Over the last few years I've become utterly convinced of the value of mindfulness. The literature is bursting with evidence of the benefits of mindfulness practice on everything from cardiovascular disease to weight management to reducing the burden of infections. Likely much of the benefit is due to the impacts on how the brain perceives stress, and thus how the body manifests stress in a physical way. We know that chronic stress shifts the body into survival mode - storing fuel, increasing alertness, placing demands on the heart and lungs, and putting functions like digestion, growth and reproduction on the back burner. In the short term this is brilliant and wise. In the long term, the impacts of stress are so detrimental on health, impacting everything from fertility, sleep, diabetes and how satisfying your poos are.
Most stressors in our modern world are perceived. Deadlines, relationship tension, traffic jams ... these are not situations that will benefit from the way our bodies evolved to handle much more physical stressors thousands of years ago. Pausing to notice our emotions and thoughts when stressful situations arise can be remarkably helpful to temper the involuntary cascade of ALARM hormones and behaviours that can be so unhelpful. Much of the research into "Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction" suggests a daily practice of seated mindfulness meditation. Many people find this a challenging practice to nurture. I often encourage folks to give it a try for a period of time - even if it's only for 5-10 minutes a day. Sitting quietly, noticing thoughts, emotions, distractions without judgement. With an air of curiosity and kindness. Even acceptance. Translating those principles into the every day - pausing before reacting (eating, yelling, striking out, tensing up ...) ... practice can help foster an awareness of how we perceive situations, and whether we choose to interpret the situations as stressful.
Here's a little acronym that can help. If you're someone who engages in emotional eating ... try it when you're craving that treat. If you're a parent ... try it when your patience is running thin. If you're working on a deadline - take a five-minute pause (honest - it won't blow your deadline ... and might actually make you more efficient!) and do a quick scan. Start with whatever letter is most obvious to you, and then inquire about the others. It can help to learn about yourself ... again, with non-judgement, curiosity and compassion. Let me know how it goes!
B - behaviour ... what actions are you taking in this situation? (eating chocolate? yelling? pounding on the keyboard?)
A - affect ... what emotions are you feeling? (anger, joy, fear, sadness, variations of these)
S - sensation ... what physical sensations are you experiencing? (tight muscles, churning stomach, headache)
I - image ... what images are in your mind's eye? (a growling bear, a sad child, a tiny box)
C - cognitions ... what thoughts are in your mind?
This summer while I was volunteering as the doctor for a summer overnight camp, I had a little girl present with a fever and nothing else. No sore throat, no cough, no tender tummy, no earache. She wasn’t having diarrhea and she wasn’t throwing up. Just a fever. What to do?
We live in a culture afraid of illness. We don’t seem to trust our bodies to get well. Any little twinge sends us running for the Tylenol or the Advil. We do it for ourselves, and we do it for our kids.
Here’s the thing – that fever, that lethargy, that blah feeling? That desire to curl up with a blanket and a cup of hot peppermint tea? It’s our body’s brilliant way of telling us to conserve energy and resources for defending against an intruder. Fevers serve a huge purpose when we’re ill – they create an inhospitable environment for viruses and bacteria; they shift our immune system into “on” mode; they increase our heart rate and output, helping circulate all the factors that are necessary to get us well. Suppressing the fever turns all of that off, which may make us feel better in the short term, but does us no favours in the long run – it may actually impair the immune system’s ability to fight the infection, possibly increasing the time we take to recover!
Fevers are helpful. In the context of an otherwise healthy body, they are not harmful. They are self-limiting. And the most important thing is to find the cause of the fever, not to indiscriminately (fearfully?) yank it down. In older kids (ie. over three) we can tolerate a reasonable temperature for a little while even if there are no other signs or symptoms, letting the body sort it out. If the fever helps the immune system do its job before symptoms manifest, then excellent! And there are lots of ways to make a child more comfortable in the meantime using herbs, water therapy and homeopathy – strategies that increase comfort while helping the fever, not opposing it.
So that little girl. I tucked her into bed, gave her lots to drink, and checked on her throughout the day. In a few hours, her temperature was normal, her energy was back up, and she was back at play. Hopefully with a stronger, wiser immune system that was permitted to do its job.