Column: Old-school coping strategies for modern problems
Published 7:12 pm, Thursday, April 3, 2014
Every day, I'm surprised by the issues, questions and opportunities that arise in my office. My work is never dull. Last week I received a call from a local school district looking for a yoga or meditation instructor to work with a group of emotionally and educationally challenged students. I was delighted to get this request; it reminded me that more and more frequently we're turning to ancient wisdom to solve contemporary problems.
As our world becomes increasingly complex, we face new and different challenges than did those who came before us. Further, we seem to lack healthy strategies for coping with these challenges. As a result, we may resort to some of the following unhealthy escape mechanisms, all of which lead to even bigger problems down the road:
Self-medication through food, leading to such serious medical issues as diabetes.
Substance use and abuse, which can trigger serious health problems as well as family, relationship and employment difficulties.
Overuse and misuse of technology, which can cause Internet addiction, isolation and the breakdown of relationships.
Although traditional medicine has proven truly miraculous once physical or psychological illness has taken hold, it can also cause unwanted side effects and trigger further medical complications. Additionally, the cost and accessibility of medical care still eludes many people.
In short, we've started looking for less-than-optimal external solutions to our problems. In a search for better answers -- and sometimes out of desperation -- we're turning to the wisdom of our ancestors. Much to our surprise, we're learning that they understood what we are just discovering: Many of the answers to life's challenges are already within each of us -- and free, to boot -- if we only take the time to learn and practice them. Here's a sampling of these age-old practices:
Gratitude: We tend to focus more on what we don't have than on the many blessings we already possess. Spending a few minutes a day counting and recording your blessings enhances optimism and diminishes self-pity and envy.
Abdominal breathing: Most of us engage in shallow breathing, especially in our stress-filled world. Learning to do diaphragmatic breathing can have a profound effect on our health, including lowered blood pressure and heart rate and an increase in the feel-good brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine.
Staying "in the here and now": Truth be told, we spend most of our time ruminating over past mistakes or worrying about the future. Although it takes tremendous practice, focusing on the present reverses the body's fight-or-flight response -- a normal reaction in times of emergency, but not healthy when triggered repeatedly over time.
Humor: There's growing evidence of the physiological and emotional benefits inherent in a good belly laugh. Research indicates that humor increases endorphins and dopamine, and improves the relaxation response, creativity and problem-solving ability.
Prayer: A practice in most, if not all, religions, the power of prayer has been scientifically proven. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, has written extensively on prayer's healing properties. And group prayer seems to be even more effective.
These are practices that any of us can begin to incorporate into our daily lives. By taking a yoga, qigong or meditation class, you can kill at least two of these birds with one stone. Such classes are often available inexpensively through adult education programs or public libraries. Additionally, instructions and further information on these are readily available online.
Even if the stressors of our complex world haven't yet gotten the better of you, why not give yourself a gift? Consider adding even one these practices to your daily routine, and notice how your day-to-day life becomes more relaxed and meaningful, right in the here and now.