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Reflection June 24, 2018
"Mindfulness and Stress Reduction" by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
On Wednesday, June 13, I spent the day at a workshop on mindfulness and stress
reduction. I must occasionally attend these workshops in order to keep my License as a
Professional Counselor (State of Illinois). In this week’s Advance, I’d like to present
some of what I learned.
Under chronic stress (which probably includes the majority of us), we begin to lose
awareness of what’s actually happening in our bodies. Whether our reaction is the
“fight” response (angry combative response) or the “flight” response (the fearful-
avoidance response), any acute stress reaction prepares one for immediate action by
producing an estimated 1,400 physiological and biochemical reactions.
Under stress, our immune system is weakened and we become more susceptible to
infection from germs, viruses, and toxic substances. It’s hard to underestimate the
difficulties we encounter if we don’t deal with chronic stress.
Immediate stress - because of a crisis or danger of some sort - doesn’t do as much
damage to our bodies as the on-going, never-ending stress induced by our workaholic,
busy-busy, ordinary existence.
When anyone is under stress for a length of time, aggressive behavior rises. This is
especially true for males. With the extended release of the stress hormone cortisol, the
deep brain structure, the amygdala, may become hyperactive, leading to a very short
fuse in terms of temper. (The amygdala is the source of the famous “fight-or-flight”
Cortisol also impairs functioning of the frontal lobes which can result in a loss of
impulse and emotional control, which is never a good thing! Cortisol suppresses the
immune system, increases blood sugar, increases blood pressure, decreases sensitivity
to pain, and decreases serotonin (a neurotransmitter that is vital to feelings of wellness
… a decrease in serotonin can lead to clinical depression and a host of psychological
and physiological problems. I touched on the role of serotonin in my sermon of June 10
… “Be Strong”.)
But just believing that stress is bad for you - may be responsible for over 20,000
deaths a year in our country. If you think stress is “killing” you - it just might! And we
need to keep in mind that stress has both a good side and a bad side.
Stress can be helpful in many situations. Feeling stressed before an exam can lead
one to a heightened memory and increased attention. The stress reaction can help
make us more social, more brave, and smarter, as long as we use our body’s stress
response rather than becoming dominated by it. It’s a matter of “riding the tiger” instead
of being eaten by it.
Unfortunately, men, in general, exhibit more maladaptive responses to chronic
stress, including aggression, social withdrawal, and substance abuse, especially
alcoholism. (The main male sex hormone, testosterone, suppresses the release of
oxytocin, a hormone that helps increase social bonding and is more active in women
because of the presence of the main female sex hormone, estrogen, at least until
Females often “tend and befriend” in response to stress whereas males have a
much-stronger “fight” response (until menopause - when females must deal with a
greater presence of testosterone because of declining estrogen).
Often in our brutal work environments, our brains can become hijacked by stress.
We can become “addicted” to the flood of adrenaline and dopamine that occurs
whenever we “fight” (argue) and “win.” We can easily become addicted to being “right.”
If we become addicted to being “right” then whenever we find ourselves in a tense,
stressful situation, we’ll fight again. This behavior is wide-spread in our workplaces (and
also in many of our families). It’s probably healthy and helpful to occasionally “lose” an
argument --- maybe even intentionally!
People suffering from stress-related disorders tend to show hyperactivity is one of
the following body systems: skeleto-muscular (leading to neck and back troubles as well
as headaches), cardiovascular (leading to elevated pulse rate, heart palpitations, and
tightening of the chest muscles), or gastrointestinal (leading to a “queasy“ stomach and
Mindfulness is becoming consciously aware of what is happening inside us and
around us in the present moment. Mindfulness helps us accept what is happening
without judging right or wrong, good or bad.
Mindfulness is deeply connected to how we eat. We tend to eat thusly: gobble, gulp,
and go. (This is how “fast food” restaurants want us to eat!)
Here are some helps to mindful eating: 1) plate your food whenever possible so that
even “take home” food looks more like a meal; 2) take smaller portions…whenever
possible serve yourself a portion that will leave you three-fourths full (your body
hormonal cues to being “full“ are slow acting); 3) slow your mouth, slow your mind…
frenzied eating creates anxiety and draws attention away from enjoying your food; 4)
chew food carefully…it allows the nutrients to be more fully absorbed and helps you feel
“full” quicker; 5) minds can be hungry as well as bodies…feed your minds with deep
breathing, with prayer, with reflection. When one eats too fast, one eats too much!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor