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Stress: Give Your Brain a Fighting Chance!

Based upon Dr. Bruce McEwen’s Herzberg Lecture “The Brain on Stress: Novel Epigenetic Mechanisms of Brain Plasticity”, delivered at Carleton University 19 November 2015

Your body is an adaptive organism. It adjusts to the environment it finds itself in. When that environment includes significant amounts of stress, dozens of important biological changes take place, changes that impact your ability to live your life.

The first, most important thing to understand is that scientists at the cutting edge of this research are nowhere close to having all of the body’s responses to stress mapped out. But many of the most interesting responses have to do with the brain.

The Brain Changes

In people experiencing prolonged stress, the hippocampus, the region of your brain most directly responsible for processing stress, shrinks dramatically. You’d almost think that was good news. The problem is, the same mechanism that gets you worked up about stressful situations is the mechanism that helps stimulate you in general. The more stress, the less you can actually motivate yourself.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the same neurotransmitter chemicals that are released in response to stress are very important in terms of epigenetics- they help to determine which of your genes get expressed in any given cell at any given time. For the brain, this means that cells begin to produce excess free radicals- molecules that are normally part of your body’s immune system but which lead to cell death if they build up.

With prolonged stress, the dendritic connections in that part of your brain, the neural pathways that you depend on to function properly, recede and begin to break down. The only new pathways being formed under chronic stress are ones that are impacted by the imbalanced neurochemical environment created by that stress- in other words, you’re learning how to be stressed.

These reactions are the sort of thing designed to help us survive periods of scarcity- in fact, in some ways they look a lot like the reaction of a hibernating brain. Unfortunately, since most of our stress is human-created rather than anything to do with danger or absolute scarcity, these responses don’t help us much.

Another side-effect of chronic stress is that your circadian rhythm becomes disrupted, usually resulting in insomnia. This in turn reduces your ability to process stress.

The Brain Grows Back

Two definite factors that quickly and reliably reverse the epigenetic process, change the neurochemical balance and help your brain regenerate to a normal state are regular exercise- even studies which involved senior citizens in low-impact exercise for an hour a day over a period of time found vast improvement- and intense learning. Mindfulness meditation has also shown promise, as has a reduced diet. But by far the most powerful positive impact comes from a sense of meaning and purpose in life, combined with social integration.

On the other hand, there are a number of factors known to increase neural impairment over the course of a lifetime. These include a lack of intellectual stimulation, a chaotic or unsupportive/distant home life and lack of exercise in childhood.

For more on the benefits of meditation for stress, check out the TEDx talk below:

Trauma

Sudden traumatic events produce a different impact than chronic stress. In this case, the problem, especially the first time around, is that you may not have the capacity to produce enough of the right neurotransmitter to fully process the stress. When this happens, your body will tend to overcorrect, and after about ten days your brain will be fully keyed in to respond to that kind of stress. That’s why one experimental intervention for post-traumatic stress involves injecting glucocorticoids, the neurotransmitter in question, within a short time after a major trauma, to let the victims physiologically process what happened to them.

PTS after a single major incident, therefore, may have a lot to do with not being able to respond to it at the time. Repeated traumas act differently, acting on the amygdala, the part of your brain that helps you control stress. As a result, you begin to respond to different levels of stressor with the same intensity your body has learned to bring to life-or-death situations.

Finding a Way Forward

When we look at the many responses of the brain to its environment, and add to that the wider context of epigenetic change and the sophisticated system of brain-body interaction that leads to the emotional and biochemical state called Survival Mode, we risk getting lost in a system of baffling complexity. At the same time, the options we have for usefully addressing chronic stress may seem both too many and insufficient to the task.

And that is so. If you’ve lived years with chronic stress or anxiety, you will not conquer it by making minor adjustments to your lifestyle. An active mind, exercise, meditation, these are all useful tools, but none of them can replace having a sense of meaning and purpose in your life.

Stress and the Warrior

A blog post is no place to cover what could fill a book! Suffice to say that for the true practitioner of Warriorship, the ultimate “anti-stress weapon” is simply mind-body integration. Sadly, few people ever realize this consciously, even if they dabble in practices that promote this integration, like that Yoga class at your local fitness center or the Tai Chi class nearest you. The catch is this…

Can you find a way to assimilate the small tastes of mind-body integration you get in classes like those into every moment of your life, as you go through your day? When you can do this, your TAO will reveal itself to you and you will be a true Warrior who understands the magic of life.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Heart Disease: The Real Risk Factors

Cardiovascular disease in all its forms remains a major killer in the modern world, and a painful reality for many people who have to live with it. But new research is changing old views about the risk factors.

 

 

Dr. Thomas Cowen began researching Acute Coronary Syndrome- the constellation of symptoms from angina through heart attack- when he came across the research of Brazilian cardiologist Quintilaino H. de Mesquita.

Cholesterol Did It

The classical theory of what causes heart attack, simply put, is the buildup of plaque in the arteries. The heart gets into trouble because we ingest too much cholesterol, which clogs our arteries, meaning that the heart doesn’t get enough blood. As theories go, it’s attractive for its simplicity. We know that our arteries can get clogged. Anyone can find pictures of hearts with all sorts of calcification or other crap on them. Of course, most of what blocks our arteries is inflammatory debris, not cholesterol, but still, they get blocked.

…Or Was It Something Else?

What this research, and a raft of separate studies over the past fifty years, has shown, is that blocked arteries seem to have very little real correlation to heart attack. A 1998 paper by Mirakami, for example, showed that 30% of heart attack patients had no arterial blockage. A twenty-five year autopsy study of heart attack victims further found that only about sixteen percent of those who died immediately had enough arterial blockage to explain the heart attack.

So what’s happening the rest of the time? Well, a number of distinguished cardiologists over the years have acknowledged that heart attacks originate in the muscle of the heart, not the arteries. The body automatically begins to reroute blood flow in the event an artery is blocked. What Mesquita’s research showed was that factors such as stress, nutritional deficiency, diabetes and so on affect the small blood vessels in the heart muscle itself, starving these cells of the nutrients they need. Because the heart is always active, these cells revert to anaerobic energy sources, which produce lactic acid buildup- just as your leg muscles do during a run. Your leg muscles, however, can stop and recover. Your heart can’t. Cells begin to die, and the debris they leave behind blocks arteries- hence, the blocked arteries are a complication, not a cause.

Treatments which take this research into account focus on helping the small blood vessels of the heart and preventing lactic acid buildup. Of course, traditional medicines have done the same thing with cardiotonics like digitalis for centuries. Digitalis, an extract of the foxglove plant, is a parallel to a hormone made by our own adrenal glands… out of cholesterol. Dr. Mesquita’s clinical data show significant improvements in life expectancy and decrease in recurrent heart attacks with the use of low-dosage digitalis.

Emotional Risks

The connection between stress and heart disease is so obvious that few would question it. But recent research has also shed light on what kind of stress presents a particular danger. A study of over two hundred patients at Johns Hopkins in 2000 found that hostility and a drive for dominance were “significant independent risk factors.”

As Dr. Gabor Maté explains, certain personalities tend to get certain diseases. On one side of his spectrum, Dr. Maté places the familiar Type A personality- dominating, irascible, incapable of emotional repression. On the other side is a super-agreeable, self-abnegating personality, the kind that will check their own emotional expression and personal needs at the door in order to make things, allegedly, better for others. In the middle is a balanced personality with a healthy relationship to anger. It turns out that the Type A personality is prone to certain diseases, notably heart disease, while the repressed personality is prone to others, most notably cancers.

In rage states, blood vessels contract, increasing blood pressure and decreasing oxygen supply to the heart. It also overstimulates the adrenal glands on a regular basis, and the body lowers its sensitivity to the chemicals the adrenals send out, which help to regulate heart function.

To Sum Up

As we see, the usual formula for dealing with Acute Coronary Syndome, restricting cholesterol and preventing blocked arteries, is trying to treat a symptom without dealing with the root causes, stress and poor nutrition.  Keeping your heart healthy means not only giving your body the right fuel, including a healthy amount of cholesterol, but finding a healthy emotional balance as well.


How to Beat Social Anxiety

Don’t think this post is for you?  Well, you may have to take the quiz below to be sure 😉  One thing’s for sure, though – it IS DEFINITELY for someone else you know and who would benefit from reading it.

“I was in the seventh grade, and it was my first school dance,” says Andrew, now 18. “It was really an awkward night for all the kids there, but I started to feel different when a slow song came on. Everyone paired off and I was left to the side. While I really desperately wanted to ask a girl to dance, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I was willing myself and willing myself to just ask this one girl, but my heart was beating so hard it literally hurt and I could feel my hands shaking just thinking about it. I eventually left, just kind of disgusted with myself. It was around that time I started wondering what it was in me that made me different from everyone else. I don’t think I went to another dance.”

Social anxiety is portrayed in art and media as something that happens on the playground or as a factor in the alienation of adolescence. But shyness can long outlast grade school, and many find it has debilitating effects on their lives, especially in situations where they are required to be charming and outgoing. It is characterized by an intense apprehension about social situations, and being evaluated or scrutinized by others. This directly affects your ability to get what we consider to be the most important things a person can attain: close friends, a husband or wife and a good job. The fear of embarrassment and judgment can make some people avoid these challenging situations altogether. Depending on how you see it, social anxiety may be on the rise, or perhaps it’s simply that more people are admitting that they suffer from it. Either way, it is now the third most common mental disorder in the United States!

Do you have social anxiety? Take this quiz.

1. You arrive late to a dinner with a few friends and a romantic interest. You feel:

a) Elevated heartbeat, dizziness, sweating and blushing.
b) Slightly embarrassed but eager to smooth over your late arrival.
c) Excitement.

2. Are you ever nervous to eat or drink in front of others?

a) Often.
b) Rarely.
c) Never.

3. You’re about to give a brief presentation in front of a group of six co-workers.

a) You say several things you hadn’t planned (and aren’t quite accurate) and have forgotten some of your points.
b) Your hands are shaking, but you are able to focus on the presentation and convey your message.
c) You would never even think to be nervous about performing in front of such a small audience.

4. You decide to skip an after-work event. Later that night, you…

a) Regret missing an opportunity to get closer to your colleagues, and realize that you were intimidated by the event.
b) Are relieved that you didn’t have to do more socializing, and are now free to cozy up to a movie.
c) Are at the party you skipped the after-work event to attend.

5. You have an important job interview, and you have carefully prepared for it. You are to meet in a restaurant, but when you get there you see that the interviewer is someone that you think dislikes you.

a) Your feel your heart racing, and you begin to sweat. Your thoughts become scattered, and you forget all your careful preparations.
b) You feel a wave of disappointment, and weigh the pros and cons of going through with the interview.
c) You put a smile on your face and prepare yourself to charm and be your best self.

6. Do your feelings of discomfort and anxiety ever prevent you from forming close relationships with people?

a) Yes.
b) Maybe.
c) No.

7. Your boss is behaving inappropriately. What do you do?

a) Wait for the behaviour to stop, wishing you could find it in yourself to say something.
b) Email a complaint to the appropriate authority.
c) Confront him or her about it and respectfully explain that he or she is making you uncomfortable.

8. You’re hopelessly lost, and wandering around a neighbourhood.

a) You want to approach people on the sidewalk to ask for directions but feel paralysed with shyness.
b) Sit down and puzzle out the map for half an hour on your own. You like to solve problems independently.
c) Approach a stranger, feeling only slightly embarrassed to find yourself in this situation.

9. Do you ever feel like a hostage to your emotions?

a) Yes.
c) No.

If you have mostly a), there is a good chance that you have social anxiety. If you have mostly b), you’re probably an introvert. If you got mostly c), you’re likely an extrovert. This is not a professional diagnostic test, but it may give you an idea of whether you could be a sufferer.

Of course, there’s nothing terribly wrong with being an introvert, extrovert or even having social anxiety. The problem is that while introversion is an attitude that’s adopted based on a person’s needs, social anxiety actually prevents you from doing what you want to do and becoming the resilient person you were meant to be.

If you suffer from social anxiety, or even just those sudden moments of unexpected shyness, we have some tips below to help you cope.  But first, here’s a short video about a free online resource that might help:

 Take on a role: We’ve all heard by now that old adage, “if you act more confident, you’ll feel it!” To some extent, this is true, but not for those times when you feel absolutely crippled by nervousness or shyness. Sometimes we can work ourselves into these states of paranoia in which we think the people around us are judging or thinking negative thoughts about us – far though it may be from the truth! So stop worrying so much about what people may think of you – take on the persona of someone who always knows what to do and say. A man I knew that had to appear on television often used this technique as a rookie reporter – he acted out his idol! And he sure fooled me!

Reframing:  This is one of the most important skills you can learn to deal with anxiety. Dr. Peter Strong, Ph.D. recommends this approach: “Reframing simply means that you teach yourself to see the anxiety emotion as an object that arises within the mind. This is the opposite to identifying with the anxiety or fear and then becoming swept up with catastrophic thinking, worrying and other forms of reactive thinking that simply make things worse. Instead of, ‘I am afraid!’ we reframe that as ‘I notice the emotion of fear rising in me.’”

Go from passive to active: It’s important to recognize that the world is not looking at you. Most people are too busy looking at themselves! Instead of passively sitting back and feeling as if you’re an amoeba under a petri dish, engage! Become observant of the action going on around you and the dialogue. Making a concerted effort to focus on the other person you’re speaking with, instead of on your own internal feelings of stress or inferiority. Not only will this make you feel a lot better, it’ll also make you a much better conversationalist. Trust me.

Pick yourself up off the ground: Everybody makes social gaffes. One second you’re soaring on wings of confidence, the next you realize you’ve accidentally said something horribly offensive. Apologize sincerely and move on. If you’ve made a joke and nobody laughs, again, try to change the subject! The funniest person I know has this happen to him shockingly often – it was only after knowing him for a long time that I realized the reason he gets so many laughs is that he makes so many jokes. Sure, he’s a funny guy, but not very high above average. The thing is, lukewarm reactions to some of his jokes simply roll off him! I know this one takes practice, but sometimes failure can help you realize that your fears weren’t as dreadful as you thought. It can even help you grow.

Seek support: If you find that your social anxiety has gotten to a point where it is interfering with your daily life, don’t be afraid to reach out. Therapy can be wonderfully helpful for those dealing with social anxiety, as can support groups – you can find more information about connecting with a support network here: http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/shyness-is-nice/201202/joining-support-group-when-youre-afraid-speak.

Use Energy Psychology Techniques: The great thing about energy psychology techniques is that they can take that 10/10 panic sensation from social anxiety right down to a very manageable 2 or 3, or even right down to a zero (“hey, where the heck did that awful feeling go??”) in just a few minutes at most.  From meridian tapping techniques like EFT and TFT, to “Be Set Free Fast” or Dr. Ted Morter’s BEST method, many of these approaches have been clinically validated and those who have experienced their power personally don’t need the data to be convinced.

REMEMBER, you do NOT have to live with the fear.  There are some highly effective treatments out there to help you overcome this debilitating condition.  I know this personally because, believe it or not, I myself suffered from this in my youth!  I vividly remember trying to give a speech in high school and thinking my heart would explode, my knees would buckle and everyone would think I was an idiot.  Now I’m a very successful public speaker and I do it entirely without any nervousness at all!  So yes, it really is possible to overcome this!

Have a great week everybody!

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Avoiding Cancer

This week we’re talking about cancer – arguably the biggest health crisis that we face today. According to WHO, cancer has more than doubled around the globe. And it is predicted to be on the rise – health officials predict that by 2030, 17 million people worldwide will die annually of cancer (vs. 7.6 million in 2008), and 75 million will be living with cancer and will require treatment and follow-up care. Cancer claims more lives than AIDS, TB and malaria combined. According to Peter Boyle, director of IARC, “it is a crisis for public health and health systems worldwide.”

Many people have been propagandized into believing that there is nothing they can do about cancer.   They think it strikes rather like lightning – suddenly, and without warning and that all they can do is go regularly to the doctor so they can catch it as early as possible.

But why should cancer be one of the only diseases that doesn’t have a cause? The debate about the cancer cause is raging, and every year there are thousands of studies that point fingers at everything from low-fibre diets to left-handedness. Whom are you to believe?  What can you do to lessen your and your family’s chances of getting cancer?

The fact is, as Mr. Boyle says, that “although cancer is a great, growing and devastating disease, it is largely preventable.”  

Pesticide Levels

The first way that you can prevent cancer is through what goes into your body. I’m talking about chemicals – chemicals that are dangerous to your health. It’s important to reduce your exposure to environmental toxins like pesticides, household chemical cleaners, synthetic air fresheners and air pollution. I know it’s hard to even picture a green lawn in this kind of weather, but remember when spring comes to avoid pesticide use! Lawn pesticides have been proven to cause cancers such as non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and soft-tissue cancers. In addition, there are no studies taken by the government to assess the safety of lawn-care chemicals in combination, the way most are sold. Lawn chemicals simply don’t go through the rigorous testing that foods do, and even then we know that the pesticides on food aren’t safe. (Buy organic! But I think you know that by now 🙂

Not Exactly the “Clean” Clothes You Had in Mind…

Also, avoid getting your clothes dry-cleaned. The chemical perchloroethylene, found to cause kidney and liver damage, as well as cancer in animals, is still used in the majority of dry cleaners today. As you wear clothes treated with this chemical cocktail, you increase your exposure due to inhalation. Instead, handwash your clothing or at least air out your dry-cleaned garments before you wear them.

22% of Cancer Deaths are From…

Of course, one of the top reasons cancer is on the rise worldwide is cigarettes, and the toxins within. In China, there is an average of ten cigarettes consumed per person per day. That’s the number of cigarettes the United States consumed at the peak of cigarette-smoking in the fifties. We will continue to face the consequences of that smoking, and China will in the future. If you’re still smoking, reading articles like this won’t help you much until you stop!

The Role of Thoughts and Emotions

Another factor that’s important to keep in mind is the role that negative emotion plays in causing disease and stress. According to Professor Ben-Eliyahu, “Psychological stressors … deal a blow to the immune system, but this is hardly discussed in the medical community.”

Let’s go back to the basics and think of the real evolutionary purpose of stress. In the jungle, seeing a carnivorous jungle cat would prompt the “fight or flight” reaction, including the flooding of cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline into the blood stream. This hormone cocktail would help you think fast, moves fast and remain alive. Nowadays, this fight-or-flight reaction occurs during situations such as a confrontation with your boss – when neither fighting or fleeing are acceptable behaviors. And so stress floats around the system, not serving any sort of productive function and doing the body harm. It’s best to dispel it as soon as possible – but how?

Meditation does a number on stress by creating the perfect antidote to the “flight or flight” reaction: the “relaxation response”. This response can be achieved through diligent practice with breathing exercises or the repetition of a word, sound or phrase. When the optimal “relaxation response” has been reached, the body will enter into a state of deep relaxation that actually slows the heartbeat – in addition to lowering blood pressure and metabolism and enhancing your mood.

Stay Connected

Another way is through contact with friends and family. A study performed at the State University of New York found that men who had limited contact with friends and family members had higher levels of stress and were more likely to have high levels or prostate-specific antigen in the blood – a marker for the development of prostate cancer. You’re also more likely to laugh when spending time with family and friends, and laughter is one of the best ways to bust stress and feel good.

Keep Moving!

But one of the best ways to reduce stress is to exercise – this is shown to promote feelings of well-being, drive down cortisol levels and increase serotonin. Molecular biologists and neurologists are also finding that exercise is actually more effective than most antidepressants – if exercise can prevent and control mental disease, why not physical disease? Exercise actually drives down your insulin levels, and lowering levels of insulin in the body is one of the best things you can do to decrease your cancer risk.

This is Huge…

The last, and arguably the most effective way to stave off cancer is through healthy eating. According to Dr. William Li, “foods hold their own, and in some cases are more potent than drugs!” Neglecting your nutrition comes with all sorts of ill-effects related to cancer, from the unchecked spread of free-radicals to uncontrolled angiogenesis – a cancer-causing phenomenon involving the spread of blood to cancerous tumours. Being careful to consume a balanced diet full of whole, organic, nutritious foods is key. However, there are some consumption habits that can particularly help your body prevent cancer.

First off, garlic contains sulfur compounds that actually stimulate the immune system’s natural defenses against cancer, and may have the potential to reduce tumor growth. Studies show that garlic may reduce the incidence of stomach cancer by as much as twelve times.

Second, drink plenty of water! Water purifies the system and many studies have shown that drinking over six cups of water a day reduces the chance of multiple kinds of cancers in both men and women.

Thirdly, try tea! Green tea, to be precise. The healing powers of green tea have been manifesting themselves in Asia for centuries. Research analyzing just what makes green tea so powerful has discovered that EGCG, a chemical in green, tea, could be one of the most powerful anti-cancer compounds ever discovered.

And make sure you get your 20 minutes of sun a day – Vitamin D is essential to preventing cancer, and too little has been linked to a host of various cancers.

To sum it all up, if you can decrease chemical exposure and stress, and increase your intake of vital vitamins and nutrients through food and sun, you stand a good chance of avoiding cancer.

~ Dr. Symeon Rodger


Between Force and Surrender

If you're not as effective in every area of life as you'd like to be, you might want to consider the 
following...
 
You can react in one of two ways to pretty much everything in your life.  You can use FORCE 
(willpower) to control it, or you can SURRENDER to it.  Each has its place.  One of my clients 
brought this to my attention a few months ago.  I noticed she seemed unable to do such a 
simple thing as taking just 15-30 minutes each morning to "center" herself.   On the other hand, 
she was fighting furiously (and ineffectively) with her thoughts, with those parts of herself and her 
life she doesn't like.
 
In other words, she was choosing to SURRENDER to laziness (a terrible enemy you never want 
to surrender to, by the way).  And on the other hand, she was using brute FORCE to fight against 
her thoughts of inadequacy, fear, anxiety, loneliness and a host of others.
 
Like most of us, my client is in the habit of using FORCE and SURRENDER in exactly the wrong 
way.
 
We need to FORCE ourselves to lead a powerful life,  rather than giving into to our tendency to 
just let ourselves go.  That takes determination.  It always has and it always will. 
 
And yet, we need to SURRENDER inwardly to the truth about where we're at NOW.  That means 
we stop RESISTING our neurotic tendencies - our fears, our poor self-image, our sharp edges 
and the rest.  Why?  Because only by seeing reality as it REALLY IS can we overcome those 
neuroses.  
 
And we don't overcome them by FORCE, by repressing them.  That's what created most of them 
in the first place.  When we calmly stare our uncomfortable aspects in the face in a 
non-judgmental way, we find they begin to lose their hold on us.
 
There are lots of people who think RESILIENCE is about being tough.  And yes, there’s a place 
for that forceful “yang” approach.  It really is vital to building a deliberate, powerful and 
stress-free life.  However…
 
Equally important and often ignored is the judicious use of surrender, the “yin” approach, 
particularly on the more subtle emotional and spiritual levels... to the right things at the right 
moments, of course.  In fact, it’s the only way to become a fully functional human being.
 
Not surprisingly, the most effective tool for learning the proper way to surrender inwardly is the 
process of meditation.  Meditation puts you face to face with the very things you've been 
repressing for years or decades, yet gives you the space and comfort to "create space" for 
them and allow them to dissolve on their own.  New meditators are often astonished at how 
much emotional content they've been repressing and how neurotic it was making them.

If you're interested in learning more about the meditation process and how to transform every 
moment of your life into a meditation that builds your health and calms your thoughts and 
emotions, you can go to:

http://www.harapower.com/ 
 
The irony is, you'll never learn how to surrender to the REAL, to relax deeply into the essence of 
life and discover your true self, unless you know when to apply force.   Every authentic ancient 
tradition is built on this delicate balance between force and surrender.
 
Your friend in the "war for peace", 
 
~ Dr. Symeon Rodger
 


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