Think about the last time you had a moment of silence. More importantly, when was the last time you focused on just letting go of all your worries, concerns, thoughts or ideas, just for a moment?
For many of us, it is hard to even imagine taking 15 minutes out of our busy schedules and do NOTHING! Time has become our enemy it seems where efficiency is the only way to combat its threats. Everything we do from our personal lives to what we do at work, we strive to do things quicker, faster, and more efficiently. I will argue that this is in itself harming and possibly increasing illness in our society.
A little physiology
Our body has an accelerator and a braking mechanism to maintain a sense of balance. The sympathetic nervous system is the "pedal to the metal" response. Picture being in Chicago or New York traffic and being late for a job interview...yikes! Our muscles tense up, our heart races, we breath faster, our eyes are wide open looking for that tiny space that will allow us to pass the long line of cars ahead.
The parasympathetic nervous system is the relaxed state. Picture how you feel after you eat a nice meal. You sit back, maybe kick up your feet, and admire the feast you just annihilated. This is where your heart rate slows down, respiration slows down, and the muscles relax.
The reality is, we all live in the sympathetic nervous system for the most part. When the heart races and muscles tense under the influence of this system, the heart recognizes that it needs to increase cardiac output to meet the demand of our goal of doing tasks quickly. Thus, in order to increase the cardiac output, heart rate rises and stroke volume rises, our arteries clamp down to increase the pressure to deliver more blood to our muscles (picture watering your plants with an open hose and placing your thumb to increase the pressure).
Over time, the higher pressures and faster heart rates cause cardiac damage and may lead to inflammation. This process causes damage inside the arteries and can lead to heart attacks and strokes. Moreover, our kidneys can go into failure.
Sounds bad, so what can we do to help slow us down?
Believe it or not, the answer came to us more than 2500 years ago. It is simple, cost effective, requires no high-tech machines, nor does it really take much space. Meditate. It's that simple. No, no, it doesn't mean you have to sit on the ground and make funny noises, nor does it mean you have to shave your head and wear orange.
We all meditate in some way. When we close our eyes, take a deep breath, talk to ourselves as we think through things, or pray - we are meditating. Mindfulness is the practice of focusing on our deeper thoughts, getting rid of maladaptive thoughts, and letting go of our stressors in a systematic manner. Several studies have shown people who meditate for 10-15 minutes have more job satisfaction, better sleep hygiene, see benefits in pathologies like generalized anxiety disorder, depression, PTSD, reduction in inflammatory markers, and ADHD.
In fact, the more we meditate, the more our brain is able to generate more branches and communications (called Neuroplasticity). There is evidence that meditation triggers the limbic system, frontal cortex, and brainstem as it allows our heart rate to slow down, respiration to slow down, and eases our muscle tone. It is truly a whole brain workout! In fact, brain fitness is being recognized as an important factor in preventing dementia. Brain thickness is increased with learning and physical activity.
Consider starting your day or ending your day with silence and meditation. It is a great way to either start your day or end your day and help your body get ready for restful sleep.
To a healthy life,
"He who studies medicine without books sails an uncharted sea, but he who studies medicine without patients does not go to sea at all."