Learning to use mindfulness to calm the nervous system and improve everyday wellbeing.
Being healthy takes practice: regular, daily, conscious, and deliberate practice. It is something that we can train ourselves to do, like playing the piano or driving a car, and the great thing is that if we repeat this healthy behavior regularly, then it becomes part of our subconscious mind, automatic and part of the rest of our life.
Two response systems
When people think of being healthy they will often talk of eating healthily or doing exercise – both important things of course, but they often miss the most important thing, which is to cultivate a healthy environment around all of our 50 trillion cells.
This is where the science of epigenetics comes in and explains how our patterns of thought can affect the health of our cells. Thoughts can trigger basically two hormonal release systems:
The sympathetic response is our evolutionary stress response system designed to help us fight or flight.
The parasympathetic response is our rest-and-digest response designed to provide energy and a strong immune system.
The problem is that our busy modern lives are causing us to trigger our stress response all of the time – when we see our email list, when we are stuck in traffic or even if we forget to do our meditation.
The stress response in daily life
Our stress response systems were only intended to be triggered for a few minutes a day, not from the moment we wake up to when we go to sleep. When we trigger this response, often subconsciously of course, we are causing the release of chemicals including cortisol that have the effect of shutting down the immune system, stopping digestion and preventing new brains cells from being made.
From an evolutionary perspective, there was no point wasting energy fighting a bacterial infection or digesting some food if you were just about to be eaten by a sabre tooth tiger. Instead all energy was diverted to the major limbs to fight or flee. But if our thoughts are triggering this response all the time then our cells are living constantly in an unhealthy state, and thus more likely to allow in degenerative disease or illness.
So how do you stop this happening? This all comes down to mindfulness practice. If you are being mindful, and if you have trained yourself to notice how you are responding to stimuli then you can ‘catch yourself’ triggering your sympathetic stress response system and do something about it.
Training yourself to be able to deliberately illicit a parasympathetic response takes regular practice, particularly to be able to do it at times of stress or pressure, but it is not hard and anyone can do it.
Mindfulness meditation teaches us to bring awareness to the present moment inner activity of our minds and bodies so that we can fully experience our thoughts, sensations, emotions and automatic responses as they are happening.
Through this awareness we can start to notice unhealthy patterns, negative repetitive thoughts, the triggering of the stress response or powerful emotions and begin to train ourselves to make conscious responses rather than subconscious reactions.
It doesn’t really matter what you do, as long as you have some kind of personal practice. This is where you consciously practise inhabiting your body, mind, thoughts, sensations and emotions for a short period of time each day so that you are tuned into them. This is where you practise smooth, steady movements and breathing practices to calm the mind and the nervous system.
It might only be 10-15 minutes a day, but without this deliberate formal practice it will be almost impossible to prevent triggering your stress response once you get lost in the hustle and bustle of each busy day.
If you want to be healthy you must practise being healthy. Practice really does make perfect.