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Stress Management & Mindfulness Meditation in Context of Medical Research


Knowledge · Communications · Health Services · Security · Person Centered Care


How to stay Healthy and Happy! · Living longer and happier.
Techniques to deal with stress / related medical research


by:  Quentin Reilly, MD, Specialist Medical Officer
Manus Island / Australia (circa 2002)

Introduction: "Stress is related to mind states and psychological attitude and also has a number of bodily effects." This article summarizes medical studies on stress factors and a technique to deal with it -- to live a healthy, happier and probably longer life. [n.b. article republished with permission of Dr. Reilly and ManusIsland.com]

Today there is an alarming rate of death in middle aged Papua New Guineans who take on executive type of jobs in Government and commerce.  Most of these are caused by heart attacks.

Stress is a common factor in these deaths - stress of the work, stress of looking after a family with increasing cost of living, and the stress of living in an insecure place.  People have emphasised the importance of exercise and diet but emotions and feelings also greatly affect health.[emphasis added]  The well being of mind and body are closely interlinked.  Much of the recent medical research on this relationship has been done in America.

In the book Healing Emotions (Shambala Publications) Neuroscientist Francisco Varela presents a lot of information, some of which is given below:

In the University of North Carolina researchers found that a chronically angry person was one and a half times more likely to die over a 25 year period than one who was not always angry.

Harvard Medical School researchers showed that anger was the most common emotion two hours before a bad heart attack.  At Stanford and Yale Medical Schools it was shown that those who had heart attacks and were most easily roused to anger were two to three times more likely that other patients to die of another heart attack over the following ten years.

Depression has been shown to slow the recovery from illness and patients with breast cancer and who were depressed were shown to have fewer natural killer cells to fight the cancer and the cancer spread more quickly.  At the Harvard Medical School it was shown that after the first heart attack, one in eight who were seriously depressed afterwards were five time more likely to die than those with no depression.

Ohio State University found that medical students studying for major exams and were stressed had a drop on protective T and B cell levels and had more cold and flu's.

At Carnegie and Mellon Universities, volunteers were exposed to cold viruses and found that 27% of those suffering from little stress got the cold, whereas 47% of those with high levels of stress got sick.

At the University of California 100 studies were analysed and it was shown that people who tended to be unusually hostile and angry, very anxious, sad, pessimistic or tense had double the risk of getting serious illness, including asthma, chronic headaches, stomach ulcers, heart disease and arthritis.

Repression, or denial, of feeling tense when actually tense or agitated were shown by Harvard University researchers to be more susceptible to diseases like asthma, high blood pressure and colds.

Ohio State University researchers found that medical students who meditate every day had an increase in pro-active T cells, and the more often and more consistently they meditated, the stronger was the effect.

At Harvard it was found in a 25 year study that being optimistic kept you more healthy than if you are pessimistic.  Being friendly also was found to help. Those medical students who felt most lonely had the fewest natural killer cells during their exams.  At the University of California it was found that over nine years people with very few friends were twice as likely to have died that those who had many.

Harvard University researchers showed that doing loving kindness meditation increased the number of T cells circulating for a long time and strengthened the whole immune system.

Stress is related to mind states and psychological attitude and also has a number of bodily effects. The brain has been found to respond to stress very consistently and systematically by producing hormones such as glucocorticoids.  These hormones are released into the bloodstream or directly into the lymphatic system. The hormones combine with receptors on the surface of lymphocytes (one type of circulating white blood cells), either suppressing them or activating them.  As the changes occur in the immune system, the lymphocytes also produce hormones and other messengers known as immuno-transmitters.  These molecules, in turn, directly affect specific neurones in the limbic system of the brain, so the link works in two directions.

The autonomic nervous system, which is concerned with control of bodily functions such as regulation of glands or the contractions of the muscles of the gut, also innervate bone marrow where blood cells grow.  The autonomic nervous system grows directly into the bone marrow and can regulate the type and number of T-cells produced there.  The innervation of the bone marrow produces changes in the configuration of the immune system, which causes the production of transmitters that effect changes in the brain.

Chronic stress results in a dys-regulation or imbalance in the functioning of the autonomic nervous system and their cells become hyperactive and respond with very little provocation. This also causes dys-regulation in muscle tension and imbalances in blood flow patterns. This can contribute to the development of illnesses like asthma, certain types of headaches, irritable bowel syndrome.  People can cope with stress healthily or unhealthily.  A healthy response includes taking an active approach to solve the problem so it does not seem to be a problem anymore or dealing with the emotions that come up in a stressful situation by talking with, or being in contact with others.  Unhealthy coping includes denying or repressing the problem or just wishing the problems would go away or blaming or numbing.  Numbing is when people lose ability to be aware of feeling as a result of extreme psychological trauma such as abuse.

Mindfulness meditation helps a person to learn to have an open accepting attitude towards whatever arises in one's mind, while watching the movements of the mind. It is thus very useful for stress reduction.  Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn uses mindfulness meditation in the famous stress reduction and relaxation clinic in the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre.  He claims a 45% improvement in medical as well as psychological diseases through meditation training at his centre.  This includes heart disease, high blood pressure and digestive problems.  A review of patients four years after undertaking the eight week program also showed that they felt more complete and more connected and better able to cope with pain and problems.  He has also developed an course for medical students.  His book Full Catastrophe Living is written in such a way as to allow each reader to develop their own stress management program and provides easy to follow meditation techniques, many success stories and research findings.

Mindfulness meditation is a technique all of us can learn and is basically learning to watch what is going on in the mind and body.  It is developed by improving concentration.  Usually our breathing is used as the object of meditation.  The breath is used as it is something that is always with us and is something we can use at any time to assist us.  For instance if we feel a sudden bout of anger, turning our attention to the breath can allow us to watch the changes in our mind and body caused by the anger and we can let go of the anger so that it does not do any more damage. 

Learning to concentrate better helps us to become more efficient and perform better.  For example, after one day of introductory meditation training I took in Lorengau, some students from the vocational school returned the next day to inform me that they found they could do their homework much more quickly and better!

If you want to learn how to meditate you have to find a quiet place and time to start to practice.  You need a place where you will not be disturbed. You could do the practice in a room with others when they are all asleep, for example, or go to a room by yourself.  In meditation you are not trying to learn something new from outside, as you would by reading a book or listening to someone talking, but you are learning to see how things exist and work inside yourself - your body and mind.

To start with you should sit comfortably in a position where you are stable, with your back straight.  Sitting cross-legged is good but you can also use a chair if you wish.  You should then practice watching your breath coming in and going out, noting whether it is a short or a long breath, whether fast or slow and how it changes over a few minutes.  You should do this by concentrating on a point just inside your nose where you can feel the air moving.  Concentrate on this point and allow  your body to relax, but keep your back straight.  Just keep watching your breath coming and going and do not take any notice of any other thought that comes into you mind.  Just keep your mind on the point in your nose.  When you can really concentrate on this point for half a minute or so without having any thought disturb your concentration, you can start to observe your thoughts and feeling more closely and see how they come and go.   When anger or a disturbing emotion arises, you can just sit back and watch it and let it go. It only stays because you hold on to it!  Do not hang on to such emotions and allow them to harm you and others.  Just let them go.

It sound easy to do but in fact it is quite hard to watch your breath for half a minute and not be distracted!  We are also in the habit of holding on to our disturbing emotions, but if we can really see the harm they do to us then we would quickly let them go.  This appreciation come with practice.

It is really worth the effort and meditation practiced properly and regularly can really make you more healthy and happy.

There are some booklets in Tok Pisin available if you want to learn more.  One is called the Liklik Buk bilong Meditation.  For more information about these you could contact the

Director,
Centre for Public Health,
PO Box 5623, Boroko,

or

Health Manager,
Provincial Health Office,
Box 37 Lorengau, Manus Province,

or

email me at quentin@netpac.com and I can send them to you by email.

Quentin Reilly, Specialist Medical Officer © 2002


******************


Quentin Reilly, author of the above report is a content contributor, i.e.. photos and articles, to ManusIsland.comIn the 1970's Quentin worked as the medical officer for Manus and has since then formed attachments with the people of Manus.  As a health consultant he has visited many Pacific islands and South East Asian countries over the past 30 years, and volunteers energy and resources in helping people at the grass-roots level to better develop their own resources.

Dr. Reilly is also a contributor to OnWellness.info where this article is republished, June 2004.


N.B. the mention of different web sites above in no way implies their endorsement of this web site -- nor does it imply the publishers of this web site formally supporting the sites mentioned above.
- Y.Orosa, social work & music therapy consultant for OnWellness.info 040522



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OnWellness Inc. Vancouver, BC
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2004.05.19



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The photo collage-banner at the top of this page is intended to give viewers an idea of the conceptualization behind this web project.  The concepts of "health and wellness / well-being" include KNOWLEDGE, having access to reference information; COMMUNICATION, through various medium (as in music therapy); and SECURITY, the sense of safety provided by social-political structures and systems to help experience one's well-being e.g. private and public personal-care / long term care facilities.

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