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Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Stress, Aging & Meditation

        Last Friday afternoon, Elizabeth and I were driving over to the Kwantlen Surrey Campus, so that she could pick up one of her paintings.  The traffic was pretty heavy.  At an intersection about half way there someone in the opposite lane either didn’t see us or decided to turn in front of us instead of waiting till we were through.  In any case, he came very close to crashing into the side of our car. Fortunately, Elizabeth was paying close attention, accelerated the car and we escaped.  For the next several minutes our hearts were beating very strongly.
         When things happen like that near accident, we have to adapt, and our bodies have to react. It’s a matter of survival!  Seeing and feeling a threat triggers automatic responses. “Our pupils dilate, sweat glands accelerate, heartbeat accelerates, breathing becomes rapid, and adrenalin is released to give us energy. This reaction is referred to as the ‘fight or flight’ or stress response.   Stressful situations can be interpreted in both positive and negative situations. For example, “…buying a new house or taking a holiday trip can be just as stressful as an argument with your boss or having a flat tire.”
         Under extreme circumstances stress responses help us handle situations by sharpening our senses, enhancing our concentration, (or quickening our reaction time when we swerve our car sideways to avoid a careless driver.)  On the negative side it has also been found that “…stress, especially prolonged stress symptoms become associated with chronic diseases of the nervous system, eye, and ear.”   And researchers also agree that too much stress can cause our bodies to age more rapidly.  So, how can we deal with this problem?   In a stressful situation one of the best stress reducers is deep breathing. “Take a deep slow breathe, hold it for 2 seconds and exhale slowly. Repeat 5 to 10 times, until you begin to relax.”
            “Being tired of working” can be stressful and has been associated with retirement.  It was the end of the fall term 2010 that I decided to retire in August 2011. I love my work but I’m getting tired.  Last Fall my retirement thoughts led not only to my retirement decision but also to the development of the Retirement Workshops as a “bridge” into my retirement journey. This blog is also helping me prepare for retirement.
         Being aware of the stress related to this major change in my life, I have also been spending an increasing amount of time meditating. For me meditation means staying in the “here and now”, watching my subconscious untangle and living each day of my life to it’s fullest. At 72 years old I realize that I have more time behind me the in front and until the end I would like to experience each moment. 
         In order to do that I need to deal effectively with stressful situations like the current “economic downturn” and the governments’ desire to cut back health benefits.  Meditation can help me maintain healthy aging during this period.
Eva Selhub, MD, Medical Director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute says,” If we can affect the stress response, we can affect the aging process.” She also says, "There’s a reason why experienced mediators live so long and look so young."(The Anti-Aging Effects of Meditation)                                                                                                        I recently discovered an article that is the source of much of the following material. [i]  The authors describe the meditation procedure as “…allowing attention effortlessly to turn ‘inwards towards subtler levels of thought until the mind transcends the subtlest state of thought and arrives at the source of thought.”                                                                   
       In the discussion section of the research paper it is reported that “After three months, TM and mindfulness groups, on the average, reported feeling better able to cope, less old, and less impatient, whereas the relaxation and no-treatment groups felt “…less able to cope, and older.” In addition stress responses are major contributors to hypertension, which is a major cause of death among seniors.                                       
      While my procedure of meditation is somewhat different I am feeling similar responses. It is in no way tied to religious thinking but it is easy to see how it emerged from intelligent, creative thinkers prior to the development of science. As I type this blog entry, I can hear my heart beating what a lovely sound!
         Coppola and Spector[ii] take the process of meditation a step further. In their opening paragraph they say that “…studies indicate that…these forms of deep meditation hold therapeutic promise not only as techniques for dissolving stress but also for increasing many characteristics associated with self-actualization, including autonomy, creativity, inner satisfaction, focus, alertness and productivity.”  In their experiment they found “…a remarkable reduction in the mean trait anxiety score after four weeks of regular practice.”  And they concluded that “Regular practice of Natural Stress Relief Meditation appears to correlate with the development of self-actualization, both self-reported and measured.”  This might be a way to resist various forms of dementia
         If you want take the first step with the recommendation described above:  “Take a deep slow breathe, hold it for 2 seconds and exhale slowly. Repeat 5 to 10 times, until you begin to relax.”
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step

[i] Alexander, C.N., et al. (1989).  Transcendental meditation, mindfulness, and l            longevity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 57(6), 950-964.
[ii] Coppola, F. & Spector, D. (2009)  Natural stress relief meditation as a tool for             reducing anxiety and increasing self-actualization, Social Behaviour and             Personality, 37(3), 307-312.

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