The mind can calm the body
In the early 1950’s, Dr. Neil Miller made a startling discovery. He found that laboratory animals could learn to decrease their blood pressure and heart rate. Basing his experiments on B.F. Skinner’s principles of “operant conditioning”, the animals received food or “positive reinforcement” whenever their heart rate of blood pressure went down. Soon, the animals learned how to control their vital signs.
Previously, scientists did not believe that mammals could control their autonomic nervous system, which regulates blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, skin temperature and other biological functions. Miller’s pioneering experiments led scientists to test adults using instruments which measured these vital signs. When humans were able to receive continuous feedback from instruments which measures these autonomic functions, they were able to exercise significant control over them. Biofeedback was born.
Practitioners of Eastern religions, who practiced meditation, have known for centuries that they could control their autonomic nervous system. Dr. Herbert Benson, a scientist at Harvard University, studied the physiological effects of meditation. He found that when adults sat quietly for 10-15 minutes, and concentrated on counting their breaths, they could initiate what Benson called “The Relaxation Response”. During this response, heart rate slows, breathing rate decreases and muscles relax.
This research was important for a number of reasons. The human body is uniquely fashioned for survival. Our nervous system insures that humans can effectively respond to threats to their lives. When faced with danger, the sympathetic nervous system is activated. Called the “fight or flight” mechanism, muscles tighten, blood rushes from the fingers and toes to the torso, and heart rate and blood pressure increase. All of these physical changes enable us to run or fight--quickly and effectively. This mechanism served us well, particularly when confronted by wild animals. After the physical effort of fighting or flying—heart rate slows, muscles relax, and blood flow increases to the extremities. This systemic response returns the body to its normal state.
Interestingly, the fight or flight response can be initiated by any actual or imagined threat—financial problems, conflicts with a boss, an argument with a spouse, or too many demands. Joe’s boss asks him to work on Saturday. All day, he’s angry. As the day wears on, his blood pressure shoots up and his heart pounds. Because he chooses not to fight—hit his boss or run out the door—he never experiences the relaxation that comes after fight or flight.
Instead, by evening he feels uptight, irritable and worn out. Our bodies are behind the times. Modern living prevents Joe and the rest of us from following through with our natural instincts—tendencies which insure survival. Instead, the body remains coiled for actions for hours and sometimes days. High levels of unrelieved arousal can result in headache, muscle spasms, stomach distress, high blood pressure, and even diminished immunological response.
Mind and body are connected. Just as the flu can make a person feel depressed, feeling depressed can make our bodies feel sluggish. Learning how to discharge tension, or initiate the relaxation response, can help adults stay physically healthy and mentally happy.
So here’s how to do it:
Vigorous exercise relieves stress. It mimics the flight or flight response. Afterwards we feel relaxed. A run or bicycle ride mimics “flight”. Weight lifting or calisthenics imitates “fight”. Either one will make you feel better and turn off that fight or flight response.
Take a tranquility break. Sit in a quiet place and close your eyes. Count your breaths (one count for each time you exhale) up to 10, and then start over again. Or simply watch your breath go in and out, like the water at the ocean. Your mind will get “busy” and when he does, just go back to counting. Soon your muscles will begin to relax. You will feel relaxed.
Give it a try!