The bodily changes I described above, while necessary to preserve life in an emergency, are very harmful to the body when they occur frequently or are maintained for long periods of time. This last point is worth exploring. When our primitive forebears experienced the flight, fight, or freeze response, they did not need to stay in that situation for long. Either they killed the wild animal or it killed them. However, in modern life it is not uncommon for people to live in a mildly stressed state virtually every waking minute. It is unlikely that their sleep will be restful after a day on hyper-alert either. So, even at night, the processes of repair and recuperation are compromised by a stress reaction that never lets up. Is it any surprise that feeling tired is our most frequent complaint as a society? We have even developed the disease named Chronic Fatigue Syndrome.
If you look at the list of physical stress reactions listed above, you can easily translate them into difficulties that plague. Complaints like neck and back pain, tense shoulders, digestive problems, menstrual disorders and sexual difficulties, cold hands and feet are all symptomatic of the autonomic nervous system’s excessive involvement. Hypertension, migraine headache, irritable bowel syndrome are all examples of the body taking on a chronic stressed response. Many people have multiple complaints of this sort.
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Stress and eye disease
Stress is related to many eye complaints. In his blog, The Cure of Imperfect Sight by Treatment Without Glasses, Dr. William Bates states that the cause of all problems is stress. Stress produces tightness in the muscles of the eye. This tightness in some way blocks the energy flow to the eye and may result in disease. You may notice that under stress, your eye begins to ache or you may have trouble focusing. These symptoms are the early signs of eye stress. If this is not dealt with properly, it can lead to eye disease such as cataract, glaucoma, ARMD, or even a stroke involving the eye. Throughout my years of practice, I have observed patients develop serious eye problems after stress producing events. The death of a loved one, the loss of a job, retirement, and other events may affect someone so much that the body ‘does not want to see’ what has happened. This response is then focused in the eye and a visual problem will develop. I have noticed that the death of a loved one may lead to cataract development. Even the sudden change of retiring or losing a job can result in ARMD. We all respond to stress differently, and, unfortunately, the eye is often the point of the body where the steam from the pressure cooker is released.
The relaxation response
Over thirty years ago, Hans Selye wrote the first widely read blog about stress called Stress Without Distress. He was a researcher at Harvard who performed some of first tests that measured stress in the body. He also suggested that if we could engage our stress response, perhaps we could engage something he called the “Relaxation Response.” This refers to a deliberate and conscious attempt to delay or slow down the stress response and bring it under voluntary control. The concept involved three steps: learning how to relax the body deliberately, doing it on a regular basis, and bringing this learned response into play whenever stressors are encountered.
Much of Dr. Selye’s work focused on some of the ancient systems of bodily control exhibited by the yogis of the east who were famous for walking on beds of nails and swallowing fire. It turned out that they could do these things because they had control over bodily responses and processes thought to be beyond voluntary control. The perception of pain is an example. While Selye and others who studied this subject were not interested in helping people develop extraordinary powers of yogis, they wanted to help people gain more control of their bodies.
It turned out that the breath is the link between the part of our nervous system we can control and the part we cannot control. Think about it. You can control your breath if you choose. However, if you don’t think about it, or even if you are unconscious, you keep breathing. Since hyperventilation is also a stress reaction, it was suggested that if that process could be brought under control through slow deep breathing, the rest of the autonomic nervous system would disengage the stress response. Therefore, the breath is considered to be a key to the relaxation response. Most of us know that the reminder to take a breath or breathe slowly in a tense situation can actually calm us.
A second key to relaxation is visualization. Biofeedback is a technique used to help people control things like intractable pain, migraine headaches, and hypertension by training them to focus on the area involved and relax it. During Biofeedback sessions, patients are monitored by electronic equipment and their responses are measured. This allows them to observe their effectiveness in controlling their bodily processes. For example, people with migraine headaches caused by constricted blood vessels can find relief if they focus on their hands getting warmer. The theory is that they are actually dilating their blood vessels throughout their body. Some people do this by visualizing and others through their kinesthetic sense. Just as I mentioned that thinking about a stressful event can cause a stress reaction, just imagining a relaxed state can produce it. You do not need to study texts on the body/mind connection to prove this to yourself.
We owe a great deal to the early research done in the area of relaxation. In fact, all the newer work has been built on this concept. The challenge now is not to prove that we need to learn to relax voluntarily or to demonstrate that we can learn how to do it. The challenge is to convince people that this is not only worthwhile, but necessary for their well-being. We cannot control the world. Natural disasters, horrible crimes, accidents, and personal losses will still occur with regularity. I strongly recommend that you review the following ways to learn how to relax and incorporate one into your life without delay.