By Dr. Shawna Darou, ND
As most of you know, I am constantly learning, and diving into both research and new understandings of health. This has become an incredible passion of mine over the years, and I am so grateful to truly love what I do every day and to have so many wonderful women to share this with. Lately for my own personal health, and in many directions I am reading – all paths lead to meditation. Now I want to be clear, that when I talk about meditation there is no religious connotation here – this can be added on if you like, but I’m simply talking about bringing your body and mind into a state of relaxation, and mindful attention to your thoughts, and body sensations.
If you remember from my post from last month about high cortisol, living in a state of chronic high stress can lead to many health issues, and the most alarming to me is that chronic high cortisol affects our gene expression, and can ‘turn on’ thousands of disease-causing genes. And yet most of us live in this state of stress all of the time, between demands from work, family, constantly being on with emails, social media, and stress coming from health challenges or inflammation, lack of sleep and more. Knowing, and recognizing our current level of stress is an important first step, but what can we actually do about it practically? Most of us need support and training to learn how to turn off this stress response. And it takes practice,… we are not accustomed to slowing down, to watching our breath and our thoughts, so it can be frustrating if you’re starting out on your own.
In the past months, I have prioritized a daily meditation practice beginning with just 10 minutes per day and gradually extending the duration. I truly believe that having a regular and daily relaxation practice is one of the most important things we can do for better overall health and well-being, and also to age well. It is impossible to escape from the stresses of daily life, and like you my days are packed and busy. Here are the top reason that I am actively studying meditation, and have developed a daily practice:
1) Your body heals in a state of stillness & relaxation
Your autonomic nervous system is divided into two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system produces the body’s stress response, also known as “fight or flight”, and the parasympathetic nervous system produces the body’s relaxation response, and this is known as “relax and digest”. The parasympathetic response is where your body heals, repairs and rebuilds – in fact your body can only repair itself when it’s in a physiological state of rest.
What this means is that the key to activating your body’s self-repair mechanisms is to help the nervous system to relax. This is easier said than done, especially when we live in a culture where the norm is to constantly go at a high pace without rest. This is where a daily and regular relaxation practice comes in – training your body to get into a state of rest and repair, and turning off the stress response.
2) Changing your health requires a change in your state
Now this one may be a little harder to grasp, so please bear with me. When we are constantly in a pattern of doing the same things each day, having the same types of thoughts, the same stresses and worries, the same emotional triggers and the same behaviours, we are going to be in a steady state of health or disease. What this means is that in our current state, we have a certain health outcome, which could be vibrant health, or it could be chronic pain, digestive upset, hormone imbalance, mood disorder, migraines, poor circulation,…
In order to change our health and wellness, we actually need to change our state – which is more than simply making a shift in our behaviour like eating a healthy breakfast. For example, we need to first bring awareness to how we are being: our thoughts, our patterns, our habits, and our emotions. If you are running on automatic, and racing through your to-do list each day, it is unlikely that you will have much awareness of these patterns and ways of being. This is where meditation comes in – to provide the gaps in our automatic responses, habits and thoughts, and to shine a spotlight of awareness on them, with a whole lot of kindness and self-compassion.
The next step to actually change your state is to create a new pattern, and one of the most powerful ones is gratitude. Interestingly, gratitude has been study scientifically to lead to increased life satisfaction, optimism, well-being, and a reduction in depression (1,2,3,4). This combination of increased awareness through meditation, plus a gratitude practice can create the internal environment for real change – in your life, and also in your health. If you are noticing that you’re repeating the same cycles over and over again, meaning the same types of health issues or life events keep showing up, it’s time for a deeper change and a closer look at your patterns.
Where do I start?
The first place to start is to find a relaxation practice that you enjoy – this can be a guided relaxation exercise, a meditation practice, a slow yoga routine or breathing exercises to name a few. Meditation doesn’t always look like sitting still and watching your breath. Here are some resources:
- Apps: Calm, Stop Breathe Think, Headspace, Insight Timer
- Muse meditation headband
- Yoga and meditation on-demand: Yogaglo, Gaia
- Breathing exercises: 4-7-8 breathing; alternate nostril breathing
If you are a beginner, I would suggest starting with a consistent daily 10 minute practice and build from here. If you have meditated or had another regular relaxation practice in the past, the reminder is to bring this back to a consistent practice. We are all faced with so many stresses in a day, it is essential for our health and wellness to regularly activate the relaxation response.
I look forward to your questions and comments, and especially to supporting your relaxation practice.
- Froh F, Sefick, W, Emmons, R. Counting blessings in early adolescents: An experimental study of gratitude and subjective well-being. J Sch Psychol. Apr 2008. 46(2), p213-233.
- Wood A, Joseph S, Maltby J, Gratitude uniquely predicts satisfaction with life: incremental validity above the domains and facets of the five factor model. Per Individ Dif. Jul 2008. 45(1), p49-54
- Lambert N, Fincham F, Stillman T. Gratitude and depressive symptoms: The role of positive reframing and positive emotion. Cogn Emot. Sept 2012. 26(4), p615-633.