My research scientist grandmother used to respond to my complaints of being “stressed out” by asking, “What’s stress? Just a force that holds up a bridge.”
On that one count, I’m afraid she was wrong. Contemporary research points increasingly to the significant negative effects of stress on our physical health, and its role in fueling chronic health problems and autoimmune disorders. Increasingly, science points to the healing powers of our own minds in countering the physical damage stress can cause and improving our health and well-being.
In her book, The Last Best Cure: My Quest to Awaken the Healing Parts of My Brain and Get Back My Body, My Joy, and My Life, Donna Jackson Nakazawa details developments in neurobiology that point to the benefits of mindfulness and alternative practices in healing pain, discomfort, and illness. An award-winning science writer, Nakazawa provides easy-to-understand explanations of complex biological processes, and a new field of study called psychoneuroimmunology (PNI).
PIN, she writes, “is the study of how our mental and emotional state, the way we think and act, can maximize our ability to heal—and enhance our overall health.”
She explains, “When we are stressed, worried, or in pain, this complex network of biological messengers—what scientists sometimes refer to as the ‘floating brain’—increases the cascade of chemical messengers that break down our cells and corrupt our immune systems. When we move to a state of joy and contentment, we create quite the opposite effect, a seemingly invisible shield of positive ‘floating brain’ activity that protects our cells, our immune function, and our health.”
The more Nakazawa learned about the positive effects of alternative and complementary healing practices on health, the more convinced she became that these might counter the effects of her own autoimmune problems, and the consequences of having twice survived Guillan-Barre syndrome.
She became a patient of Dr. Anastasia Rowland-Seymour, an integrative medicine expert at Johns Hopkins, who introduces Nakazawa to evidence that adverse childhood experiences (ACE) in particular can create a brain-body stress that young minds and bodies respond to with an inflammatory response. Those experiences range from physical and sexual abuse, to the dysfunctions that accumulate in homes where mental illness or substance abuse disorders lead to dysfunction. The more adverse experiences we endure as children, the more likely we are to develop autoimmune problems and chronic health conditions in adulthood.
Nakazawa had experienced several major stressors, including the sudden death of her father and its emotional and financial toll on her mother, who became unable to care for her children. With Rowland-Seymour’s encouragement—and her suggestion that Nakazawa’s brain might be her own “last best cure,” Nakazawa decides to spend a year in which she is a subject of one.
Her book tells that story: the practices she tried, the emotions and insights she experienced, and the science behind the healing. She worked with people who were expert in practices that appealed to her, but that would also be readily accessible to her readers. Her personal narrative is balanced with scientific evidence that supports the idea that alternative practices trigger healing effects on the brain, which then helps to heal the body.
I won’t spoil the ending, but recommend it to other Disruptive Women who are struggling to cope with chronic health problems. Insights about her own experience and life might help readers to forge their own, and her strategies for pursuing basic mindfulness practices might inspire others to do the same.
A mutual friend introduced me to Nakazawa by email. We met for coffee, and soon discovered our affinities. I had recently endured a major stressor, and could feel its compounding effects on my ability to cope well with a chronic pain condition. Nakazawa told me that she describes such stressors as “joy thieves,” and that ridding our lives of them is key to experiencing the kinds of contentment and happiness that enable us to thrive, rather than just endure.
In a recent phone call, we talked about the book. Of the practices she tried, I asked, which would be easiest for overwhelmed, multitasking women to learn and use.
“All of the techniques work in concert, but they all come back to the same basic root, which is really the breath. If you look at yoga, much of what happening has to do with the breath. If you could change only one thing to improve your health, change the way you breathe,” she said
She explained a simple reason for focusing on better breathing—breathing “the way we were intended” forces the body to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which, in turn, helps to release the flight-or-fight cycle of the stress response. It enables us to release stress in a way that allows us to relax and experience joy. Done regularly and over time, we can recalibrate our stress responses, which, in turn, research says, can improve immune responses.
Try it. For the three-part breath, simple take a moment to inhale slowly, and imagine each breath filling first the collarbones, then the chest, and finally the stomach. Exhale very quickly—a loud sigh that Nakazawa suggests one would make to blow a pile of leaves off the ground. Repeat this three times. That process can create a shift in the PNS that enables the body to release stress and experience joy. Such breathing techniques can even reduce the experience of chronic pain.
“Pain is a joy thief, and it keeps us on the pain channel. If we can build these moments of release, we can bring down our stress response, and feel a little better,” she says.
Nakazawa also recommends using our other most basic tool—language—to become more mindful and centered. “We want not only to take down our stress response, but build a state of joy.”
For this, try another simple technique. Research indicates that when we can name and speak our emotions, we not only understand and control them better, but we can release them and move forward. The next time you feel stressed, overwhelmed, frightened or lost, try the three-part breath. Then hold a hand over your heart and say—out loud—the emotion you are feeling.
Nakazawa explains, “The breath is a built-in tool we can use to deactivate the sympathetic nervous system. No drug has ever been developed that can activate the parasympathetic nervous system. The only tool anyone has ever found to activate it is to breathe the way we were intended to breathe.”
These tools are easy to access and free—and require little time or expertise to test. The payoff can be significant, especially for women living with autoimmune disorders and chronic health problems. While medicines can relieve symptoms and improve function, they often cannot help us to find or experience joy. Learning to release stress can help us cross a bridge (thanks, Grandmom!) to a path that is not lined with joy thieves.
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