Without inner peace, it is impossible to have world peace.”The Dalai Lama
It wasn’t until the 1960′s that people began to realize that the cornerstone of Hippocratic medicine involved a deep connection between mind and body.
Everyone knew from personal experience that embarrassment can produce a blush; fear, a fast heart rate; anxiety, and a need to urinate.
The information to substantiate the connection was available in the physiology courses of the time yet our eyes seemed to slide over the forest of its meaning as we rushed to identify and master trees of cardiovascular dynamics, pulmonary gas exchange and kidney filtration.
Canadian Hans Selye defined stress as “the nonspecific response of the body to any demand”.
It took many more years for us to really consider and attempt to develop a unified picture of the mind and body, and the power of the mind to affect the body.
Walter Bradford Cannon, a professor of physiology at Harvard at the time, had observed that during the fight-or-flight response, animals have an increase in heart rate and respiratory rate; greater muscular tension; coldness and sweatiness; a decrease in intestinal activity; and dilation, or increase in the size, of the pupils of their eyes. All these are manifestations of activity on the part of the sympathetic nervous system, one of the branches of the autonomic (“beyond our control”, as opposed to voluntary) nervous systems.
By the 1970′s, researchers were beginning to suggest that the fight-or-flight response might account for a variety of disease states. The angry, time-obsessed, hypertension-and-heart-attack-prone type A executive, described by cardiologists Meyer Friedman and Ray Rosenman, was the prime example. Feeling unable to fight or flee-he might lose his job or status either way- hoping things would get better, toughing it out, he was in a chronic state of anxious readiness.
The two researchers said that in time, this produced a steady state of hypertension and physical damage, most significantly in the arteries and heart. On a similar note, Selye found that a physiological correlation was being observed between early or ongoing emotional trauma-the loss of a parent, for example, or death of a spouse, or chronic tension at home-and an increased incidence of cancer, depression, and other chronic illnesses. The immune response was being lowered in those with chronic stress.
Maybe then, if we could work with the parasympathetic nervous system, and try and activate it rather than the sympathetic nervous system which was causing all of these outward signs of stress, we would see the opposite effect on our body. After all, these two autonomic nervous systems do typically function in opposition to each other. If it’s “beyond our control” though, how do we fight the fight-or-flight response? How do we enjoy inner peace?
The parasympathetic nervous system is often described as “rest and digest”. It:
- intestinal motility
- fuel storage (increases insulin activity)
- resistance to infection
- rest and recuperation
- circulation to non-vital organs, (skin,extremities…)
- endorphins, the “feel good” hormones
- heart rate
- blood pressure
As it turns out, Neil Miller first suggested that the autonomic nervous system could be susceptible to training as the voluntary nervous system, that we might learn to control our heart rate and our bowel contractions just as we learned to walk or play ice hockey. At the time (1961) this was considered scientific heresy. Miller persisted. He later proved that if he simply offered a perceptible recording of autonomic behavior-sounding a high pitched tone, for example, until elevated blood pressure decreased or cold hands warmed- people would be able to use this information to correct their internal functioning.
Miller later demonstrated the technique in dogs and then in rats, teaching them to salivate both more or less, and to raise or lower their heart rate. It became known as biofeedback. A quick demonstration of the immediate effect of an image on your autonomic nervous system: close your eyes and imagine that you are sucking on a glistening yellow wedge of lemon. Within seconds most people will feel their salivary juices flowing.
With that said, it is within our grasp to activate the parasympathetic nervous system at will and make use of its calming effects. I had a great conversation with a doctor once who told me that by simply practicing a certain breathing technique that I could lower my anxiety level, slow my heart rate and reclaim my racing mind to achieve personal peace. I have written about this before because in my mind it is more powerful than any pill or pharmaceutical remedy in the world for creating inner peace of mind.
Diaphragmatic breathing, abdominal breathing, belly breathing, deep breathing or costal breathing is the act of breathing deep into one’s lungs by flexing one’s diaphragm rather than breathing shallowly by flexing one’s rib cage. This deep breathing is marked by expansion of the abdomen rather than the chest when breathing.
When I first practiced I would put my palm flat on my chest to make sure it wasn’t puffing out, but that my stomach was doing the puffing. It is generally considered a healthier and fuller way to ingest oxygen, and is often used as a therapy for hyperventilation, anxiety disorders and stuttering.
A common diaphragmatic breathing exercise is as follows: Sit or lie comfortably, with loose garments.Put one hand on your chest and one on your stomach.Slowly inhale through your nose or through pursed lips (to slow down the intake of breath).As you inhale, feel your stomach expand with your hand.Slowly exhale through pursed lips to regulate the release of air.Rest and repeat.
By doing little things like this we start to realize our inner conflicts are not eternal. Armed with this technique we can recharge and take part in the physical world around us. Personal inner peace generates energy. That increase in energy from focusing on our inner self is a giant step toward holistic wellness.
Once we realize that we do have power over our physical bodily functions through cognitive behavior, we can use it to our advantage to create and achieve personal peace and spiritual wellness. Be conscious of your thoughts and how they affect your body physically. If you don’t like the reaction, use that personal biofeedback and change the way you frame your thoughts.