I was listening this morning to the radio show Speaking of Faith. Krista Tippett's guest was Esther Sternberg, author of the book The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health & Emotions. Sternberg's research examined the scientific underpinnings of mind-body medicine, or how our emotions can help make us sick or well. A lot of the conversation on SOF was about the stress response and it's potentially negative effect on the immune system. Stress is a necessary response to certain events. It enables us to react to those events in ways that are protective without needing to go through a thought process first. It does this by releasing certain hormones and chemicals into our system.
Chronic stress keeps those chemicals in our system, and our immune cells are awash in those chemicals, which has the effect of shutting off or tuning down much of the immune system. That, in turn, makes us vulnerable to all sorts of nasty conditions.
Part of the challenge in dealing with chronic stress is to first recognize it and then do something to shut it down. Sternberg's advice was to take yourself off line. Take a vacation. Meditate. Exercise. Do yoga. Do what gets you away -- spiritually and/or physically -- from the environment that's causing the stress response.
I like that image of taking yourself off line. She explained it in terms of rebooting a computer. When I was diagnosed with prostate cancer several years ago, I knew I needed to do something that would provide some sort of outlet for the anxiety and negative emotions. And I knew that as supportive as S is and would be throughout the ordeal of cancer, she couldn't be the outlet I relied on. It wouldn't be fair to her. So, even though years before I had decided I had gotten just about all I was ever going to get from counseling, I looked for a mental therapist.
I went into therapy in a way I had never done before. I viewed it as a chance to begin the process of creating a space for myself. I was very proactive about setting the goals for therapy. I told the counselor I wanted to explore what having cancer meant to me, and I wanted to take the lead in doing it. But that was just the beginning.
The counselor was in the Back Bay section of Boston. We lived in Attleboro, a 45-minute train ride from Back Bay. Despite the fact that I always seemed to be behind on meeting my professional deadlines, once a week, I took the train, and I read. I allowed myself enough time so that I had about an hour in Back Bay before my appointment, so I either went to the library and worked on my creative projects or I went to Au Bon Pain and continued to read while I had a pastry and coffee. Following my session with the therapist, I went out and treated myself to a nice lunch in one of the fine restaurants in Back Bay. I even occasionally met S for lunch. After lunch I'd walk for about an hour. And toward the end of my time in Massachusetts, I even started stopping in at the end of my walk at the First Church of Christ, Scientist on the Christian Science Plaza and spending about 15 minutes just meditating. (I am not a Christian Scientist. But the quiet and the light and the "lightness" inside the church was calming and restful.) And then I'd go home.
For those several hours on Thursdays, I took myself off line. Since we've moved to Atlanta, my level of chronic stress has steadily increased. S tells me she thinks I have an anxiety disorder. I work most weekend days. I seldom exercise. I'm too tired and stressed to meditate when I quit working for the day and feel too rushed and pushed to meditate in the morning. I have all but stopped working on anything creative. It's time to get back in touch with whatever I understood when I created that space for myself in Back Bay, and discover ways to do it here. I'm glad I listened to that radio show this morning.