“When you can maintain a level of inner tranquility no matter what is happening around you, you can avoid the damage that stress causes to your health.”
– Gerald S. Cohen, DHom, DC, FIHI founder of The Center for the Healing Process
When people recall what was happening in their lives before they first noticed the physical symptoms of autoimmune issues, they almost always have a story of a major life stressor or a cumulative chronic stress load that finally screams enough in the form of symptoms.
Take these true stories for example: For Donna, when she was a teenager a mentor betrayed her trust, and for Donna, that inconceivable shock sent her reeling; she was diagnosed with MS later that year.
Jacob came down with the “drop dead flu,” when a family melt-down in the midst of medical school completely wore him down. Soon after, he succumbed to debilitating symptoms of chronic fatigue and fibromyalgia.
In my case, a tumultuous relationship with my Dad, a former fighter pilot whose way was invariably the “right way,” created ongoing conflict at home throughout my childhood and hormonally-charged teen years. I was diagnosed with MS at 19.
Maybe you have experienced the connection between stress and illness in your own life?
No one escapes stressful events. We share common human burdens of illness and loss. Thankfully, our bodies are built to weather those events, and most of the time, we emerge whole and stronger for the experience.
But, if we continue to feel stressed day after day, or don’t address deeper traumas from childhood, it’s a good bet that autoimmune issues will continue to smoulder, and we will suffer from the vicious loop of stress-autoimmune-stress until we take control and break the vicious cycle.
Bottom line: If you want to heal from or prevent the advent or progression of autoimmune conditions, you must tend to your emotional wellbeing.
Many people, especially women with the classic autoimmune personality traits of over-giver, perfectionist, or people-pleaser, resist taking care of themselves first because they think it’s selfish. But it’s actually the opposite: Prioritizing your emotional wellbeing gives you more energy for your daily roles and responsibilities. Beyond increasing your energy capacity, studies show that the strategies we’ll explore lower inflammation, strengthen your immune system, increase happiness and build a better brain.
We all have ten minutes a day that we can give to ourselves. But deciding to prioritize that time and actually doing it require commitment to your well being above everything else. Consider the wise words of airline personnel: Put your own oxygen mask on first!
These are the foundational ways I take care of myself year-round, and particularly during stressful times. My hope is that you might find one or two things that you can adopt to move out of always-on fight-flight mode and into the rest and digest relaxation response. Good news that each is simple, pretty quick, and free.
Here are my eight essential, evidence-based stress-melters:
Breathe deeply and slooooowly
The fastest path to relaxation may be right under your nose: soft belly breathing, as in just five slow and soft deep belly breaths; in through the nose, letting your belly expand like a balloon, and out through the nose or mouth, letting your belly deflate all the way. The toughest part is remembering to do it, so find an anchor that works for you, like when you wake up, or any time you’re stressed. Or, set a reminder like a gentle timer like a chime tone. Another variation is the “4-16-8 breath” where you breathe in for 4 counts, hold for 16, and exhale for at least 8. This breath-holding is a variation of the 4-7-8 breath favored by integrative physician, Dr. Andrew Weil who calls it the relaxing breath. Any way you choose is a tranquilizer for the nervous system.
When I was struck with MS at 19 and I was numb from the neck down for six weeks, a family friend gave me Norman Cousin’s book, Anatomy of an Illness in which he recounts healing from a mysterious autoimmune illness with high doses of vitamin C and laughter. My parents and I adopted the laughter strategy and spent evenings watching sitcoms, I Love Lucy and Cheers, all in an effort to reduce fear and uncertainty. It helped! Laughing causes a release of feel-good endorphins, which also relieve pain and may improve immune function, new research indicates.1Stress relief from laughter? It’s no joke, Mayo Clinic, http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-relief/art-20044456?pg=1 I love laughing almost more than anything, so I prioritize keeping connected with old friends and giggling over silly things; and, there is something so therapeutic about belly laughing while watching America’s Funniest Home Videos.
Go for a hike
No matter the weather, I prioritize getting out for a hike or a long walk in nature. Research confirms that spending time in nature has a long list of health benefits including decreased feelings of depression and anxiety, and increased feelings of self-esteem and compassion.2Nature experience reduces rumination and subgenual prefrontal cortex activation, Bratman, G., et. al., Current Issue > vol. 112 no. 28 > Gregory N. Bratman, 8567–8572, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1510459112, http://www.pnas.org/content/112/28/8567.abstract These days I enjoy “walk ‘n talks” with girlfriends who are walking at the same time and also using a phone with earphones.
About half the population is deficient in magnesium, the calming mineral that’s involved in 600 bodily functions, including energy creation, improved sleep, and blood sugar regulation.3https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2017/09/06/magnesium-deficiency-effects.aspx In addition to taking supplemental magnesium before bed, I eat foods high in magnesium like leafy greens, broccoli, cacao nibs and avocados, and I take hot Epsom salts baths to soak in magnesium sulfate and a few drops of organic lavender essential oil.
Meditate -- even for 5 minutes
Even though the science is definitely in on meditation: decreases stress, anxiety, depression, increases resilience and empathy, and it increases the size of your brain!4Benefits of Meditation: 10 Science-Based Reasons To Start Meditating Today INFOGRAPHIC, Emma Seppala, Ph.D, http://www.emmaseppala.com/10-science-based-reasons-start-meditating-today-infographic/#.WFvz1LYrJ-U etc. this one did not come easily to me. But, with intention and practice, I have finally found what works for me: I use a mantra and sit for 20 minutes at least once a day, usually first thing in the morning. Adding to that I use a Muse headband to track how calm I am during each meditation. Bluetooth technology and neurofeedback of birds chirping in my ears let me know I’m calm, whereas crashing waves tells me my mind is active. What’s cool about Muse is that it’s helped train my brain to be calmer and “win more birds” with practice. Give meditation a try – even for 5 minutes. Don’t think you have 5? Start with 1.
Tap it out
For me, tapping is one of the best and fastest stress-relieving tools. Just tapping strategic spots on my face while acknowledging my fears aloud helped me to deliver the eulogy for my mom with more grace and peace. Harvard Medical School psychiatrist Rick Leskowitz, calls Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or “Tapping,” “the most impressive intervention I’ve encountered in 25 years of work.”5Trauma Update: On The ‘Tipping Point For Tapping’ Therapy, Boston’s NPR Station: http://commonhealth.legacy.wbur.org/2013/07/trauma-update-on-the-tipping-point-for-tapping-therapy Tapping seems to work by addressing anxiety and stress at the source by changing your brain chemistry and altering neural pathways. Check out the footnote above to watch four war veterans overcome PTSD; and watch EFT videos with Brad Yates or Julie Schiffman to learn how to tap out stress, grief or anxiety in less than 10 minutes.
Studies show that forgiveness can lead to huge health rewards including: lowering the risk of heart attack; improving cholesterol levels and sleep; reducing pain, and levels of anxiety, depression and stress.6Forgiveness: Your Health Depends on It, Johns Hopkins Medicine, http://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/healthy_aging/healthy_connections/forgiveness-your-health-depends-on-it My favorite forgiveness practice is a short but powerful ancient Hawaiian prayer called Ho’oponopono: I’m sorry. Please forgive me. Thank you. I love you. Just saying the four lines – in any order – when thinking about people I love, and even more importantly when thinking about those I have trouble with, melts my heart. And that heart melting openness is the path to forgiveness, which is so healing. Don’t forget to include the prayer for yourself!
20 second hugs are especially stress-melting. Science confirms that hugging boosts the immune system, decreases stress, and even improves heart health.7Does Hugging Provide Stress-Buffering Social Support? A Study of Susceptibility to Upper Respiratory Infection and Illness, Cohen, S., et. al., Psychological Science, http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/0956797614559284 810 Science-Based Health Benefits of Hugging, David “Avocado” Wolfe, https://www.davidwolfe.com/10-health-benefits-of-hugging/ Aim for 3 hugs a day. Kids and animals count too. Don’t have a human or a pet? Hug yourself, seriously. Rock yourself gently, or softly stroke your arms and face. You’ll get bathed in oxytocin, dubbed the “elixir of health” by Kelly Turner, Ph.D. & author of Radical Remission.
Have you experienced links between stress and your health? Which stress-melting practice resonates with you? The one(s) that works will be the one(s) you actually do. So what will you do for yourself today? Remember, when you prioritize self-care, for even 10 minutes a day, you will are proactively breaking the vicious cycle of stress and illness and moving towards the virtuous cycle of relaxation and health. Just thinking about it isn’t enough. Make the time, prioritize yourself and just do it.
Take extra good care!
Image Credit: Zach Betten on Unsplash
Thank you Palmer for your very important thoughts and words. Beautifully composed and inspiring ❤️👌
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