Coping from the inside out

One way to cope with stress is to turn down our reaction to it through meditation. Meditation has been practiced in cultures all over the world for thousands of years. It's now being used with increasing frequency by western physicians and health care organizations to treat a diverse range of medical conditions.

The purpose of meditation is to calm the mind and restore a sense of quiet. When the mind is quiet the body can restore the delicate chemical, hormonal and electrical balance that promotes health. When a person is under stress blood pressure rises, the heart rate and respiration quicken. The immune system becomes less able to deal with invasion and more prone to self-destruction. Blood moves from the skin, hands and feet into the large muscles and vital organs.

When you're stressed your ability to think on your feet tends to vanish because the tiny capillaries in your brain clench down. Thus the blood supply to your brain, with the oxygen and nourishment it carries, is diminished while blood is channeled to the large muscles and heart. In many people stress is a chronic state and a significant contributor to disease states.

There are many ways to reduce stress. Exercise and vigorous physical activity are often promoted as stress reduction techniques. Unfortunately vigorous exercise is not an option for most people with periodic paralysis. Even gentle exercise regimes like yoga and tai chi can be too strenuous for some patients.

One proven way to reduce stress which all patients can practice, regardless of strength level, is meditation. Over the last 25 years a whole field of investigation has grown up around the practice of meditation. It is now known that the stress response in the brain is marked by low amplitude, high frequency beta wave patterns. Meditation induces just the opposite effect in the brain, and is characterized by a state with high amplitude, low frequency alpha and theta rhythms.

Harvard University professor Herbert Benson, MD began studying meditation over 30 years ago. Though meditative practices are part of all the world's major religions, Dr. Benson proved meditation beneficial even when practiced independently of religion or philosophy.

The benefits of meditation are available to anyone who is willing to invest 20 minutes of daily practice. It is the practice, and not the religious intent, that brings about what Dr. Benson called the relaxation response. Dr. Benson has documented the uniquely altered quality of the meditative state; it's not like sleeping and not like being fully awake. Deep meditation is characterized by distinct changes in metabolism, heart rate, respiration, blood pressure and brain chemistry.

“There is significant data that meditation can enhance healing,” says Saki Santorelli, director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, University of Massachusetts.

So far, none of the hundreds of studies on meditation have looked specifically at periodic paralysis. However, stress is associated with higher adrenaline levels, which triggers episodes in PP and worsens symptoms in most chronic diseases. Many studies have shown meditation can significantly lower stress, chronic pain and anxiety.

Picture a small stream in a forest which a deer has muddied while wading across. Within a few minutes the mud, leaf litter, and debris which was stirred up by the deer has either settled, or has been swept away, leaving the water clear. Now think of the mind as that stream. While sitting in meditation you allow your troubled thoughts, feelings and daily stress to settle or flow away, leaving your mind clear. 

Meditation involves using any number of techniques to quiet the mind and relax the body. Concentration practices and mindfulness meditation are perhaps the best known. These techniques focus on the silent repetition of a word, phrase, sound, or your own breathing. When attention wanders, it is gently brought back to the focus of concentration. 

Meditation is simple to learn, but not easy to practice. It takes discipline to remain still and focused, physically and mentally, for the 20 minutes of daily practice required. But this repetition and stillness are at the core of meditation and the source of its many benefits.

How to Meditate:

Choose a quiet spot where you will not be interrupted. If you have a timer, set it for 10 - 15 minutes.

  1. Sit quietly in a comfortable position. This can be in a firm but comfortable chair, or even lying down if you are unable to sit up. But the spine should be straight. Those who need to use a chair should sit upright with their feet touching the ground with the palms of the hands resting on the thighs.
  2. The eyes should not be closed but the gaze should be focused downward to rest a couple of feet in front of the nose. The gaze is soft. The object is to reduce sensory input as much as possible.
  3. Take several long, deep breaths. Breathe using the diaphragm, the lower belly should fill and expand, not the chest. The breath should be relaxed, natural and quiet.
  4. Relax your muscles.
  5. Breathe in slowly and naturally, and begin counting silently (or aloud if you prefer). As you inhale count one, and as you exhale count two , as you inhale the next time count three and as you exhale count four. Continue counting in this manner, focusing entirely on the breath and the count until you reach 10. Then begin again, counting to 10 as you inhale and exhale. If other thoughts intrude stop counting and begin again at one.
  6. Assume a passive attitude. Don't worry about how well you're doing. When other thoughts intrude, simply acknowledge them as "thinking", and gently return to your meditation.
  7. Continue for your predetermined time.
  8. Sit quietly for a minute or so, allowing other thoughts to return. Focus yourself and sit for another minute before rising.

Practice this technique twice daily. Expect it to take three or four weeks before you begin to be able to keep your mind still while you count, and before you'll begin to notice significant benefits.

Those who have strong religious faith may focus on the recitation of a prayer or phrase, if this is more comfortable for them. There are many meditation techniques. You may prefer a different technique, such as guided relaxation. There are many books, tapes, CDs and videos available about meditation. Just make sure that you are buying one which is consistent with your belief system, if that is important to you. 

There are also meditation teachers in most towns, so if you want a personal teacher or more information, seek out local resources through community colleges or health organizations.

Adapted from, “You, Me and Myasthenia Gravis”; Third Edition; Deborah Cavel-Greant; Ed: MW Nicolle MD, FRCPC, D.Phil.; Ku:Reh Press, 2006, Used with permission, © Deborah Cavel-Greant

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