Training your mind to reduce stress (condensed article from Time magazine November 2012)
By changing the way we think, we can take our brains in a different direction. And where the brain goes, the body tends to follow.” Alice Park
As the clutter of thoughts tumbles into consciousness, your physical plant gears up accordingly. Nerve circuits in your brain trip an alarm, letting the rest of your body know that harrying times are ahead. Hormones tip your heart to pump faster. The immune system slows its patrol for invading pathogens that need to be primed for the impending onslaught. Muscles pull in more oxygen, readying for action. Senses go in high alert.
Unchecked, those metabolic changes can cause serious ailments, from high blood pressure to obesity to heart disease. Long-term stress also runs down cells, tissues, and organs, making them degenerate before their time. Clearly, when it comes to your fitness, the brain is as important as diet and exercise, because where it goes, the body tends to follow. They say the mind can triumph over matter. Harness it well, and it can beat back sickness too.
On average, at any given time we are balancing 150 uncompleted tasks and 15 unaccomplished goals. Hence the worrying. An MRI of the brain, attending to these tasks looks very different than one doing routine tasks such as reading. A brain in the process of serially ticking off the upcoming day’s to-do-list activates a particular circuit of neurons and loops in the hypothalamus, pituitary and adrenal glands and triggers the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline, both of which set the body on edge. Like a pebble dropped in the pond, this turned-on circuit then sends tension through the body, pushing a variety of metabolic systems off balance. It’s why your heart races and your hands get damp, why a knot grows in your stomach and your chest tightens.
If you want to learn about stress management and resilience, you need to know about the brain. One mode of the brain is activated when a person focuses on external events or task, like finishing a puzzle, appreciating a painting. The other is the product of internalized thoughts: planning, thinking, and worrying. Those internalized thoughts are where trouble lies.