“Holistic medicine” does not just mean substituting herbs for prescription drugs; it means looking at the whole person — body and mind. Stress has a powerful impact on our mental/emotional health, as well as our physical health (via the neurologic and endocrine systems). To that end, I often teach people techniques such as quiet breathing exercises to improve stress management.
Quiet breathing, meditation — these fall along the continuum of being alone with our thoughts, which is something most modern Americans are not accustomed to. This has always been the case, but it seems to have gotten worse lately, with the 24/7 accessibility of technology. Being alone with our thoughts has been proven to help decrease the stress response, which can improve our health in a variety of ways. These techniques fall under the category of what I call “simple, but not easy:” simple in concept, but not easy to perform. A lot of people find that their mind rebels when faced with a lack of constant input.
Though I know from personal experience how challenging it can be to sit quietly with one’s thoughts, researchers at the University of Virginia recently investigated this phenomenon through an interesting experiment. They recruited adults to sit quietly alone in a room for about 15 minutes. The volunteers were asked not to fall asleep. The only activity they were allowed, other than just thinking, was to press a button that would administer a mild electric shock.
Now one would think that people would avoid this painful stimulus. I mean, how hard can it be to just sit for 15 minutes? The researchers were surprised, therefore, when 25% of female subjects and fully two-thirds of male subjected shocked themselves at least once. Yes, most people preferred deliberately self-inflicted pain to sitting quietly for 15 minutes.
The researchers concluded that the conscious human mind is designed to engage with the world, which may be why this exercise is so difficult for many people. That’s why I recommend a variety of techniques to help people enjoy the benefits of quieting the mind:
- Focus on the feeling of the breath moving in and out of the lungs.
- Use visualizations, such as light moving in and out of your body.
- Use a mantra (repetitive word, with or without meaning) to engage the cognitive mind while allowing the rest of the mind to settle down.
- Use the techniques of Mindfulness Meditation: actually focusing on the sensory input around you (rather than tuning it out), but without judgment or evaluation.
- Engage in “moving meditation,” such as walking a labyrinth.
You might need to experiment to find which methods work best for you, but it is definitely worthwhile to make this a part of your daily routine.
1. Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind. Science 4 July 2014: Vol. 345 no. 6192 pp. 75-77.
2. What’s So Bad About Being Alone With Your Thoughts? Science Friday, July 11, 2014.