To me, a stressor is anything, mental, physical, or emotional, which pushes your body a certain way, resulting in a physiological response from the body. Stress can not only increase hormones involved with the stress response, such as cortisol, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and insulin, but can also decrease immunity, increase blood coagulation, increase atherogenesis within blood vessels, and decrease metabolic functioning, particularly of detoxification pathways. These physiological effects can partially, if not fully, explain the leading causes of ill health without our American society today: cardiovascular disease, diabetes mellitus, and cancer. All of these conditions, in my opinion, are preventable diseases through lifestyle modification, dietary changes, physical exercise, and emotional release of negative and toxic thoughts.
Another familiar example of this heightened stress response can be preparing for an important class presentation, let’s say that is worth 75% of your grade, when public speaking has been the main source of your anxiety for about 10 years now. Just the thought of having to present in front of your peers sends your heart rate well above 110 beats per minute, increases cortisol levels so you cannot sleep the night before, and makes you ravenous because there is no glucose in your bloodstream. Although not applicable to each and every student, this is a personal example that I have learned to slowly overcome, mostly through practice and some deep breathing exercises.
During one of our Family Medicine classes, we were instructed to hold a small thermometer in our hands, preferably between our first finger and thumb to get a baseline temperature. My baseline hand temperature was 87°F, one that indicated that I was highly “stressed out,” to say the least. It might be a conditioned response to the room that our classroom was located in, previously being held as a Pathology course, or it might just be my natural state in school. As our instructor, Dr. Anderson, guided us through a meditation that involved detailed imagery and use of all five of our sense organs, I gradually felt my basal hand and body temperature increase from 87, to one that was quite warm. After the 10 minute exercise, and holding the tiny thermometer, I rechecked my hand temperature and it read 101°F. That was a whole 14° difference from beginning to end.
Not only did my hands increase in temperature, but also I felt my inner core and being also increased temperature, which promoted relaxation. At certain points I even felt as if I was not really sitting in the uncomfortable chair that I was, my pain was gone from my low back, and my mind was not racing with all of the tasks that needed to be performed by the end of the day. I was relaxed for the first time that day. This biofeedback phenomenon was something that I did not think was possible being in the classroom that we were. This lesson was one that hit home for me, mostly because I could see a physical change within my mind, my emotions, and my physical body.
Biofeedback and meditation is an integral part of relaxation, and even pain relief. For those of us who are kinesthetic, visual, or auditory learners, this can be something that can be applied to all audiences. It can reduce cortisol pumping out of our adrenal glands, it can increase blood flow to peripheral areas of the body, not just the vital organs of the brain, heart, and lungs, and it can also promote deep breathing to help circulate immune cells and oxygen to all of our tissues. This very explanation brings me to the point of its valuable importance. Relaxation is the opposite of the stress response. It is something that can be practiced, just like riding a bike, although tedious, difficult, and disheartening at times, it can become easier and easier each time performed.
This relaxation technique is something that I would like to not only use more often for myself, but practice with my patients as well. It was apparent to me that through our class exercise, just 10 minutes, or even 5 minutes a day, could make all the difference. We, as Americans, get so hyped up and caught in the spiral of stress within our lives that it can be difficult to set aside 5 minutes a day and practice any type of relaxation technique or meditation, especially when we do not feel relaxed or in the mood to meditate ourselves. Yet, we can see the physical results and enhancement with just a simple hand thermometer. The long term results can be important to our own health, as future busy practitioners, as well as to the health and well being of our patient’s mind, their reduction of stress, and overall physical health of their bodies.