Hypertension and diabetes are becoming more and more common and I believe this is not only related to what we eat and do but also to what we think. If we learn to use our mind to relax we will help prevent these and many other chronic health problems.
There are two aspects of our mind powers that I would like to discuss: first how to create a relaxation response and second our mirror neurons.
In the early 1920s, Walter Cannon described the “fight or flight” response finding that when we feel stressed our body thinks we need to prepare to run or fight. The body cannot distinguish between a “lion” chasing us or the fear of an upcoming exam or meeting. When we are stressed the autonomous (independent) brain makes our heart beat faster, raises our blood pressure, redirects most of our blood to our legs and arms, brain and heart, meanwhile decreasing the blood flow to our stomach and other organs that it considers are less important as it is preparing us to run away or fight the ‘lion.’
In the long run, this means the autonomous nerve system is deciding for us and changing a stressful thought into a body response. People who are continuously stressed have a greater risk of developing stomach pain and indigestion, headaches, high blood pressure, diabetes, difficulty sleeping, while often feeling tired and unwell.
The good news is that just like our thoughts can make us feel sick they can make our body work better and heal. In the 1970’s Benson described the relaxation response. He found that if a person consciously thinks peaceful happy thoughts and relaxes with something like meditation, yoga, tai chi, or hypnosis the body creates a relaxation response, uses less oxygen, slows down the heart and even becomes stronger to fight infection, making the whole-body work better. In this way, we now know that our conscious voluntary minds have true power over how our body works and how we heal.
Regarding mirror neurons, in the early 1990s, Giacomo Rissolatti and his research team described the importance of empathy, compassion, and the presence of “mirror neurons” in our brains. These neurons make us copy and reproduce what we see. This means that humans learn how to behave by being in contact with others. We think we are choosing what to do every day, but in fact, we are in part just mirroring or copying what we see others do. This is easy to see in small children as they copy what others do and say and are very sensitive to feel when the people around them are happy, sad, or angry.
How can we use this knowledge to benefit our health?
Whenever we have a stressful event coming up, we should remind our brain that it is not a lion or dinosaur chasing us but just a meeting, exam, or pending homework.
Breathing slowly is a powerful relaxing technique that helps calm and soothe the whole body. We should practice slow conscious breathing every day for it to work best when we are really upset or stressed.
We should take a moment to slow down at least once a day and practice focussed meditation thinking of the things we are grateful for, the people we love, and the things that make us happy.
As we know our thoughts are not all true and actually make our body change the way it works, we should let the unpleasant ones pass by as if floating down a stream and purposefully fish out and hold on to the positive emotions and thoughts.
To increase our human qualities, we should avoid spending too much time by ourselves and purposefully seek the company of others who are also making efforts to improve and are practicing empathy and compassion daily.
Need more info?
Dr. Dorothy Dexter is a family medicine physician at Beijing United Family Hospital. She has several years of clinical experience and speaks English and Spanish. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.