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Five steps for less stress

Blue Skies
Catherine Al-Meten

According to Dr. Depak Bhatt, the director of the Integrated Interventional Cardiovascular Program at Brigham and Women’s Health, stress can trigger behavior that increases the risk of heart disease. Chronic stress and the increased risk for heart disease is something that we can actively manage, by being more mindful of our behavior and our emotional and psychological responses to the levels of stress in our lives.

Five simple ways to reduce stress and help keep your heart healthy.

Enjoy life more. Developing a positive attitude, keeping a sense of humor and perspective, and finding ways to enjoy life more helps lower levels of stress hormones, increase good HDL cholesterol levels, and reduces inflammation in the arteries.

Meditate regularly. “Meditation can also help us learn to enjoy life more fully. The Ventral Vegal system and the Central Nervous system control our social engagement system. For some of us, being around other people can be such a stressful experience, that we rarely are able to enjoy life, play, or relax. Getting out and engaging in life requires a sense of adventure and an ability to be active.

Through meditation, we can learn to get into touch with our urge to move and to discover the world around us. Sometimes we get into such a state of lethargy (not moving, not being moved to act or move outside ourselves) that we become emotionally, physically, and socially paralyzed. We create a trap or cage defined by the limitations we put on ourselves. We get stuck in a rut, into patterns of behavior and thought that limit everything we do or perceive. For example, we get used to not moving much, staying at our desks, on the couch, or even in bed. We avoid activities, and we limit the depth and breadth of our activities to smaller and smaller areas or to the same, repetitive behavior, fearing and avoiding changing our patterns of thinking, behavior, and movement. We may drive to work the same way day after day, without changing our routines at all. Notice the patterns that your life follows, and see if you have stopped yourself from having more fun, playing, or stretching your mind, imagination, and perceptions outside the routine. When we meditate, we notice how our body, our emotions, our thoughts, our heart and feelings, and our spirit is connected or disconnnected. We notice what kinds of memories, thoughts, pain and pleasure, fears and frustrations, and dreams and sorrows are affecting our well being. We notice pains or constrictions, we notice sadness and ambiguity, and we learn to recognize desires, dreams, blocks, and challenges that tie up our energy and occupy our minds and bodies.

Meditation invites us to pay attention to how we view the world, how we understand the world within and around us, and how our senses help us express ourselves and communicate our true feelings and desires. The ventral vegal system activates and energizes our eyes, our ears, and our voices, our lungs and our bellies. Our ability to find a point of calm and centeredness, brought about through the ventral vegal system, helps us attune or reboot our system so we are able to hear, to listen, and to pay attention through the web of emotions, fears, or negative thoughts, fantasies, memories, or visions that are formed when we are under a great deal of stress or emotional turmoil. Meditation can also help by allowing us who have become hyper-vigilant from trauma, stress or fear, to become more relaxed. When we are in a state of hyper vigilance, we respond as if we were coming out of our caves and are looking for the tiger that we know is hiding in the bush. For the most part, there are no tigers, but we depend on our vision to keep us feeling safe. Consequently, we may have trouble shutting our eyes. Mediation provides a safe space to close our eyes, and to explore the dangers or threats we may feel, with no fear of being attacked or hurt.

Our muscles have also been responding and reacting throughout our lives to perceived or imagined threats and fears. Much of the pain and stress we hold in our bodies, is experienced as muscle pain. Meditation allows us to learn to release, lengthen, and relax our muscles more. When our sympatheic nervous system automatically responds each time we feel afraid, fearful, or threatened, the result can be felt and is stored in our muscle memory.
These are just some of the ways the vagal brake and the Ventral Vagal system work and affect our health. We can activate our ventral vagal brake by using a calming voice, which in turn quiets the heart, and warms the body making us feel more warm, more comforted, and safer. Listen to how a mother coos to her new baby when the baby is distressed. A calming, warm and loving affect signals the calming effect controlled by the ventral vagal system.” (From an article, “Calming Effects of Meditation” by Dr. Catherine Al-Meten, Heartsight blog, May 22, 2013).

Exercise. As sedentary as our lives and work may become, we require greater and greater amounts of physical activity to maintain optimum, overall well being. Taking breaks during our work time and amid stressful or physically demanding periods of work is necessary. We need daily movement and increased physical activity, especially when we have been indoors too long or have been ill, injured, or inactive for long periods of time. When the weather seems to trap us inside, it’s time to take a lesson from those who live in harsh climates. My friend Mary Konrad, who live in the far northern reaches of Pine River, Minnesota, describes to me the hearty and hale older women who go out even on the coldest days. They keep moving and they keep active. Building the habit of movement into our lives is necessary for most of us to maintain good health, body, mind, and spirit.

Unplug. Disconnect yourself from anything that has become a time waster, energy drainer, or soul-consuming habit. This means not only our electronic media and devices, but also the negative and energy-robbing habits that make us feel listless, purposeless, deprived, or ‘not enough’. Relationships with people who are negative and critical, or habits that make us feel worse than better (addictions, overeating, negative behaviors that add nothing to our know what they are for you), need to be changed. Our work often becomes an excuse for us to avoid unplugging. We ‘can’t’ until we have more time, or until work slows down, or until I have time for a vacation. The problem is, that ‘time’ never comes, and we make our lives all about the stress of the moment. Stress becomes and defines who we are. So take some time away. Not time crammed with other activities, responsibilities, or obligations, but simply time to reflect, relax, and get in touch with what it feels like to not be on the treadmill. Give yourself enough time to even get a bit edgy, for that is where you discover the place within you where you need to ‘fill up the time and space”. Let there be time, let there be spaces in your time, to simply be. Get enough rest. Get to know yourself without the struggles.

Create ways to find peace. Think about those things that make you feel relaxed and calm. Perhaps it’s music, or dance. Maybe it’s a warm bath or shower, or a walk along the beach. Maybe it’s getting up early to go catch a sunrise, or heading to the west at day’s end to follow the sunset. Discover, and then rediscover what it is that is calming. Take a deep breath and let your breath breathe you....let go of pushing so hard, and simply use your breath to help you focus. Take a run or a swim, read some poetry or take your sketch pad outside to capture some of what surrounds you. Take your shoes off and walk in the grass or the sand. Get in touch with the earth beneath your feet. Stand at the window soaking in the morning sun, or walk in the rain, and take in the smells of the storm. Pet your animals, or take them for a walk. Count to ten, count sheep, or simply walk away from something that feels like a looming disaster....give yourself some perspective and time and space before trying to deal with big issues, problems, or challenges. Take a breath, and create peace in each moment, before and after whatever it is you feel compelled to do.

Heed the advice of two of our most sage guru’s, Mr. Fred Rogers,

“In times of stress, the best thing we can do for each other is to listen with our ears and our hearts and to be assured that our questions are just as important as our answers.”

And Mahamtma Ghandi, “There is more to life than increasing its speed.”

If being healthy, happy, and more peaceful is a priority for you, take some steps today to do something toward making that happen. Stress is a natural part of life. How you handle your stress is something you can control, and only you can make the changes, take the steps, or improve the way you live a less stressful life.

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