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Mindfulness for Absolute Beginners

aaCarignano_SolferinoMindfulness meditation is the wonderfully effective relaxation technique that along with yoga, tantric meditation, mantra or transcendental meditation, has become an increasingly popular forms of stress management. The therapeutic value of meditation in producing positive effects on psychological well-being and ameliorating symptoms of a number of disorders has become widely studied and accepted. But, what is it and how does it work? Here is a primer for the absolute beginner, to start mindfulness relaxation today!

What Is It? The Way of Breath Awareness

Vipassanā (Pāli) or vipaśyanā (विपश्यना in the original Sanskrit) in the Buddhist tradition means insight into the true nature of reality. Vipassana practice, or insight meditation, makes use of breath to focus attention and to let go of quasi-obsessive analytical thinking, which can be very stressful. Breath is simply used to increase concentration. The focus on breath is a powerful way to redirect attention, because it is always readily available, is directly connected to the stress reaction, and is naturally rhythmic and repetitive. Mindfully redirecting attention to the breath when we feel particularly stressed reduces reactivity and provides a positive physiological feedback system that balances the responses of the nervous system.

How Does It Work? The Benefits of Open Awareness

Open awareness is the core objective of mindfulness meditation. The follo0wing are simple instructions to focus awareness on the breath and is the essence of the mindfulness technique (from Stress Management: A Comprehensive Guide to Wellness by E. A. Charlesworth—read the book review).

  1. Find a quiet place and time. If you prefer, set a timer for 20 to 40 minutes. Become comfortable in your chair, sitting with a relaxed but straight, erect posture that is balanced but not straining. Allow your hands to rest comfortably in your lap. Loosen any tight clothing that will restrict your stomach. Gently close your eyes.
  2. Simply allow your body to become still. Allow your shoulders, chest, and stomach to relax. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breathing. Begin by taking two or three deeper breaths from your diaphragm, letting the air flow all the way into your stomach, without any push or strain, and then flow gently back out again. Repeat these two or three deep breaths, noticing an increased sense of calm and relaxation as you breath in the clean, fresh air and breath out any sense of tension or stress.
  3. Now let your breathing find its own natural, comfortable rhythm and depth. Focus your attention on the feeling of your breath as it comes in at the tip of your nose, moves through the back of your throat, into your lower diaphragm, and back out again, letting your stomach rise and fall naturally with each breath.
  4. Allow your attention to stay focused on your breath and away from the noise, the thoughts, the feelings, the concerns that may usually fill your mind.
  5. As you continue, you will notice that the mind will become caught up in thoughts and feelings. It may become attached to noises or bodily sensations. You may find yourself remembering something from your past or thinking about the future. This is to be expected. This is the nature of the mind. If the thought or experience is particularly powerful, without self-judgment, simply observe the process of the mind. You might note to yourself the nature of the thought or experience: “worry,” “planning,” “pain,” “sound.” Then gently return your attention to the breath.
  6. And again, as you notice your mind wandering off, do not be critical of yourself. Understand that this is the nature of the mind—to become attached to daily concerns, to become attached to feelings, memories. If you find your mind becoming preoccupied with a thought, simply notice it, rather than pursuing it at this moment. Understand, without judging, that it is the habit of your mind to pursue the thought. When you notice this happening, simply return your attention to your breathing. See the thought as simply a thought, an activity that your mind is engaging in.
  7. When you are ready, gently bring your attention back just to the breath. Now bring your attention back into the space of your body and into the space of the room. Move around gently in the space of the chair. When you are ready, open your eyes and gently stretch out.

How Long and How Often? Practice Makes Perfect

Mindfulness meditation, like all things worth doing, requires a certain amount of effort and the setting aside of a certain amount of time. Ideally, 20 to 40 minutes once or twice per day, for at least two months. Daily practice produces the best results in training the mind to shift into a mindful state. Shorter periods of time of 5–10 minutes are very helpful in specific situations, when a quick relaxation is needed. Only practicing mindfulness meditation situationally, however, will work when you have learned the technique well. It may not be as effective in the beginning, when it may take more than 5-10 minutes to relax, particularly in moments of high anxiety or stress.

Just 14 of the Many Facets of Stress

aaTintoretto_SanGiorgioDragoMRI scans have revealed that children of depressed mothers have a larger amygdala, a part of the brain associated with emotional responses, researchers from the University of Montreal explained in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

A new study published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine reveals that the World Trade Center attacks affected the health of the New York City Fire Department (FDNY) resulting in more post-9/11 retirements than expected.

Researchers in the Hotchkiss Brain Institute (HBI) at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Medicine have uncovered a mechanism by which stress increases food drive in rats.

Do you run when you should stay? Are you afraid of all the wrong things? An enzyme deficiency might be to blame, reveals new research in mice by scientists at the University of Southern California.

Constant bitterness can make a person ill, according to Concordia University researchers who have examined the relationship between failure, bitterness and quality of life.

Listening to music or sessions with trained music therapists may benefit cancer patients. Music can reduce anxiety, and may also have positive effects on mood, pain and quality of life, a new Cochrane Systematic Review shows.

Researchers at Harvard-affiliated McLean Hospital have found that those who believe in a benevolent God tend to worry less and be more tolerant of life’s uncertainties than those who believe in an indifferent or punishing God.

Knowing the right way to handle stress in the classroom and on the sports field can make the difference between success and failure for the millions of students going back to school this fall, new University of Chicago research shows.

An 8-week course of stress-reducing Transcendental Meditation resulted in a 50% reduction in PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) symptoms among Iraq/Afghanistan veterans, researchers reported in Military Medicine. The pilot study involved five veterans aged 25 to 40 years with PTSD symptoms – they had all served between 10 and 24 months and had been involved in moderate or heavy moderate combat.

When parents fight, infants are likely to lose sleep, researchers report. "We know that marital problems have an impact on child functioning, and we know that sleep is a big problem for parents," said Jenae M. Neiderhiser, professor of psychology, Penn State. New parents often report sleep as being the most problematic of their child’s behavior.

By helping people express their emotions, music therapy, when combined with standard care, appears to be an effective treatment for depression, at least in the short term, said researchers from the University of Jyväskylä in Finland who write about their findings in the August issue of the British Journal of Psychiatry.

Young adults whose mothers experienced psychological trauma during their pregnancies show signs of accelerated aging, a UC Irvine-led study found. The researchers discovered that this prenatal exposure to stress affected the development of chromosome regions that control cell aging processes.

A child who has a psychological adversity or a mental disorder that starts during childhood has a higher chance of developing a long-term (chronic) physical condition later on, researchers from the University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand reported in Archives of General Psychiatry. The authors explain that child abuse has been linked to a higher chance of adverse physical health outcomes.

Individuals with anxiety-related symptoms who self-medicate with drugs or alcohol have a higher risk of having a substance abuse problem and social phobia, researchers from the University of Manitoba, Winnipeg, Canada, revealed in Archives of General Psychiatry.

Worst Stress Relievers: Owning Guns

SeattleSunset_EN-US1535293454Stressed by the danger of a home intrusion? We may be tempted to purchase a gun to feel safer and relieve this type of stress. The remedy, however, has its own problems. Statistics have shown consistently that guns cause more deaths to their owners and their family members than to would-be intruders. The danger for owners and their families comes from several factors: an increased risk of injury and death in domestic violence situations; a higher rate of successful suicide; an increased likelihood of accidental injury; and a rise in the rate of homicides.

In particular, the risk of successful suicide attempts is not to be underestimated: a self-inflicted gunshot is the leading cause of death among gun owners in the initial years immediately following gun purchase. In an article published by The Washington Post, the authors report that out of 395 deaths in homes where guns were present, there were 333 cases of suicide, 41 cases of domestic violence homicide, and 12 accidents. Only 9 cases were shootings of an intruder.

Guns are the most commonly used weapon in over 65% of domestic homicides. When a couple owns a gun, the risk of partner-on-partner homicide is five times as great. Three times as many women are killed in homes where a gun is present than where no such weapon was available. Children fare no better: 5,285 American children were killed by gunshots according to the 2005 data published by the Centers for Disease Control. During the same year, no child was killed in Japan, 19 were killed in the UK, 57 in Germany, 109 in France, and 153 in Canada.

It is fair to say that guns, which in theory are acquired to increase safety, vastly increase the risk of serious injury or death to their owners and their families. Outside the home, guns increase the frequency and seriousness of crime rates, as well as increase the risk of injury and death among crime perpetrators and their victims. It is also well-known that gun-related violence raises health care utilization and costs, criminal justice system expenditures, higher costs to taxpayers and for insurance premiums. No one will argue the point that gun-related violence produces a legacy of grief and hardship.

Worst Stress Relievers: Prescription Drugs

SvetiJovan_EN-US1096946935More and more people in America seek relief from stressors by using artificial means, rather than developing the skills needed to cope with them naturally. Overdose mortality has now become a pressing public health problem. According to statistics released by the Centers for Disease Control, between 1999 and 2007 the rate of unintentional overdose in the United States has increased by 124%. Experts attribute this phenomenon to the exponential increase in prescription opioid overdoses. Some evidence suggests that the risk for drug-related adverse events is higher among individuals who are prescribed opioids at doses equal to 50 mg or more per day of pure morphine.

The abuse of opioid pharmaceuticals has been growing steadily for 10 years and has gotten to a point where it now overshadows all the other drug problems in the United States, certainly more so than heroin and cocaine. —Dr. John A. Renner, Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Boston School of Medicine in Massachusetts, Director of the Addiction Psychiatry Residency at the Boston VA.

According to a report by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, The Use of Medicines in the United States: Review of 2010, published April 2011, a prescription pain killer tops the list of the 10 most prescribed drugs in the U.S.  In order of number of prescriptions written in 2010, the 10 most-prescribed drugs in the U.S. are:

  1. Hydrocodone (combined with acetaminophen) — 131.2 million prescriptions
  2. Generic Zocor (simvastatin), a cholesterol-lowering statin drug — 94.1 million prescriptions. It is a known fact that an increased ability to cope with stress positively correlates with “good” cholesterol levels.
  3. Lisinopril (brand names include Prinivil and Zestril), a blood pressure drug — 87.4 million prescriptions. While there is no direct proof that stress by itself causes long-term high blood pressure, other behaviors linked to stress — e.g., overeating, drinking alcohol and poor sleeping habits — do cause high blood pressure. The short-term stress-related spikes in blood pressure caused by chronic stress may put individuals at risk of developing long-term high blood pressure.
  4. Generic Synthroid (levothyroxine sodium), synthetic thyroid hormone — 70.5 million prescriptions
  5. Generic Norvasc (amlodipine besylate), an angina/blood pressure drug — 57.2 million prescriptions
  6. Generic Prilosec (omeprazole), an antacid drug — 53.4 million prescriptions (does not include over-the-counter sales). The relationship among stress, psychological traits associated with chronic anxiety, acid reflux parameters, and perceptions of reflux symptoms has been established in numerous studies published in the last ten years.
  7. Azithromycin (brand names include Z-Pak and Zithromax), an antibiotic — 52.6 million prescriptions
  8. Amoxicillin (various brand names), an antibiotic — 52.3 million prescriptions
  9. Generic Glucophage (metformin), a diabetes drug — 48.3 million prescriptions
  10. Hydrochlorothiazide (various brand names), a water pill used to lower blood pressure — 47.8 million prescriptions.

The most prescribed drugs, however, are not the ones generating the highest income for pharmaceutical companies. According to the IMS report, Americans spent a staggering $307 billion on prescription drugs in 2010. The 10 best selling drugs are:

  1. Lipitor, a cholesterol-lowering statin drug — $7.2 billion
  2. Nexium, an antacid drug — $6.3 billion
  3. Plavix, a blood thinner — $6.1 billion
  4. Advair Diskus, an asthma inhaler — $4.7 billion. A connection between the development of infantile asthma and environmental stress, and adult stress and anxiety has been long established. That psychogenic factors can contribute to the onset and severity of asthma has been known for decades.
  5. Abilify, an antipsychotic drug — $4.6 billion. Usage of this drug developed to treat serious mental illness such as schizophrenia has grown significantly, primarily for stress and anxiety reduction, uses which the FDA has not approved.
  6. Seroquel, an antipsychotic drug — $4.4 billion. This drug, also developed to treat serious mental illness, is increasingly popular since it has been “discovered” to be an effective sleeping aid, a use which the FDA has not approved.
  7. Singulair, an oral asthma drug — $4.1 billion
  8. Crestor, a cholesterol-lowering statin drug — $3.8 billion
  9. Actos, a diabetes drug — $3.5 billion
  10. Epogen, an injectable anemia drug — $3.3 billion

It is interesting, and quite frankly worrisome, to note that so many of the drugs on the most prescribed and the best-selling lists target symptoms such as hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, gastric acidity, asthma, sleeplessness, and psychogenic pain that are directly associated with psychological disorders. These include unipolar and bipolar depression, anxiety, and primary insomnia. The inability to cope with stressors that, in our modern society, are primarily psychological in nature is paving the way for an overmedicated nation where stress signals that should mobilize individuals to take effective action are simply shut off, smothered by mass-produced chemical compounds. There are much better stress relieving approaches that do not include medication and that can enable us to face our challenges with a clearer mind, no side effects and a fatter pocketbook.

Worst Stress Relievers: Alcohol

aaManet_1882_BarFoliesBergeresMany people, including clinicians, researchers, and social and problem drinkers believe that drinking alcohol is somewhat effective as a temporary stress reliever. The relaxing effect of alcohol on the central nervous system, its disinhibiting and empowering effects on social impulses, and its perceived beneficial action on physical and emotional pain are often suggested as reasons why people begin and maintain their drinking, despite its abuse potential, side effects, and medium- to long-term ill effects on health. Conger (1951) proposed the Tension Reduction Hypothesis, which posits that alcohol can reduce tension and that people learn to drink alcohol to avoid or reduce unpleasant stress. Clinical observations and studies appear to support this theory.

Individual differences in the effects of alcohol on stress

Individual differences in stress-reducing effects of alcohol vary greatly. Where one individual may feel immediate relaxation from a relatively small amount of alcohol, others find that the initial effect of drinking actually increases their level of arousal. Gender, personality traits, drinking history, and a family history of alcoholism are factors that play a role in these very different responses. Individuals whose personality is characterized by sensation seeking or impulsivity traits are at increased risk for developing alcohol-related problems. Some researchers have suggested alcohol produces enhanced anxiolytic effects on these personalities, and thus increases the reinforcement value of drinking. Although no uniformity of results has been shown in these studies, they offer at least some support for this hypothesis.

From the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, several experimental studies analyzed the effects of alcohol on stress among alcoholic participants. Although these studies were impressive for their intensive monitoring of participants over extended periods of time, the reliability of the results was limited by the small number of participants. The most reliable and valid studies confirmed an association between alcohol consumption and improved emotional states, e.g., reduction of stress levels, among these alcoholic participants.

Situational factors in stress reduction by alcohol

Situational or transient circumstances may modulate the effects of alcohol on stress. Alcohol appears to reduce stress more frequently when consumed while experiencing a pleasant, distracting activity such as a party or watching television, less so if consumed without distraction. 
There also appears to be a temporal relationship between drinking and the experience of a stressor. Alcohol consumed after a stressor has occurred, e.g., upon returning home after a stressful day, appears to be less effective in reducing stress. On the other hand, if alcohol is consumed prior to experiencing the stressor, e.g., drinking just prior to attending a party, its relaxing effects appear to be more prominent.

Cognitive stress-reducing effects of alcohol

Other hypotheses attribute the anxiety and stress-reducing effect of alcohol to its pharmacological effects on information processing. One theory views alcohol as an agent that narrows an individual’s perception of immediate stress cues and reduces cognitive abstracting capacity. This mechanism of action has the result of restricting attention to the most proximal and immediate aspects of experience. In other words, alcohol reduces the range of awareness (and thus of anxiety and worry) to such an extent that the perception of stressors is greatly reduced.

How might alcohol reduce stress?

Alcohol affects the autonomic nervous system as well as the neuroendocrine system, in particular the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) pathway that is responsible for the mobilization of the organism during the stress reaction. The HPA axis is also instrumental in regulating immune protection by stimulating the production of cytokines that control inflammatory process and fight infection by pathogens.

The multifarious avenues of  communication among the neuroendocrine, immune, and nervous systems are so complex and ramified that alcohol impacts all systems, in both feed-forward and feedback directions. Alcohol is one of the few substances that readily crosses the blood-brain barrier, which permits it to have direct access to brain cells—with significant deleterious effects. Alcohol increases the resting heart rate, but it can also produce a paradoxical decrease in blood pressure in both humans and animals, much like stress, whose impact on heart rate and blood pressure is inconsistent.

The bottom line on stress reduction and alcohol

A relationship between alcohol and the physiological arousal of stress is undeniable, although the nature of this association is complex, controversial and far less than positive. The most reliable research has shown that the effects of alcohol on stress vary greatly depending on the psychophysiological characteristics of the individuals studied, their environment, the alcohol dose, the nature of the stressor, and the timing of the intake of alcohol and the stressful experience. Thus, while we can say that stress, alcohol, and alcohol addiction can form an interrelated complex, the nature of this relationship cannot be construed as ultimately beneficial. The relative ease and frequency of addiction to alcohol, the ineffectiveness of many strategies for prevention and treatment of alcohol abuse, and the variable benefits of alcohol as a relaxant pose a significant challenge to the widespread idea that alcohol may be an effective stress reliever.

Can Food Be Stressful? The Evidence

aaRenoir_NiniAuJardinScientific investigators in the 1970s began to ask if a correlation existed between food and behavior. They have discovered quite a few coincidences. New and increasingly more sophisticated studies have revealed the effective existence of a food-behavior correlation in children and older adults. In a review of 10 years of studies conducted between 1985 and 1995, Breakey found evidence of a relationship between what children eat and the way in which they behave. “The most important discovery,” he concluded, “has been the presence—in nearly all studies—of one statistically meaningful variation of behavior as a result of a dietary change” (p. 193). Moreover, these studies have revealed a consistency of response to dietary variations which is also statistically significant. Although other studies have established a correlation between changes in the diet and improvements in hyperactivity and insomnia, Breakey’s unexpected discovery was that the parameter primarily influenced by the intake of certain foods is mood, most of all stress and irritability. According to a recently published study by noted psychoneuroimmunologist Janice Kiecolt-Glaser, diets that promote inflammation (i.e., stress) are high in refined starches, sugar, saturated and transfats, and are low in omega-3 fatty acids, natural antioxidants, and fiber from fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

A study by Christensen & Christensen investigated the correlation between the course of schizophrenia and national statistics relative to fat consumption. They have found that countries with better prognosis for schizophrenia were those in which the national diet included a higher proportion of fat from fish and from vegetables. In essence, the patients who consumed greater amounts of omega-3 fatty acids showed less severe symptoms, a finding supported by a variety of other studies. If anti-oxidant agents can help in blocking the damage caused by free radicals, the treatment with these food supplements could restore cellular structure. Such a therapy, along with counseling on dietetic factors and lifestyle, could beneficially influence the prognosis of schizophrenia.

New research is also focusing attention on the role that anti-oxidants in the diet may play in the treatment of mood disorders. It is hypothesized that fatty acids may have stabilizing effects on mood with a mechanism similar to that of lithium and of valproic acid, by modifying the pathways of transmission of neuronal signals. In their action on bipolar disorder, they appear to mimic lamotrigine’s mood stabilizing and antidepressant properties. The mechanisms of action must be further clarified, as it is still unclear whether fatty acids show a specific pharmacological effect or a mere compensation of nutritional deficits. The concomitant intake of anti-oxidants vitamins (vitamins C and E) may optimize the effect of fatty acids, further preventing oxidation. A double-blind 4-month clinical study of 30 patients with bipolar disorder has shown the effectiveness of fatty acid supplements in comparison to a placebo (olive oil), added to the usual therapies. The experiment group of patients had a significantly longer period of remission as compared to the control group. Kiecolt-Glaser also cites epidemiological studies that demonstrate significant inverse relationships between annual fish consumption and major depression—the more fish eaten, the lower the prevalence of serious clinical depression.

Adjuvant nutritional therapies have also been studied in patients who showed a relapse despite continuing antidepressant treatment. A double-blind study that added omega-3 or a placebo to the conventional treatment has shown statistically significant improvements in the experiment group in as little as three weeks. Also, melatonin seems to perform as a scavenger of free radicals, beyond its well-known properties of regulation of gonadal function and of biological rhythms (e.g., as a sleep aid). Research data suggest that melatonin may positively influence neurodegenerative processes that are involved in the formation of free radicals and the release of excitatory aminoacids.

Hear and Feel Your Stress Drift Away

aavanGogh_1888_ArlesDanceHallCan music reduce stress? Yes, and the evidence is strong. Music can reduce stress, lessen pain, diminish hostility and have a positive effect on emotions and cognition. Beginning with an experimental study by Hatta and Nakamura (1991), researchers have continued to investigate the effects of relaxing music on psychological stress, finding good evidence of its benefits. Rhythmic music may change brain function and treat a range of neurological conditions, including attention deficit disorder and depression, suggested scientists who in 2006 gathered with ethnomusicologists and musicians at Stanford’s Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics. The diverse group came together for the symposium, “Brainwave Entrainment to External Rhythmic Stimuli: Interdisciplinary Research and Clinical Perspectives.”

Music with a strong beat stimulates the brain and ultimately causes brainwaves to resonate in time with the rhythm, research has shown. Slow beats encourage the slow brainwaves that are associated with hypnotic or meditative states. Faster beats may encourage more alert and concentrated thinking… Most music combines many different frequencies that cause a complex set of reactions in the brain, but researchers say specific pieces of music could enhance concentration or promote relaxation… Studies of rhythms and the brain have shown that a combination of rhythmic light and sound stimulation has the greatest effect on brainwave frequency, although sound alone can change brain activity. This helps explain the significance of rhythmic sound in religious ceremonies. – Stanford University News Services, 2006

Music therapy is now considered a useful adjunct in the treatment of many illnesses including cancer, stroke, heart disease, headaches, and digestive problems. There are numerous reports that music played before, during or after surgery reduces anxiety, lessens pain, reduces the need for pain medication and reduces recovery time.

In 2010, Wesa, Cassileth & Victorson published evidence in Focus on Alternative and Complementary Therapies Journal that music dramatically decreases distress for women hospitalized in a high-risk obstetrics/gynecology setting.  In 2009, a group of scientists headed by Thaut & Gardiner confirmed that music therapy can improve executive brain functions and contributes to better emotional adjustment in traumatic brain injury rehabilitation. Their study examined the immediate effects of neurologic music therapy (NMT) on cognitive functioning and emotional adjustment with brain-injured persons and a control group. The patients who received the music treatment showed a statistically significant improvement in executive function and overall emotional adjustment, reduced depression, lessened sensation seeking, and lower anxiety. Control participants, who did not receive the music treatment, showed decreases in memory, less positive emotion, and higher anxiety.

An extensive study by Good, Anderson, et al. (2005) tested three non-pharmacological treatments—one of which was music therapy—for pain relief following intestinal surgery in a randomized clinical trial. The 167 patients were randomly assigned to one of three intervention groups or control. The results showed significantly less pain in the intervention groups than in the control group, resulting in 16-40% less pain.

Finally, a just published German study offers case-study evidence that music therapy has positive effects on basic vital signs, the reduction of pain and on neurological development in newborn babies with health problems. At the other end of life’s spectrum, a very recent study of patients suffering from dementia of the Alzheimer’s type who exhibited disruptive behaviors showed that weekly session of live music therapy- and occupational therapy-based structured activities over 8 weeks resulted in a significant improvement in disruptive behaviors and depressive symptoms.

Sigmund Freud: What a Funny Guy!

freud-of-the-pampas_357025Sigmund Freud lived and worked in the Austrian capital, Vienna until the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 placed him and his family in great peril. Freud was allowed to leave Austria with his family through the intercession of his patients Princess Marie Bonaparte and William Bullitt, and diplomatic pressure by the United States. One condition imposed by the Germans for his safe conduit was that Freud state that he had been treated with due respect. In response, Freud is reported to have declared, ‘‘I can heartily recommend the Gestapo to anyone.”

Freud viewed humor as an outlet for discharging psychic energy and reducing the emotional impact of negative events. He regarded humor as one of the most adaptive defense mechanisms.

The essence of humor is that one spares oneself the affects to which the situation would naturally give rise and overrides with a jest the possibility of such an emotional display. Freud, S. (1916)

In his groundbreaking study of humor, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud hypothesized that jokes and dreams serve to satisfy our unconscious desires. Jokes provide their unique pleasure by allowing a temporary release of inhibitions and permitting the safe expression of sexual, aggressive, playful, or cynical instincts that would otherwise remain hidden and inexpressible. Laughter is the release of defensive tension that has been aroused by the circumstances that precede it. Tension can be elicited by behaviors, feelings or thoughts associated with anger and sexuality—in situations where their expression would be inappropriate. When ego defenses that inhibit their expression become unnecessary, as when the joke’s punch line is revealed, the energy that would be normally suppressed can be released in laughter.

There are two ways in which the process at work in humor may take place. Either one person may himself adopt a humorous attitude, while a second person acts as spectator, and derives enjoyment from the attitude of the first; or there may be two people concerned, one of whom does not himself take any active share in producing the humorous effect, but is regarded by the other in a humorous light. To take a very crude example: when the criminal who is being led to the gallows on a Monday observes, ‘Well, this is a good beginning to the week’, he himself is creating the humor; the process works itself out in relation to himself and evidently it affords him a certain satisfaction. Freud, S. (1928)

Freud also wrote “Humor” (1928), a brief paper in which humor is distinguished from wit and comicality, whereby humor represents an internalized form of forgiveness that changes one’s perspective and provides some relief from emotions associated with disappointments and failures. Likewise, humor permits the reinterpretation of failures as being of lesser importance or seriousness than initially believed, thereby transforming such failures, said Freud, into “mere child’s play.”

Humor: The All-Natural Remedy Against Stress

GinettoA stress reaction to challenging people and situations may be expressed by anger, hostility, aggression or seething inward rage. These instinctive reactions have their obvious drawbacks, but are altogether too common. There are other, more adaptive and sublimated responses (see this post for a complete list) that can turn angry reactions into assertiveness, the ability to effectively stand up for one’s rights, to engage in a respectful and yet passionate discussion of opposing points of view, an energy-releasing all-out workout at the gym, or humor. There is an abundance of evidence that proves the therapeutic value of humor. When used appropriately, this 100% natural remedy against stress is an adaptive, cathartic release of tension, a safe outlet for hostility and anger, and an effective defense against depression. Moreover, humor not only indicates emotional intelligence but also causes healthy neurological, immunological and physical changes. The mere act of laughter immediately increases muscular and respiratory activity, elevates the heart rate and stimulates the production of anti-stress hormones.

What Psychologists Say About Humor

American psychologist and psychotherapist Gordon Allport, in his research The Nature of Prejudice reported that 94% of people he questioned said their sense of humor was either average or above average. Allport stated that “the neurotic who learns to laugh at himself may be on the way to self-management, perhaps to cure” (p. 280).

American existential psychologist and author Rollo May, in Existence, suggested that humor has the function of “preserving the sense of self. . . It is the healthy way of feeling a ‘distance’ between one’s self and the problem, a way of standing off and looking at one’s problem with perspective” (p. 54).

mans-search-for-meaning-viktor-franklAustrian neurologist, psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, in his best-selling autobiographical Man’s Search for Meaning, shared as his learned experience that, “to detach oneself from even the worst conditions is a uniquely human capability.” He specified that this distancing of oneself from aversive situations derives “not only through heroism . . . but also through humor” (p. 16–17).

American physician and psychologist Raymond Moody (Glimpses of Eternity and Life After Loss: Conquering Grief and Finding Hope), noted for his well-researched studies on grief, loss and the possibility of an after-life, also pointed to the ability to detach oneself as intrinsic to humor: “A person with a ‘good sense of humor’ is one who can see himself and others in the world in a somewhat distant and detached way. He views life from an altered perspective in which he can laugh at, yet remain in contact with and emotionally involved with people and events in a positive way” (p. 4).

What Is Humor?

Humor is expressed in many ways: verbally (a funny story, joke, stand-up routine), visually (a mime’s movements, funny faces and gestures) or behaviorally (slapstick, pie-in-the-face comedy). It can be triggered by a book, hours-long stage or film productions or by just a few words, as in this very short story,

A passenger carried his own bomb onto a plane. When questioned by the TSA, he said that it was for his own safety, because the odds of there being two bombs on the same plane are virtually nil.

What makes this story humorous? The stress-relieving fun of it lies in the entirely natural and universal human need to seek safety and reassurance, which is however expressed by integrating two contradictory beliefs, no matter how absurd the result. In fact, it is the absurdity or incongruity of the synthesis that is the essence of humor.

Humor is therefore a mental capacity, the skill of discovering, expressing, or appreciating the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous. Its effectiveness, i.e. the difference between funny and inappropriate, depends on the incongruity between what we expect to happen or to be said and what we perceive with our senses. Not all incongruity is humorous: in addition to being there, the incongruous must also be meaningful or appropriate, and must be at least partially resolved.

Humor and Human Development

BabyLaughingIn developmental psychology, humor is a form of play expressed by the manipulation of images, symbols, and ideas. Humor can be detected in infants of about 18 months of age who have acquired the ability to manipulate symbols and objects. Some believe that humor may be present in infants as young as four months old if humor is defined as the ability to perceive incongruities in a playful way and accept them without distress.

From a very early age, humor serves a number of social functions. Beginning in early adolescence and into young adulthood, humor can be an effective coping strategy, can reinforce interpersonal connections, or can be used to test the status of relationships.

One of the most important signs of a healthy self-esteem and maturity is the ability to laugh at one’s own shortcomings and mistakes. Most prominently in adulthood, humor is often used to express forbidden feelings or attitudes in a socially acceptable way, a device at least as old as the Renaissance fool or court jester who was, up to a point, allowed to speak of unpleasant truths and openly mock those in positions of authority.

Humor and Mental Health

Flirt_DepressionIt is a recognized fact in mental health practice that the presence of humor in a person’s narrative is a healthy way of reducing anxiety and indicates the ability of reasserting mastery over a situation. Conversely, one of the clear signs of depression is the inability to appreciate or use humor in any situation.

A judicious use of humor ushers in the opportunity to detach from the most painful aspects of a situation, albeit briefly, and exercise some control over its impact by laughing at the seemingly inescapable predicament. This dynamic, psychological attempt at regaining control by interjecting an element of incongruity is concretized in this popular German witticism about two contrasting points of view, “In Berlin, the situation is serious but not hopeless; in Vienna, the same situation is hopeless but not serious.”

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pain-signA 2005 study by Zweyer and Velker conducted at the Department of Psychology, Section on Personality and Assessment of the University of Zurich, 56 female participants were assigned randomly to three groups, each having a different task to pursue while watching a funny film: (1) get into a cheerful mood without smiling or laughing, (2) smile and laugh extensively, and (3) produce a humorous commentary to the film. Their pain tolerance was measured using a cold presser device before, immediately after, and 20 minutes after the film. Results indicated that pain tolerance increased for participants from before to after watching the funny film and remained high for the 20 minutes. Participants low in trait seriousness had an overall higher pain tolerance. Subjects with a high score in group 1 showed an increase in pain tolerance after producing humor while watching the film whereas subjects with a low score showed a similar increase after smiling and laughter during the film.

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ilovebacteriaThe functions of the immune system that are essential for good health are known to be strongly affected by psychological experiences. Stressful events often result in immunosuppression, which leaves the body highly vulnerable to illnesses. Dillon, Minchoff, and Baker (1985) hypothesized that if stress and negative emotions can cause immunosuppression, it may also be true that humor, a positive emotional state, may be a potential enhancer of the immune system. In testing their hypothesis, they found that laughter induced by a humorous video caused a measurable and significant increase in concentrations of salivary immunoglobulin A (S-IgA), which is often described as the first line of defense against upper respiratory infection. Later research by Dillon and Totten (1989) replicated and expanded on these findings. Working with a group of mothers who were breastfeeding their infants, they found a strong relationships between humor and S-IgA.

Further connections between humor and immune system functioning were established by Lefcourt, Davidson, and Kueneman  in 1990, who found that the presentation of humorous material resulted in increased concentrations of S-IgA. When the humorous material was universally rated by participants as being highly funny (they used the video “Bill Cosby Live” for this research), S-IgA concentrations of most participants increased. However, when the humorous material produced variation in funniness ratings (when they used Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000-Year-Old Man” video), larger increases were found only among some of the participants.

Changes in immune system activity with laughter are not restricted solely to immunoglobulin A concentrations. Berk et al., in their 1988 study, reported that mirthful laughter while watching a humorous film was associated with increased spontaneous lymphocyte blastogenesis (production of white cells) and increased natural killer cell activity.

Because immunosuppression appears to commonly occur in stressful circumstances when negative emotions are triggered, these findings would suggest that humor reduces negative emotions and/or increases positive emotions, with a corresponding beneficial effects on the functions of the immune system.

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In addition to interacting with immune system functioning, humor has also been found to influence physiological responses associated with stress. In a landmark study, Berk et al. (1989) examined the effects of humor on neuroendocrine hormones that are involved in classical stress responses. The study participants were asked to watch a 60-minute humorous video during which blood samples were taken every 10 minutes. A control group of people who were not watching the funny video were asked to enjoy 60 minutes of “quiet time” during which they were exposed to neutral stimuli. Blood samples were tested for the presence of eight hormones which usually change during stressful experiences, such as corticotrophin (ACTH), cortisol, beta-endorphin, 3,4-dihydroxyphenylacetic acid (dopac, a metabolite of the neurotransmitter dopamine), epinephrine, norepinephrine, growth hormone, and prolactin. Five of the eight hormones were found to have measurably decreased among participants who watched the funny video, while they remained virtually unchanged in the control group.

The importance of humor in prolonged stress situations, and its effectiveness as a stress-reducer, can hardly be overemphasized. The ability to laugh, not only with others but also at oneself, is a vital skill of survival that promotes better adaptation to adversity. Former prisoners of war have claimed that single instances of a humorous circumstance made them feel better for weeks to months later. A remarkable example of how humor can serve as an emotion-focused coping response in highly stressful circumstances is the case of Brian Keenan, whose powerful book An Evil Cradling: The Five-Year Ordeal of a Hostage describes the way in which he and other hostages in Lebanon used humor to survive their incredible ordeals during five years of captivity.

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Disaster! 9 Critical Crisis Management Skills

aaCezanne_BendOfRiverDisaster strikes…an event with sufficient impact to produce significant emotional reactions, and one that can carry significant consequences. In the range of our ordinary experience, such an event may be extremely unusual. Perhaps it is the first time that we have been in a car wreck, an earthquake, a flood, lost our job, missed the mortgage payment, or discovered a very unpleasant and unexpected truth about a person or a situation. The first time, any of these events constitute a serious crisis, with wide-ranging impact. The second or third time, these events continue to be real crises but may be approached with enhanced skills and capability to cope with their aftermath.

Whenever and however often these critical and extremely stressful events may occur, a few outcomes can be predicted as very likely to be experienced by most people. First, there will be potential and actual traumatic reactions to the event or incident, either immediate or somewhat delayed. Expecting no reaction or minimal reaction is unlikely, and a severely restricted reaction or no reaction at all may be a sign of poor cooping skills, an attempt to deny the impact of the stressor, or to minimize its seriousness. Second, there will be acute manifestations of stress (some purely psychological, other physical, or a combination of both) that must be managed and mitigated. Third, the stressful event may have an impact on the individual’s ability to function in his/her usual occupation, school, or even in carrying out daily routines. Fourth, the stressor may be of such magnitude and effect that short-term psychological or medical treatment may be necessary. Fifth, the best mitigating effects are produced by family support, peer group support and continued interaction in the workplace; isolating is an instinctive reaction when in emotional pain, but it is proven to be counterproductive when dealing with a severe stressor.

In critical incidents or severe stress situations, the first 24-72 hours after the event are the most crucial. It is important to provide to others or seek out for oneself a reduction in the intense reactions to the traumatic event. While it is normal and expected to have a stress reaction, even severe, people should be facilitated in their return to their routine as quickly as feasible. In this respect, re-establishing access to one’s social network prevents isolation and reduces anxiety. In recognizing similarities to others, being understood and supported while in pain, and not being judged or criticized for their reaction, people often are better able to cope with the challenges of troubled times.

Here are 9 ways of managing acute stressors that have been proven to work:

  1. Reaction. Allowing ourselves to have an appropriate reaction that is physical (e.g., crying), psychological (feeling upset), and social (reaching out for help), without much concern for how our grief or sorrow may “damage” our image with others. An attempt to look strong and to show no emotion in the face of a significant stressor may work in the short term, but if the reaction to its impact is not allowed to take place, this may create a situation of chronic stress over time.
  2. First Aid. Psychological “first aid,” education and follow-up are important. Talking to trained peers, chaplains, and/or mental health professionals may be just what is needed in the critical first few days following the incident. Longer term counseling or medical help may be needed to manage any anxiety or mood disorders (such as depression) that could be triggered by the stressor.
  3. Comfort. The basic human needs to be comforted and consoled when in distress and being protected from further threat or distress, as far as is possible, are important. This may mean moving away from the scene of the incident at least for a time. It is not unusual to need and benefit from a few days out of town visiting welcoming family members or very close friends, following a disastrous event or a major personal crisis.
  4. Basic Needs. Immediate care is needed to address any physical necessities caused by the severe incident. In the case of a natural disaster, shelter, food and warmth become critically important and take precedence over psychological interventions.
  5. Reality Testing. Seeking goal orientation and support for specific reality-based tasks (“reinforcing the concrete world”) is important in mitigating the effects of a severe stressor that may make the individual feel like “the world is coming to an end” or “this is too much to even comprehend” and any severe symptoms of derealization or detachment.
  6. Relationships. It is important to facilitate the reunion with loved ones from whom the individual has been separated. If this disruption of relationship occurs, reuniting parent and child, or spouses, or siblings, is critically important. If an immediate reunion is not possible, providing good information as to the loved ones’ whereabouts and health is the next best thing.
  7. Talking. At the earliest opportunity, the telling of the “trauma story” and the expression of feelings as appropriate for the particular individual should be facilitated. Even though not everyone may be willing to go into details as to what happened, at least not right away, providing the earliest opportunity to say what happened and what it means to the person affected is critically important.
  8. Ongoing Support. If the individual seems to be “lost” in the magnitude of the event, linking the person to systems of support and sources of help that will be ongoing is never a bad idea. The key is the continuity of support. For some incidents or severe stressors such as the loss of a loved one, this support may need to continue for weeks and months to come.
  9. Regaining Mastery. Eventually, after all the critical “first aid” interventions have been taken care of, the goal becomes the restoration of some sense of mastery, a regaining of control over one’s life, a new beginning and the ability to deal effectively with the new situation created by the incident. The memory of what happened will most certainly never go away, but its traumatic impact on distress and functioning is meant to fade over time, when new ways of coping have been successfully put in place.

Stress Relief: Taking Charge or Letting Go?

David_Marat Chronic stress can produce a feeling of being overwhelmed. It makes it difficult to shift perspective and see the stressor from a different angle. Rather than seeing stress as a useful signal and address the cause of it, the tendency is to focus on the stress reaction itself as something that can be just pushed away. The results are often the very opposite of what is intended: rather than going away, stress continues as a flashing light on the dashboard that just won’t shut off, while its cause continues to wreak havoc on the mind, the spirit and the body.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Taking responsibility for finding a solution to the stressor is the answer, of course. But how can it be done if all that we can see and feel are the emotional and physical symptoms of the stress reaction? The following are proven ways that can help in shifting perspective from the signal (stress) to its cause, the stressor itself.

Take Charge, List, and Delegate

When I ask general audiences if they can control their stress level to make it work for them, no more than half say they can. If I ask audiences of pilots or neurosurgeons the same question, they all say they can. –Esther M. Sternberg, M.D.

Airline pilots are trained to use the stress response as a useful way to monitor their own behavior. When a pilot flies an airplane through a storm, her heart races, her breath becomes shallow, and her attention is intensely focused on the job at hand. The pilot experiences to the fullest the physiological arousal that defines stress, without necessarily labeling the situation as stressful. Having done this before, the pilot knows what to expect, takes full charge of flying the aircraft and remains in control. On the other hand, the passengers aboard the aircraft may be far more uncomfortable because the plane is bouncing around and there isn’t anything they can do about it. They are stressed, and their racing heart, shallow breath, and intense focus on every bounce and every noise of the plane is coupled with the feeling of being at the mercy of the elements and in the hands of the pilot. Two similar situations, two very different stress reactions. The difference? Being able to take control.

Whenever possible, a shift of perspective can be facilitated by taking charge and exercising a greater control over our choices. When we believe we might be able to control a situation, and step up to try and resolve it, chances are that the very act of acting on it reduces our stress levels. We are finally doing something about it, and it feels good. Have you noticed how the toothache seems to go away, at least to some extent, when we arrive at the dentist’s office? Or our problems take a different, and often less dramatic tinge, when we open up and just talk to someone about them?

Another useful technique for making use of stress signals instead of being overwhelmed by them is to make a list of the stressors that need to be addressed, and front-load it with the ones that can be taken care of quickly. As we check off accomplishments, the feeling of being in control rises and stress begins to ease. It is also useful to take the list a step further and classify each stressor into one of three categories:

  1. Stressors that can be eliminated by making a choice, e.g. taking time off from work, saying no to another request, getting out of a noisy environment.
  2. Stressors that can be reduced or modified, e.g. working on a relationship problem, cutting down on caffeine, lightening the work load.
  3. Stressors that cannot be eliminated or reduced and therefore have to be managed, e.g. working through a loss and the grief caused by it, searching for a job, taking care of our own or a loved one’s illness.

A third technique is delegating, not just to coworkers but also to children, spouse, and friends. This may be difficult, as it appears to contradict the previous suggestion of taking charge of the situation. While taking control is a good stress reliever, it requires moderation and good judgment. One’s anxious need to be in direct personal control of everything at all times, or at least attempting to gain it, can create a stress of its own. Our finite resources of time, energy, and motivation can become exhausted. Anxious control ceases to be a step toward resolving our stressors, and can simply become an attempt to reduce our anxiety about getting everything done. Delegating is the answer.

Accepting That Life Is…Well…Stressful

No one can control everything. A child’s schedule may inevitably conflict with a work deadline. Bad weather may flood the picnic. There are literally thousands of situations when one task interferes with another, is interrupted, must be postponed, or ends up producing unexpected results. Is this because of poor control skills? Sometimes that is the case, but more often than not life is just full of surprising and unexpected turns.

Chronic stress can have a physical impact on the body. Interrupting the sequence of stressful moments with moments of calm and relaxation, i.e. letting go instead of taking control, can lessen that impact. This letting go may at times feel counterintuitive but it produces results. When a series of crushing deadlines looms at work, we can take some time off in between them. A weekend at the beach or the mountains can do wonders for the equilibrium. Distracting oneself with something soothing, such as cooking, knitting, or breaking out the watercolors can bring a smile to our face and a balm to the soul. And if taking off an entire afternoon is just not in the cards, just getting out for a walk can be a powerful stress reliever. Even a short stroll can make a difference.

Top 3 Ways Exercise Can Reduce Stress

Frauenberg at Stresshacker.comExercise is the omnipresent treatment adjunct for physical health. It is a prescription that is hard to escape, as even a routine visit to your physician will attest. But while the virtues of exercise may appear to be self-evident for the body, is there a rational scientific explanation of the mechanisms by which exercise is effective in mental health and well-being, and in particular for stress reduction?

The Research Evidence

Among the most significant evidence linking exercise to an increase in the ability to cope with emotional stress is the Nicholson, Fuhrer, & Marmot (2005) study of 5,449 cardiovascular disease patients, whose results confirmed an earlier study by Pelham, Campagna, Ritvo, & Birnie (1993). Both studies provided evidence that, among patients suffering from physical or psychiatric disorders, exercising increased motivation to be well while decreasing negative mood states.

In a study (Perna, Antoni, et al., 1998) among men and women rowers to verify the effects of a cognitive-behavioral stress management program, exercise was shown to reduce negative mood states and the level of cortisol. The rowers experienced significant reductions in depressed mood, fatigue, and cortisol level when compared to other individuals in the control group.

What Type of Exercise Is Most Beneficial?

When the available evidence is analyzed, no one type of exercise appears to be the “best” for stress reduction. Rather, personal preference and the enjoyment of the physical activity of exercise appear to be the two most important factors for mental health benefits. High-intensity aerobic activity does not appear to be necessary to achieve the mental health benefits of exercise (Doyne, Schambless, & Beutler, 1983; Martinsen, 1993; Blumenthal et al., 2002), unlike exercise prescribed for physical fitness, where aerobic activity and high-exertion for at least twenty minutes appear to be required for optimal results.

What Makes Exercise Effective in Stress Management?

As you might guess, since there is no hard-fast indicator of efficacy as too many individual factors cannot be precisely measured, theories abound as to what exactly makes exercise work in improving mood and reducing stress. Here are the three that are most widely accepted among researchers.

According to the Anesthetic Pain Relief Theory, the vigorous exercise of running, jumping, or weight lifting generates multiple minor traumas to skin, muscles and bones. These micro-traumas trigger the release of the body’s own painkillers, opioid substances such as endorphins and endocannabinoids. In addition to reducing the pain provoked by micro-traumas, these morphine-like substances also generate an unmistakable and very pleasurable sense of well-being (also known as the exercise high).

According to the Stress and Relaxation Hormone Theory, deficiencies in the hormones norepinephrine and serotonin signal the onset of depression. Exercise appears to increase the levels of both hormones, thus restoring their adequate levels and lifting the individual’s mood to correspondingly higher levels.

According to the Rebound Restorative High-Quality Sleep Theory, stress affects the quality and quantity of sleep and is in turn exacerbated by sleep deprivation. With respect to work stress, higher levels of stress at work appear to be closely correlated with sleeplessness at night and sleepiness during daytime (Dahlgren, Kecklund, & Akerstedt, 2005). Exercise has been shown to be very effective in improving the quality of sleep. Thus, exercising appears to indirectly reduce stress by increasing the quality of sleep.

Is Fish Oil a Cure for Chronic Stress?

Paphos_EN-US3975269776Fish oil may be just what the doctor orders in combating the effects of chronic stress. Its ingredients are powerful anti-inflammatory agents. But what does inflammation, which is a response of the body to injury or irritation, have to do with stress and how is fish oil able to neutralize it? Let’s take a closer look.

The principal cause of stress-related illness is inflammation. Inflammation is the rapid and nonspecific response of human organisms to danger, usually caused by a physical pathogen (an insect bite, an open flame, an injury) that attacks the body’s integrity. Inflammation is also triggered, however, in response to a psychological threat. When a stressful event or situation triggers the release of norepinephrine and other hormones during the stress reaction, the immediate mobilization of the body’s defense excites and energizes metabolic, vascular and immune systems. Inflammation is capable of damaging tissues and organs if not controlled. To prevent such damage, anti-inflammatory molecules cortisol, interleukin-10, and growth factor-p are released and suppress the inflammation.

What happens when the stressor persists or is not resolved? When inappropriate, excessive, or long-lasting, the stress response (and the attending inflammation) morphs into chronic stress, which is the underlying cause of many diseases of the heart, lungs, digestive system and muscular structures. Thus, it can be said that the inflammation resulting from continuing stress or inadequate responses to a stressor is the major factor contributing to coronary heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, muscular tension and pain, and many other stress-related illnesses.

The Best Defense Against Chronic Stress

Naturally, the best defense against stress is keeping it from becoming chronic. As long as stressors are resolved, avoided or eliminated as they come up, the body has a remarkable capacity to return to a natural state of relaxation. Addressing relationship issues, problems at work, or health challenges in a timely and effective way is the best remedy against stress. Putting things off or denying their existence is seldom a good choice and often leads to a persistent state of alarm that is the precursor to the more serious consequences of chronic stress.

What about fish oil? Read about new research findings on its anti-inflammatory benefits after the jump.

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Rock-a-bye Baby

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A Lullaby As Effective Stress Management

The repetitive soothing sounds and rhythm of the lullaby have been used for millennia as a natural tranquilizer. Globally, children are gently rocked, lullabies are hummed, nursery rhymes are recited, affectionate sounds are spoken in a lilting fashion—all with the intended purpose of inducing relaxation. Without formal training or explanation, human caregivers are acting out of an intuitive awareness of the soothing effects of such rhythmic activities on the children’s psychophysical state. It works. But what makes it work? What is the basic science behind lullabies and can it be put to use in inducing relaxation in adults?

The rhythmic component of the lullaby may be the most important factor in inducing calm, as its rhythmicity is the single common factor among the vastly different types of lullabies sung or spoken in hundreds of languages and dialects around the world. It is not coincidental that rhythmicity is also the key component of mantra meditation.

What Is Mantra Meditation?

There are two basic types of meditation: concentrative or non-concentrative. Concentrative meditation is based on limiting stimulation by focusing on a single unchanging or repetitive stimulus, such as a word mantra or a candle flame. Non-concentrative meditation techniques, e.g. mindfulness or yoga meditation, seek to expand awareness to include as much mental activity as possible. Of the two approaches, mantra meditation is the easiest to learn and use, the most natural technique, and one of the most effective forms of stress relief capable of producing lasting results.

Mantra meditation, much like a lullaby and acting on the same principle, can rapidly induce a deeply restful state. During mantra meditation, body and mind are beneficially affected. During 20–30 minutes of meditation, oxygen consumption is lowered to a level equivalent to that of 6–7 hours of sleep, and both heart and respiration rates generally show a significant decrease. Psychologically, mantra meditation appears to induce a fluid state of consciousness, with shared characteristics of sleep and wakefulness, and comes closest to the sleep-inducing state than any other meditation technique.

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Do You Know the Answer to These 10 Critical Questions About Stress?

vanGogh_1888_YellowHouseWhat questions come to mind when we think about stress depends on our relationship with it. If we consider stress as our mortal enemy, then our questions will revolve around the fear of its effects, ways of getting rid of it or at least greatly reducing it, and how we can best distract our mind and tame our symptoms. If, on the other hand, we consider stress as our ally, a friend that warns us when something or someone requires our attention by turning on certain body signals, then our questions will be entirely different. They will revolve around ways of using it to our advantage, toward understanding its precious and vital function, and how best to accept and honor its purpose. Here are the 10 most important questions about stress.

10 Questions About Stress

  1. Is stress always bad?
    No, not always. However stress can be bad, even dangerously bad. It starts out in childhood, as we become aware of the world and its dangers. If it is misunderstood, not explained, ignored or abused, stress can grow with us into something to be feared, avoided, to run from. It can become a constant yet unwanted companion, albeit a greatly misunderstood one. A relationship with stress is thus set up that is entirely adversarial. Its power as a warning system and as a motivator is overlooked. Stress is always bad when, in this way, it becomes a disease.
  2. What is the prevalence of stress in humans?
    It is 100%. Every man, woman and child who ever lived, now lives or will ever live experiences stress. This is not because we are cursed with it, but because we are blessed by its helpful action. In the presence of any stressor, real, imagined or impending, our body instinctively mobilizes for action, helping us better protect and defend ourselves, our loved ones, our property and our values. Without it, we would be inert, uncaring, detached and defenseless individuals.
  3. What are the variations and severity of stress?
    There are two kinds of stress: the stress reaction and chronic stress. The stress reaction is the immediate arousal that occurs in the presence of danger; it rises rapidly, peaks, and subsides after a time; afterwards, the mind and body return to their normal relaxed state. The stress reaction can be more or less intense, and more or less prolonged, depending on the severity of the stressor and on its resolution. Chronic stress is simply a persistence of the stress reaction, which continues at or near its peak without return to the normal relaxed state. The severity of chronic stress depends on the stressor that first triggered it and the continuing stressors that maintain it, and on the lack of any real resolution. Chronic stress is what most people refer to when they complain of suffering from stress.

    A day without stress is like, you know, night. –Anonymous

  4. Can chronic stress be prevented?
    Yes, stress can be prevented from becoming chronic, especially in children and young adults. Adults and elderly people have a more difficult time preventing stress from becoming chronic. What is most helpful in prevention is understanding its function and learning to appreciate its value. People who do best are the ones who view a stress-free life not only as the absence of symptoms, but as one that is rich in exercise, balanced nutrition, effective time management, good decision-making skills, appropriate releases of energy and emotion, and strong relationships.
  5. What are the most common stress triggers?
    The most frequent and severe stressors, or stress triggers, are associated with our interpersonal relationships (beginnings, ongoing difficulties, losses) and our physical health. Others that can be very severe but less common are natural disasters, accidents, conflict, or crime. In general, change is a stressor, as are most transitions from one phase of life or age to the next. Work and financial demands are also frequently associated with stress reactions.
  6. Are there ways for parents to reduce the risk of their children developing chronic stress? 
    Yes, through educating themselves about the function, benefits and dangers of stress, and passing this knowledge along to their children. There is no better time to learn about how to accept and make the best use of the stress reaction than in childhood and young adolescence, although it can be learned at any age.
  7. What are the risks associated with stress? 
    The risks associated with stress are minimal if the stress reaction is allowed to occur and take its normal course, and if stressors are addressed and resolved in a timely manner. Chronic stress, however, carries biological, psychological and social consequences. It can result in severe illness, especially to the cardiovascular and immune systems. It can significantly worsen the prognosis of psychological disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder and many others. Lastly, chronic stress can have a significantly adverse impact on relationships, at work and at home, by augmenting the effects of anger, fatigue, or irritability. It can also diminish productivity and lead to poor decision-making.
  8. Can stress be cured? 
    No, the stress reaction cannot be cured because stress itself is not a disease. Stress is a natural and helpful reaction to a danger that mobilizes our defenses. It is impossible to “cure” stress if it means attempting to eliminate it; it would be tantamount to trying to eliminate fear, or joy, or surprise from our lives. On the other hand, chronic stress must be addressed and treated adequately to avoid its most serious consequences to our health, our mind, and our relationships.
  9. What questions should I ask my physician about stress?
    The two most important questions to ask are 1) How seriously has chronic stress affected my physical health (heart, blood pressure, cholesterol, and digestive system being the most vulnerable), and 2) What changes do I need to make to reduce my chronic stress back to a normal stress reaction.
  10. What can I do to reduce my risk of chronic stress?
    There are many different stress management programs available, perhaps even too many to consider them all. Often, lack of success with them prevents their continued application. Often lack of time or motivation are the problem. Often, acute stress itself prevents us from being able to choose an adequate treatment. In many cases, it is advisable to get some external help that facilitates the process. In those cases, a good coach is the ingredient that makes it possible to discover, develop and make the best use of our natural ability to manage stress.