As I train for this year's pilgrimage to Zion National Park, there are only a few places that present with elevation changes in Illinois. Training weekly around local forest preserves gives the feel of nature and allows my mind to quieting down. When one becomes used to the speed of the Internet, the speed of rush hour tailgaters, the speed of getting taxes done right before deadline-you learn to always do things with speed. It may be good for applying CPR but you can't apply speed to waking up, eating, spending time with loved ones....these activities are meant to be slow so the brain can secrete serotonin. This hormone then bathes the trillions of cells to reset DNA, mitochondria, allow other hormones to cycle on, allow brain tissue to perform abstract thinking, problem solve.....or just fall in love.
Fight or flight hormones are useful for escaping danger. The human hormone feedback loop is well established to start even as an embryo. I remember watching the ultrasound of my son in utero when we had to get a sample of amniotic fluid for testing. We localized where he was floating in mom's bag of water; as the doctor inserted the needle through moms abdomen we could see the needle tip pierce the wall of the uterus and immediately my son moved out of the field of vision on the machine! When Antelope are born on the plains of Africa, within minutes, they can run with the herd if danger is sensed. When a science frog has been pithed (inserting a needle into the brain to destroy higher function) it will still lift a foot up and away when held over a fire. (sounds barbaric but this used to be how physiology class was run in college premed). All this thanks to the reaction of every cell to adrenaline!!!
But this was not meant to see secreted every day of the week. When rats get electrical shocks every day in a cage they tend to ignore the pain and withdraw into a depression like state. When children are abused every day with no hope of a respite in sight; they too withdraw, become zombie like with no emotion and a very altered interaction with the world. A study in the 90's on adult immune diseases went back and found the patients that experience Adverse Childhood Events where at higher risk for triggering disease later. The big buzz word now is inflammation as the trigger for 80% of all the diseases treated in a doctors office.
A little inflammation and stress response is good (think of Robot from Lost in Space- "Warning, Warning!!!" alarming the crew of impending danger), too much inflammation and stress is not conducive to a peaceful life. (think of Dr Smith from the same black and white TV series throwing the crew into turmoil after every challenge).
One really has to practice the relaxation response since it is not part of American culture. Reflection/introspection in it's most popular form used to be practiced when you sat in the corner in silence as an act of penance. Or if you fish, hike, pray......it used to include martial arts and yoga but I see alot of hybrid yoga and mixed martial arts places that just stress the movement and not the philosophy nowadays. Even running is broken down into managing split times, hydrating, powergels, shuffling the ipod....and not just running to lose yourself in the cadence of your foot strikes. I just came back from a 30 minute resistance training routine where the only thing I was thinking was "almost done"....as I worked out like a madman banging my head to Metallica's Fuel. So my argument is even in the activities we do to keep ourselves healthy, we still turn on the stress response.
I was blessed to have experienced the classes of Herb Benson/Harvard, David Simon/The Chopra Center, Andy Weil/AZCIM and of course Deepak. These modern day sages translated true traditional healing into modern day medical terminology. Through hours of learning, I developed my own form of eliciting the relaxation response in myself to help during times dealing with death, sarcastic orthopedic surgeons, the difficulty of starting a private practice......and aging. I am still finding my technique but I feel more in control of my journey now than ever before.
So here I am hiking in Starved Rock, getting ready to ice climb and be one with nature. Just listening to my crampons (steel foot spikes) crunch the ice with every step I take approaching the frozen waterfall puts me into "the zone". I wield my ice axe like a warrior and dig it into the solid mass like a harpoon and develop a swing/strike/pull timing. Axe/axe/crampon/crampon....up we go. Serotonin is flowing, DNA is healing, oxytocin (the love hormone) is bathing my heart and brain! I looked at some pics a stranger had taken and I got pretty high! (I didn't even care) Then it all came to a screeching halt. One of the last crampon kicks I gave with my left foot - kicked off my spikes!!! So here I was "in the zone", high up on a frozen waterfall with only one operating foot. I would normally just say "who cares" and forget the feet using full upper body strength like Tarzan hitting each Axe like a pendulum and work my way down. But my "fight or flight","warning, warning" hormones started to rush out of my adrenal glands and took over every bodily function. Brain started thinking "I am going to fall and impale myself on an axe"; heart started to beat distractingly fast; hands became sweaty in my gloves and gave me a sense of slipping off my axe grips, my remaining crampon/foot could not for the life of me get a good hold in the ice; the viking like swing of the axes became wiffle ball foul tips bouncing off the mammoth ice cube. Well, I paused for a second, laughed at myself and thought "my shoe will do fine"....and with a renewed focus on smooth striking like the beak of a humming bird hit each mark-I stuck my axes and remaining crampon till I returned to ground.
The power of the mind to effectively change the outcome of an event!!! With just me getting down from a frozen waterfall being a chore, think about someone trying to battle cancer, feeling great about the fight and then being told by a trusted specialist-we can't help you, good luck (fight or flight). Versus being bathed by the love and support of a community and beating disease with lifestyle changes (relaxation response)
....if only we could teach meditative breath work in grade school!! Or get medical insurance to cover a week at the Chopra Center!