Your stress system is the physiological response of your body to stress, which includes stress hormones and your autonomic nervous system. This system can cause an imbalance in your immune system and cause or worsen an autoimmune disease.
You don’t want your stress system to be either always on high or always on low; you want it to turn on when you need it and then turn off when you don’t.
Most people, by the time I see them, have low-functioning adrenal glands with low levels of cortisol and adrenaline because they have been stressed for so long, not only from their life experiences but also from the emotional and physical stress of their disease.
Maybe you feel that way too, and you’re just worn out. The goal is to fix your stress response system so that it regains its resiliency and flexibility.
An Important Discovery: We Can Modulate the Effects of Stress
It’s time to do something about the level of stress in your life. It’s time to learn ways to engage your relaxation system and turn off the hormones and neurotransmitters that are causing the bad health effects of chronic stress.
These hormones and neurotransmitters will be there when you need them, but when you don’t, they should remain on standby. So how do you engage your relaxation system?
For a long time, we believed that our autonomic nervous system was automatic. Then, beginning in the 1930s, Hans Selye studied mice and detailed the mechanisms of the stress response, and we found out that the response to stress and the effect on your autonomic nervous system can be influenced by aspects of the environment, including food and living conditions.
His studies helped us understand what we already knew about monks living in caves in the Himalayan Mountains who could regulate their body temperature with meditation. They were able to do so because meditation causes blood vessels to relax and dilate; as a result, more blood could flow through their bodies, making them feel warm.
The fact that you can actually control body functions such as blood pressure, heart rate, temperature, and your immune system is a shocking realization for many people, but it’s true.
This is part of mind-body medicine, a branch of integrative medicine (functional medicine is also a branch of integrative medicine). It looks at how your thoughts, feelings, and emotions affect your physical health and how your physical health affects your spiritual and emotional well-being.
When practiced regularly, mind-body techniques such as meditation, guided relaxation, and guided imagery can have a powerful positive effect on you and your health.
Here's How Mind-Body Practices Work to Mitigate Stress
There are two main benefits you will gain by beginning a mind-body practice. First, your body can actually learn to have a different kind of response to a situation so that you don’t turn on the damaging hormones and instead maintain a balanced inner world that will help you prevent and reverse any chronic illness you may have, especially one involving the immune system.
But equally as important, these techniques will help you begin to understand the amount of stress that is coming into your body, and this awareness will help you see what changes need to be made in how you are living your life and how certain things you are doing may be hurting you. Mind-body medicine offers the tools for this sort of exploration and for regaining balance.
You might be wondering if these skills are hard to learn. But I promise that they are not. I have taught them to people from all walks of life.
For example, in 2012 I went to Haiti with faculty from the Center for Mind-Body Medicine to teach mind-body skills to the very stressed population around Jacmel, an area hit hard by the 2010 earthquake.
The Haitian people are among the poorest in the world and experience serious stress in their daily lives in a way many of us can’t even comprehend. They struggle to simply meet their everyday needs and survive. Of the 130 people who came to this training program, I had the opportunity to personally work with a group of ten.
In eight 2-hour sessions, I taught them skills such as deep “soft belly” breathing, guided relaxation, and imagery. They also did drawing and writing exercises to learn more about themselves. They were all sponges for this information, going home every night to practice.
My group included Haitians with higher education, those with very little education, and people whose education levels fell somewhere in between. Some of these people were leaders in the community; others were everyday folk.
But despite these differences, everyone, without exception, was able to learn skills that lowered their blood pressure, relieved headaches, and improved sleep.
Additionally, they came to understand the changes they needed to make in their lives that would allow them to be happier, less angry, and less frustrated.
And they left the training with tools to continue this practice and figure out what they needed to be healthy in body, mind, and spirit. I had gone to Haiti to help teach the people of Jacmel; what I didn’t realize was how much the people of Jacmel would teach me. Not only did they touch me deeply with their warmth, kindness, and appreciation, but the experience helped prove to me how these mind-body skills are universal in their appeal and that everyone can do them.
You Can Feel Better Now
It turns out that when you begin to learn these mind-body skills something interesting happens: you start feeling better immediately. Why? Because you are doing something for yourself. You are taking care of you (rather than just taking care of those around you). You are being proactive about your health. This helps you move from a position of hopelessness to one of power and control.
Many, many studies have shown that self-care is healing in and of itself, even without the added benefit of balancing the autonomic nervous system. These techniques work because of the reaction in your nervous system. Realizing that you are the only one who can “fix” you is a cornerstone of why you will get better.
Another benefit of these techniques is the chance they give you to learn about and understand yourself better.
Using words, drawings, movement, meditation, and visualization helps you become aware of your burdens and stresses and bring them to the surface so you can do something about them.
Knowledge is power, and self-knowledge will guide and anchor you as you explore and understand your body and how it may be responding to different stressors around you. This is very exciting, because it shows that you have the power to improve your health.
© Adapted from The Immune System Recovery Plan: A Doctor's 4-Step Program to Treat Autoimmune Disease by Susan Blum. Copyright © 2013 by Scribner.