there is a connection between emotional and physical well being. The common link between mind and body problems is stress. The stress response, the body’s “fight or flight” reaction to environmental danger, clearly exacerbates most physical illnesses. However, continued stress can also cause depression, anxiety, and irritability, which in turn contribute to other medical problems. A large body of evidence now exists to show, for example, that anger is a risk factor in heart disease, that anxiety worsens skin conditions and asthma, and that depression is linked to high blood pressure. In fact, many physicians believe that lowering the stress response is the single most important thing you can do for yourself to prevent disease.
Fortunately, our minds have the potential to control the stress response. Cognitive/behavioral interventions promote stress resiliency, and relaxation techniques and meditation can lower or block the physiological mechanisms that create stress. Our staff is trained in a variety of disciplines that offer a holistic approach to wellness, an approach that combines the emotional and physical.
What is Stress?
Stress is the body’s physiological reaction to environmental stressors. This reaction, termed the ‘fight or flight’ response by Dr. Hans Selye, is an ancient and crucial survival technique for humans. In primitive times, when a wild animal threatened us, for instance, our bodies released hormones and chemicals such as adrenaline and cortisol that raise heart rate, redistribute circulation, and in general gear up our bodies for strenuous physical action so that we could handle the danger by attacking or running away. This response is healthy and life preserving when genuine danger is present. Unfortunately, in modern life, where fighting or fleeing are only two of many strategies for dealing with danger, and when ‘danger’ itself is less likely to be a physical threat, the stress response has become counterproductive. When we experience the ‘fight or flight’ response while sitting in traffic, thinking about our bills, or dealing with any of the many pressures that characterize modern life, we can easily trigger the stress response many times a day with no useful outcome. Moreover, the hormones and chemicals that constitute the stress response, while helpful in the short run, over time create problems. On the emotional level, these chemicals can trigger mood disorders. On a purely physical level, they negatively affect many organs and functions including circulatory, digestive, respiratory, and nervous systems, skeleto-muscular and epidermis, and the responsiveness of the immune system. Therefore, excessive and/or prolonged stress can cause and/or exacerbate, for example:
• Joint Pain
• Coronary Heart Disease
• Hypertension/High Blood Pressure
• Multiple Sclerosis
• Chronic Pain
• Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
• G.I. Tract Conditions (colitis, irritable bowel syndrome)
• Skin Problems
The triggers for the stress response – stressors – are not purely environmental. While traffic jams and reckless drivers are annoying to everyone, some people can shrug off these situations while others will experience “road rage”. People who handle difficult environmental situations with relative equanimity do not have a physiological stress response; those who react with upset do. Moreover, some stressors are not external; thoughts themselves can produce a stress response, and repetitive patterns of depressed, worried, or angry thoughts will keep you in a state of constant physiological stress.
Research has shown that some people have more stress resiliency than others do. Stress resilient people can often handle even overwhelming problems without developing a stress response reaction. Those with low stress resiliency react strongly to even minor problems. We now know that certain factors contribute to stress resiliency, factors like:
• having a strong personal support system,
• having a belief system with positive and ‘inspirational’ values
• possessing particular cognitive/behavioral strengths
• the ability to self-induce the ‘relaxation response’ (see below).
Much of the wellness work we do at The Oikos Institute is aimed at improving your stress resiliency.
Cognitive/Behavioral Techniques for Stress Reduction/Stress Resiliency
In one-to-one sessions, we teach cognitive/behavioral strategies for dealing with stress. These include:
• Identifying environmental stressors and developing methods to remove these stressors or reduce their negative impact. You may not be able to leave your high-pressured job, for example, but you may be able to incorporate moments in your workday in which you can have pleasurable social interaction, or calming breaks. Your divorce may be inevitable, but you can learn how to structure contact with your angry ex- at times and in ways that shield you from some of their rage.
• Pinpointing your own behaviors that create stressful situations. If you cannot say “no” to anyone’s requests for help, or if you work yourself so hard that you don’t take adequate time to sleep or relax, you will generate stress by your own actions and amplify real-life stressors.
• Becoming aware of the automatic cognitions, you have that increase stress. If you magnify small problems, for example, you will get more upset than if you see them in perspective; if you operate on the assumption that life is fair, you will frequently be disappointed and angry.
• Learning how to first notice, then stop or rebut the negative thoughts that themselves produce stress. Your financial problems may be real and situational, but you may not be overly stressed by these problems unless you’re constantly thinking about money and negatively forecasting the future.
Inducing the “relaxation response”
Thirty years ago, Dr. Herbert Benson, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School, discovered what he termed the “relaxation response,” a naturally occurring set of physiological changes in the body that are the opposite of the stress response, and to an extent block stress arousal. Benson and others have identified a number of ways we can consciously induce the relaxation response, and our stress-reduction counseling at The Oikos Institute trains you in many of these methods. These techniques include:
• “belly breathing” or diaphragmatic breathing.
• “sitting” meditations, including mind-clearing strategies, visualizations, and silent mantras;
• spoken meditation, like prayer, mantra, and chanting;
• physical meditations, ranging from formal methods like tai chi or yoga, to walking meditation, to activities such as knitting or gardening.
We will teach you the essential components of meditation, which include repetition and ways to control thought, and help you develop your own best ways of inducing the relaxation response that you can make a part of a your daily regimen as well as when you directly encounter stressful situations.
Meditative Techniques for Personal Growth
Meditation can also be used as a powerful tool for personal growth. Certain types of meditation foster the development of objective self-observation and train attention so that you can be more focused and less distractible. Many of our staff has been trained in these techniques, receiving guidance here and in the East from teachers widely recognized as world experts.
Learning how to use meditation for self-observation and personal growth is something that we can incorporate into traditional therapy, and it is a primary component of Buddhist psychotherapy.