February is American Heart Month
Februrary 1, 2013
By Jennifer Mackenzie, MFA
Too often, we are faced with medical warning signs — indicators that advise us we may be at risk of our health failing. However, the moment you ask yourself “What can I do to help myself?” you have made a shift in perspective, and many medical experts agree even a subtle shift in perspective can help change the course of your health.
Stress plays a large part in almost every disease process. According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stress is a significant contributing factor in heart disease. Yet how we view stress may be much more important to our heart health than the actual event or situation triggering the stress.
If, for instance, a blood test shows that your LDL cholesterol level is too high, you could react with panic, causing a physiological chain of events that will only impact your heart with more stress. Or, you could choose to see your test result as an opportunity to make lifestyle and dietary changes that have the potential to lead you down a new path to a healthier, more enjoyable life.
By using your high cholesterol level as the motivation to begin taking daily long walks, you may begin feeling more grounded and connected to the earth — over time, this experience may produce a deeper state of relaxation than you’ve ever known. Medical experts agree that the ability to deeply relax is key in maintaining, or regaining, your health.
In shifting your perspective, your decision to take meaningful action on your own behalf can spill over into every area of your life, positively affecting your relationships, your job, and, most importantly, your own health and sense of well-being.
So take heart — every small step you take is a step toward heart health and a more joyful, longer life.
The body’s stress response
According to the AHA, the body reacts to stress by releasing a hormone, adrenaline, that causes your breathing and your heart rate to speed up and your blood pressure to rise. This release of adrenaline is often called the “fight or flight” response. When you remain in this heightened adrenaline state for days or weeks at a time, you have chronic stress.
With chronic stress, your body produces various chemicals, including cortisol, an immune-suppressing hormone. The more cortisol you produce, the weaker your immune cells become, and therefore the more susceptible you are to disease.
Migraine headaches, sleep disorders, backaches, neck aches, skin rashes, fatigue, irritability, anger, depression, mood swings, chest pain, anxiety, upset stomach, and ulcers are some common reactions to stress.
Put a new response in your toolbox
What can you do to change your response to stress and help alleviate its effects?
The AHA makes four specific suggestions for coping with
• Use positive self-talk.
• Focus on relaxed deep breathing for at least
15 to 20 minutes each day.
• Engage in daily physical activity.
• Do at least one (healthy) thing you enjoy every day.
Of course, there are many healthy ways to manage stress, including increasing the amount of sleep you get each night (at least 8 hours as often as possible), improving your diet, talking with supportive friends, and making sure you find something to truly laugh about each day.
But what if you could combine all four of the AHA’s coping tips into one simple approach? You can. It’s called walking meditation — and, though the activity is simple, its effects can be profound on the body and mind.
What is walking meditation?
Thich Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese monk, poet, peace activist and author of numerous books, including The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation, explains the
practice this way:
“Walking meditation is meditation while walking. We walk slowly, in a relaxed way, keeping a light smile on our lips. When we practice this way, we feel deeply at ease, and our steps are those of the most secure person on Earth. All our sorrows and anxieties drop away, and peace and joy fill our hearts. Anyone can do it. It takes only a little time, a little mindfulness, and the wish to be happy.
“When you take a step, you can touch the earth in such a way that you establish yourself in the present moment. Suddenly, you are free — from all projects, all worries, and all expectations.”
How to practice walking meditation
To experience walking meditation, it is best to walk outside, in nature. Feel free to adapt the following instructions to suit your needs and the time available to you.
• Breathe in as you lift one foot, then place your foot down slowly, breathing out and focusing all your attention on the sole of your foot as it touches the earth.
• Take the next step, inhaling as you lift your foot, exhaling as you land your foot gently on the earth.
• Continue walking this way for 5 minutes.
• Then walk for 20 minutes at a brisk pace.
• Finish with 5 minutes of walking meditation.
It’s that simple.
You may find walking meditation immediately calming, or you may react with impatience and irritation that you’re not moving faster. At first, walking very slowly may also make you feel slightly off balance. Stay with it; observe your own reactions as you continue to walk, inhaling as you lift your foot, exhaling as you place it down on the earth.
As you walk, you may want to try incorporating the AHA’s recommendation of positive self-talk into your practice. For instance, “I am learning to slow down” or “I am opening my heart.” It can also be very beneficial (and fun) to try a follow-the-leader version of walking meditation with a group (like your Lighten Up Onslow team).
Try walking meditation once a day, for one week. See how it affects your ability to slow down when you find yourself rushing, to observe and calm your reactions to situations that make you feel stressed, and to be present in the here and now without feeling you must always be “getting something done.”
Remember, every meditative step you take is a step toward heart health.
For more information about heart health, contact Onslow’s Stroke Nurse Coordinator, Sam Gifford, RN, BSN, at (910) 577-2838.
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