The most powerful pharmacy in the world is right between your ears! Thoughts are things. They can heal or harm. Beliefs mold your brain.
Other than eating breakfast regularly, and eating more fruits and vegetables, the one characteristic that is present in all healthy older people is resiliency – that hard-to-measure quality of adapting to change, shifting with changing tides, and seeing the glass half full.
This is because your thoughts have real and measurable effects on your body and brain. Every cell in your body listens to your thoughts. Your immune cells know your deepest feelings.
Your stem cells are wired to your brain and help you repair and regenerate. But they ONLY turn on and make new brain cells when you relax!
Research has shown over and over again that learning to relax is one of the most important keys to long-term health and vitality. And it is a critical part of my program for achieving an UltraMind.
To use learn how to use that pharmacy between your ears, you need to learn how to hit your “pause button.” Today I will teach you how to do that. I will explain why stress kills, relaxation heals, and how you can begin turning on your relaxation response.
The Road to Vagus
Your immune cells, stem cells, and all the other organs and tissues in your body are connected to your vagus nerve – a long nerve that goes from your brain, through your chest and diaphragm, and throughout your body.
Your vagus nerve is a very special part of your nervous system that helps you calm your mind and turn on a cascade of healing that can reverse depression and dementia and help sharpen your mind – making old brains young again.
It does this by turning off your stress response and activating your relaxation response – what I call “hitting the pause button” – which most of us don’t know how to do. Most of us don’t need any help turning on the alarm system.
However, very few of us know how to calm this system down. We don’t know where our pause button is, and we don’t know how to push it. This is a serious health concern, because stress is very bad for your brain.
How Stress Destroys Your Brain
The effects of stress on brain health cannot be overstated. It shrinks the hippocampus, the memory center of the brain; reduces serotonin; lowers BDNF (brain derived neutrophic factor), which acts like Miracle-Gro for your brain cells; increases inflammation; increases belly fat; lowers thyroid function; and much more.
It is one of the chief causes of our broken brains.
- But what is stress?
- It is any real or imagined threat to your body or your ego.
- What does that mean?
It means your stress response reacts the same when you are in real danger (if you are about to be run down by an oncoming car) as it does when you perceive danger (if your boss tells you he thinks you are doing a poor job at work).
In both cases, a flood of cortisol and other chemicals is released into your bloodstream. These chemicals send messages far and wide, telling your body – and brain – to get ready for the danger at hand. In the first instance, the stress response is adaptive It prepares you to move out of the way of that oncoming vehicle.
In the second instance, the stress response is worse than useless – your body gets prepared for real physical danger but there isn’t any. There is only the perceived danger of your boss’s disappointment. The result is that you stew in your stress juices, and they poison your body and brain.
So how we think and what we believe make a huge difference in how healthy we are. There’s no doubt about it. Optimists live longer and are healthier!
This reminds me of a Tibetan man I met more than 20 years ago in Nepal who showed me the power of thought and belief in shaping our lives.
The Tibetan Healer
I traveled to Nepal as part of an expedition to study the public health problems of a village near the Tibetan border. Along the way I encountered a remarkable man, who had faced grave threats to his life and his place in the world. He was a Tibetan doctor who was captured in 1959 during the Chinese invasion and sent to a Chinese prison camp.
He dispassionately told me of his 22-year imprisonment in the camp, where he was stripped of his community, prevented from practicing Buddhism, tortured, and abused. I found it difficult to reconcile this serene man with the horrors he experienced.
During our conversation, I asked him to identify the greatest danger he faced during his 22 years of imprisonment. I expected him to say the relentless physical and psychological torture and sophisticated brainwashing techniques designed to make him renounce his spiritual beliefs and embrace communist ideology.
What he said astounded me.
“The greatest danger I faced during my imprisonment was the few moments I thought I might lose my compassion for my Chinese captors.”
Most of us cannot imagine worrying about having compassion for those who kept us locked away from everything we value for 22 years. Yet somehow, in small and large ways, our sense of control, meaning, purpose, and connection in life is one of the most powerful factors that determine our health and well-being.
What do you feel connected to? What gives you meaning and purpose? Answers to questions like these define who we are, not only mentally, but physically.
“Disease” is a disconnection from our sense of place in the world; a loss of control and meaning as we drift from television channel to television channel looking for a program to satisfy us; consume food disconnected from its origins, processed and unidentifiable from its natural state; as our families separate, disconnect, and communicate through text messaging and e-mail.
How do you take a pill to fix that? How do you know if you are stressed?
Well, you might crave salt, feel dizzy when you stand up, have trouble falling asleep, have sweaty palms or feel wiped out after exercise, or you might feel tired and wired. If so, you may have burned out your adrenal glands – the glands that kick into gear whenever there is stress.
So what’s the cure for burn out? How do you turn off the stress response and begin to heal from its effects?
Turning Off the Stress Response
The latest research has found two ways to turn old forgetful brains into young brains and turn depressed people into happy people. You have two choices.
Cut out your adrenal glands or have a pacemaker inserted in your neck, which stimulates the vagus nerve and triggers relaxation. Neither of those sound like much fun!
But you DO have other options to calm your mind.
One of my favorites is: just breathe. It automatically activates the vagus nerve. I teach you how to do the soft belly breath, a variation of ancient yogic breathing techniques, in Six Weeks to an UltraMind.
In the meantime, here are a few more ideas on how to push your pause button, and heal your brain.
- Make choices that make your life balanced – practice saying “NO” to others and “YES” to yourself
- Try yoga or meditation
- Get enough sleep
- Eat whole foods that decrease the stress response.
- Avoid stressed foods. The next time you reach for that industrial packaged food product, or fast food lunch just ask yourself if your food is “relaxed.”
- You might even try some herbs that can balance out the stress response, such as ginseng or rhodiola
I have just opened the door for you to learn how to calm your mind. You can learn much more in my new self-coaching program for achieving an UltraMind.
To your good health,
Mark Hyman, MD
It will look like this: Push Your Pause Button – Calm Your Mind