25 August 2010

Stress, Relaxation and Visualization

Yesterday I listened to the Diane Rhem Show (National Public Radio) because her guest from 11am to 12pm was Herbert Benson, the physician who, 35 years ago, wrote "The Relaxation Response"  (available on Amazon).  His new book, "Relaxation Revolution: Enhancing Your Personal Health Through the Science and Genetics of Mind Body Healing" was the subject of their discussion.

In earlier posts (27 and 30 July), I have described how I use the relaxation response and meditation as tools in pain management.  What is interesting about Dr. Benson's new book is that in it he takes the process one step further into visualization.  I do not have the book and so cannot write in depth, but found the interview interesting and potentially helpful enough that I decided to write about it today.  After I have read the book I will blog about it.

Dr. Benson has found that the effects of practicing the relaxation response can be enhanced  by a second step - visualization.  As I understood him during his interview with Ms. Rehm, it's a simple two-step process: 10 minutes evoking the relaxation response, then ten minutes visualizing by remembering (this is key) a time when you were living free of your current illness.  He emphasized that imagined visualization of the sort atheletes do - visualizing their performance in an up-coming race or event - is not what he studied: remembered visualization is essential to the process as he has developed and studied it.

Dr. Benson cited medical, scientific studies that prove the beneficial effects of this process.  And I, myself, have attested to the changes I have experienced as a result of practicing the relaxation response.  So I am in a position to believe him and to welcome his further studies.  I have long believed that our society in general and the medical establishment in particular ignore the mind-body-spirit connection.

Another important point is that the presence of stress in our lives is, to some extent, either causing or exacerbating our symptoms.  My migraines are worse when I am upset or angry, and I have learned that an emotionally explosive reaction can actually start a migraine.  Dr. Benson spoke of other illnesses, such as Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and diabetes, the symptoms of which are worsened by the way stress affects us physically.

What I recall Dr. Benson saying (this is a layperson's interpretation) is that if you have a memory of feeling well and can call it up while relaxed and quiet, you can effect changes in your brain:
* Neuro pathways are created in response to pain, and brain function habituates to them.  A good example  of this is the phenomonon of the "phantom limb" - the sensation of pain or feeling in a limb that has been amputated.
* You can create new neuro pathways by visualizing a time when you were not ill or in pain, thus training your brain to function differently.
* Stress enters in as a constant reality in our lives, and as embodied in the way we respond to it.  The adrenalin and other chemicals released automatically in response to stress (which can be a sudden, loud noise, a difficult conversation, pain, a change in routine, etc) provoke the "flight or fight" response that is automatic.  What does not have to be automatic is how we handle the fact of stress in our lives. 
* This two-step process is only effective to the extent that stress is a part of our symptoms.  Dr. Benson is NOT saying that all we have to do is visualize being well and we will be healed.  What he is saying is to the extent that stress and our response to it is making our illness or symptoms worse, we can change that effect by using this process.

Again, the disclaimer - I am not pretending to be an expert in this subject having listened to a one-hour radio program.  For now, I am reporting from my memory of the interview, and will go into more depth and detail after reading the book.

It strikes me that mental health is positively affected also, and Dr. Benson spoke of the depression that accompanies chronic illness.  But I am certain that relaxation and meditation made a huge difference for me in changing a genetic disposition to anxiety and mild depression: along with medication, of which I am now taking a greatly reduced dose (and that mainly because it controls one of the migraine symptoms), the daily practice of quieting my mind and body for prayer and meditation had an enormously positive effect on my chronic anxiety.  Having listened to Dr. Benson yesterday, I now see that these practices worked to change the neuro pathways in my brain, with the result that my habitual response to stress is diametrically different than what it was my whole adult life.

More on this later!

I would love to hear from you.  Click on COMMENT , below, or email me at carold.marsh@gmail.com.

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