Less stress – more health. The stress and relaxation response – a basic mechanism in our body
(If you didn’t read part 1 of this article yet, click here)
It is common knowledge today that stress can make you sick. But that wasn’t always a truth that doctors agreed upon, at least in western/ academic medicine. The doctor and author of the book “mind over medicine” Lissa Rankin (2014) points out the work of people like Herbert Benson, a cardiologist in Harvard. He was one of the first people in western medicine that looked into what happens when people meditate. In this context he used the term “relaxation response” (p. 215).
Today we know that the body can turn on a relaxation response as well as a stress response, also called fight-or-flight-reaction/mode. In a situation of danger, the body activates a survival mechanism. It activates the so called sympathetic nervous system that triggers several physiological/chemical processes in our body. In reference to the organs and body parts that are active in this response, physicians also call it hypothalamus-pituitary gland-adrenal gland- axis (p.49). Through this complex system the body spills out hormones and substances like Cortisol, Adrenalin and Noradrenalin. These lead to following effects:
- Pulse and blood pressure increase
- Higher blood supply to the heart, big muscle groups and brain
- Lower blood supply to the gastrointestinal tract
- Metabolism increases. More glucose is released, to provide the body with more energy
- Respiration / breathing becomes faster, so we can take in more oxygen
- The muscle tone increase
- Enzymes for digestion are reduced
- The immune system and sexual organs shut down
All these reactions have the aim to make the body ready to fight or run away, to escape from life threatening situations and therefore survive.
The problem in our world today is the following: Although we most rarely are under life threatening circumstances, we have a lot of stressful life situations and conditions that activate this stress response. The reason for this can be found in our brains. Lissa Rankin (2014) explains that our rational mind is located in our fore brain. This part of the brain knows that feelings of insecurity, fear, disappointment, anger, resentment, bitterness or stress are feelings that are connected to a certain event or situation in our lives. But there is also another part of the brain, which is called brain stem or reptilian brain. This part of our brain can’t differentiate between a fearful thought and an actual threat for our life. It thinks that we are about to die and activates a stress response. It shuts down the immune system, so that we can use all our energy to fight or flee (p. 129).
On the other hand, the body can reverse this response by activating the so called parasympathetic nervous system. It brings us back into the “normal mode” and our immune system can come back to work. This is what I think I have learned through my cancer experience: The more my body is relaxed, the more things I do that activate my parasympathetic nervous system, the more my body can “clean up”, repair and heal.
An especially important point here is that positive thoughts or emotions such as love, belonging, emotional, physical or sexual intimate contact, time with friends, happiness, hope and so on do influence our brain and furthermore the relaxation response. For Lissa Rankin, there is in fact, no doubt that positive thoughts and a positive internal and external environment are therefore healing our body. It is not about magic, but about physiological processes in the body (p. 131).
Lissa Rankin created a model for holistic health that is founded on this principle. She invites the readers to think about how they can increase their health in different areas of life with the aim of creating a positive, nourishing and thus healing climate inside ourselves and also in our surroundings. Factors in this environment can be:
- healthy, positive and supporting relationships with other human beings
- creative expression, no matter what it is
- a healthy and life affirming spirituality
- a healthy and fulfilling sexual life
- economic stability and security
- a healthy environment
- a healthy mental and emotional attitude, that enables us to deal with fear, sorrows and problems
- a life / life style filled with gratitude, optimism and satisfaction
- a healthy physical life style with good nutrition, sleep, physical activity and little or no consumption of toxins
It is amazing for me how only one point of the mix exclusively addresses the physical level. That is usually the only level so called academic medicine was referring to for a long time. Lissa Rankin offers a free “health kit” with additional material for the book. You have to sign up with your e-mail address and can download it here. You can write a diagnosis and prescription for yourself and your healing journey.
For me this is a very beautiful method to go deep into myself and ask what areas of my life need healing, and what is it that gives me power and joy. I will write about this tool more in detail in another blog post. By the way: This holistic approach to health is not really an “alternative minority, spiritual” approach of some strange people. The world health organization (WHO) defined health in 1948 already as „a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity1„
If I had to think about a model for health, it would probably look a bit different than that of Lissa Rankin, and yours would look different too. I would put mindfulness and meditation as big base for life for example. However, the point here is not to define what health and holistic medicine is. Only you can know that for yourself. My point here is to invite you to think about what brings joy, hope and happiness into your life and therefore the ground for physical and mental health.
After my chemotherapy, reading Lissa Rankin’s book motivated me to keep up with my practices of self-care, mindfulness and meditation. However I am still human. I feel stressed, anxious, depressed and all those human emotions regularly. Several people made me aware of the necessity to say that not all stress is equal. Sport for instance is also a kind of stress that is very healthy usually. Having a big challenge at work, can cause stress, but also creativity, joy and a sense of purpose or give meaning to your life. So what I am saying is not to avoid life in order to avoid stress. Or feel anxious when you feel stressed, as you are “supposed” to feel relaxed. I just want to invite you to look inside and see that living happy and joyful lives is what it is about. No matter if we have cancer, something else or if we are “completely healthy”.
Additionally, I see more clearly how important a community, support and cohesion of groups and societies are in this model. If we want to be healthy ourselves, we also need healthy communities, societies, a healthy environment and planet. We know for a fact, that discrimination, social exclusion, poverty, violence and shame have a structural impact and can make people sick or worse, even kill them.
In that respect, my experience with cancer convinced me that, we as humankind need to create a world that is welcoming and better for everybody. However, in order to be able to bring positive change into the world, we need to strengthen ourselves or survive first. I have two metaphors in mind when I write this: The first is from Waltraud Eggenberger, an energetic healer I worked with here in Vienna. She told me that we can only help people get out of the mud in a swamp, when we are outside of it. If I lay down next to the person, and am stuck myself, I can’t help anybody.
From trauma pedagogy and therapy, I know the metaphor of an oxygen mask in safety instructions in airplanes. If I want to support traumatized people, I need to put on the oxygen mask myself first and then I can offer help to another. I have to take care of myself before I can take care of others.
What I learned for myself is: If you have a serious illness or cancer. Now it is time to put on the oxygen mask! Take care of yourself first. This has nothing to do with being a narcissist but appreciation of yourself and self-worth. If I didn’t take care of myself these last two years, who knows if I was writing this lines today and therefore maybe impacting the lives of others in a positive way.
May this article and this blog give you inspirations for your journey!
Rankin, Lissa Dr. med (2014): Mind over medicine. Warum Gedanken oft stärker sind als Medizin. Kösel-Verlag, München, 3. Auflage
(English version: Mind over medicine. Scientific proof that you can heal yourself)
Additional material/ downloads to the book „Mind over medicine“