An important component of healthy aging in an unhealthy world is the mind-body connection.
This world has many stressors. These include money, time, the challenges of aging relatives, wayward or just really busy teenagers, work responsibilities, and relationships. Just seeing the list can cause stress.
We know there is a strong connection between the mind and immune system, and between anxiety or depression and overall health. Having tools to cope with a stressful world can be lifesaving.
Flight or Fight
The best way to think about the power of stress is to consider the concept of flight or fight.
Our brain is generally organized into three parts—the brain stem for basic functions such as blood pressure, heart rate and temperature, the limbic system for perception and reaction, and the frontal cortex for logical thinking.
The limbic system is like the average teenager "hungry-eat, scared-hide, mad-yell" and the frontal cortex is like the calm adult with smart, organized thinking.
When we are confronted with extreme stress such as a car coming at us, our limbic kicks in to cause the reaction of jumping out of the way—with no time for calm adult-like thinking. It is all about a quick lifesaving reaction. The process to turn off the smart part is called 'cortical deactivation,' meaning we turn off our smart part to act quickly. This process comes in handy for danger, but not in everyday events.
When people have a high level of constant stress, the brain often reverts to living in reaction mode, leaving little time for smart thinking. This leads to having a hard time remembering numbers, learning names, or remembering why you went into a certain room. This constant flight or fight also leads to anxiety, depression, anxiety, and increased risk of heart disease. Chronic stress kills.
In our world, many people live with constant stress and would laugh at the thought of being able to get rid of stress.
It is often not about changing the environment, however, but rather changing how our body reacts to the environment. I believe this is in our control, and a favorite book about this is called The Relaxation Response written by Herbert Benson. Dr. Benson studied how certain people survive better in stressful environments.
The classic example of flight or fight is when someone goes in front of a crowd to give a speech and forgets everything they were going to say. All the information is stored in their brain, but in the moment of stress, the frontal cortex is inactivated, and the words cannot be retrieved.
If the person would have performed a simple grounding activity, such as meditation, and thought of three gratitudes before going to the podium, chances are they would have given the whole speech without as much effort.
The lesson? We can change our reaction to the stressful world and therefore improve our health.
Healthy aging takes all the SEEDS to stay balanced and calm.
We need enough water to not feel jittery or dizzy, enough sleep for good brain function, a diet of complex carbs, protein and healthy fats for good brain function and to not feel hyped up or foggy, and vitamins and minerals for our nerve and brain cells to be firing at the correct times.
The last SEED is also crucial to healthy aging—which is metered breathing and gratitude.
Metered breathing is a way to describe calming breathing in the way which is best for you. I prefer yoga breathing, which is a simple and calm awareness of the feeling of breath through the nose while looking at a spot on the wall. If the brain is moving too fast at first, start with a quiet statement of three gratitudes, or three people or things for which you are profoundly grateful.
It works every time, especially with practice.
A patient I'll call Theresa had too much on her plate—daily worries about paying the bills, working two jobs to make ends meet, living with her two kids at her mom's house after a difficult divorce, and hating that she felt irritable around her kids.
She wondered what she could do. She felt so stressed, and for the time being had to keep going along her current path in life.
I suggested she sit in her car for two minutes after she pulled into the driveway. The first minute should be dedicated to thinking of all for which she was grateful. The second minute was for practicing metered breathing.
She chose to practice this routine, and within a week, she felt able to focus on the important stuff. She started seeing a counselor to understand herself better and gain more coping techniques. She also worked on being better prepared with meal plans to start off the evening right.
Theresa could not immediately change her environment or her situation, but she could change her reaction and perspective. The longer-term result was she gave herself the mental space to think about the big picture and went to school to finish her degree to be able to support her kids on her own.
Starting with simple habits, Theresa changed the future for both herself and her children.
It is possible to have healthy aging in this unhealthy world, starting with small choices every day.
Diana Bitner, MD, NCMP, is board certified in obstetrics and gynecology. She received her medical degree from Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit and completed her residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Dr. Bitner is a certified menopause physician through the North American Menopause Society (NAMS) and was named the 2015 menopause practitioner of the year by NAMS. She has also completed specialized training with the International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH). Her interests include women's wellness, prevention of heart disease, menopause, perimenopause, laparoscopic and robotic pelvic surgery, and pelvic pain. She is also fluent in Portuguese.
This article previously ran on healthbeat.spectrumhealth.org and was republished with permission.