Join us by reading one chapter per week of our book The Healing Circle which includes inspiring true stories and teaching from the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. Each week we will post the next chapter of our book, links to related video, and a blog about the chapter. Learn about recent scientific advances in the body-mind-spirit connection, updates of the people featured in our book, and our reflections on each chapter. Read the whole book for free by accessing the previous blog posts. Please send us your comments and questions! Deep peace and healing, Rob Rutledge, MD and Timothy Walker, PhD.
Read Chapter Thirteen: Coming Home to Your Body, Mindful Breath and Body Scan
Watch the Video: Try following this Body Scan relaxation exercise (get down onto the floor if you can).
Resetting the Stress-o-Meter
Resetting your stress-o-meter by practicing a relaxation technique everyday can profoundly affect your life in many ways.
First, you’ll be able to settle down faster and more effectively when you’re feeling stressed. For example, let’s say you’re going into your doctor’s office to get the results of a recent scan. (As an oncologist, I’ve noticed people seem to be more anxious about the “unknown” than they are when they’re coping with the difficulties of any “known” situation. And even when they’re living through a really tough situation it’s their fear of the future, rather than the suffering of the moment, that affects them most. The fact is people have incredible resilience when they live in the moment, which can be of great surprise to themselves and to their loved ones. Typically, people’s fear of the future is far overblown, and their innate capacity to cope and love in the midst of adversity is far underplayed). Back to the doctor’s office. If you notice that you’re feeling anxious, you can settle yourself down by tapping into the relaxation response. The critical step is to notice your unique reaction to a stressful event. The stress reaction might manifest as physical sensations (eg. feeling breathless, heart pounding, headache, butterflies in the stomach), emotional states (eg. irritability, feeling like you’re going to cry) and even a change in the way you think (trouble concentrating, swearing in your mind, labelling people or situations).
If you’re able to notice any of these stress reaction cues then you can press the ‘pause’ button, take four slow deep breaths into your lower abdomen, while bringing your attention to the sensations in your body. Then use the wise and compassionate part of your mind to reassure yourself. For example, once you prime the relaxation response you might think to yourself along these lines: “I may be feeling stressed now but I can handle this. I’ll just take one step at a time. I’ve been through tough situations before and I’ll get through this no matter what the scans show.” Or you might take a more spiritual perspective: “Here’s an opportunity to bring my love and peace into the world. I’ll be loving to everyone I meet on this journey no matter what happens.”
When you settle down an acute stress reaction like this, you’ve switched the brain activity from the stress pathways to the relaxation pathways. The key point to this is that when you reset the stress-o-meter by practicing a relaxation technique on a daily basis outside of when you’re feeling stressed you’ll change your brain. The circuits in the relaxation pathway get stronger and stronger so it gets easier for your brain to switch from the state of “upset / can’t concentrate” to the state where you feel more peaceful and are able to think clearly. Practicing relaxation daily for 10-30 minutes is like creating a big well of calming energy on which you can draw when you need it most.
As a physician I know the profound health benefits of stress reduction (having more energy, better brain/memory function, fewer health problems in every organ system in the body) but it is my personal experience of lowering the setting on my stress-o-meter that has convinced me of the benefits of practicing relaxation techniques. On the days that I meditate in the morning, I feel more calm and at peace with the world. My energy seems to permeate my body down to my feet, and I feel more connected with the earth. My mind seems to rest more easily on what’s happening in front of me, and not flitter about thinking about everything else. Being in this more relaxed state doesn’t mean that the challenges of life disappear; the world will serve up the same external conditions. But you’ll be in a different space to receive them, and your ability to choose how you want to respond will improve.
Instead of being spaced out when I’m relaxed, I’m actually more efficient, doing one thing at a time by putting my entire focus on it. Being calm also allows me to see the reality of the situation for what it is. I’m not fighting with the truth and wasting my energy wishing it to be different. Practicing meditation doesn’t mean that I turn off having to make judgements of others either. I can still see people for who they are, and I still use my rational mind to try to make good decisions. Moreover, my natural love and compassion seem to extend out from my heart more easily when I’m relaxed.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, resetting the stress-o-meter provides a window to the sacred. When we’re able to relax into the world, we become aware of the beauty of life, and we can put our precious life force energy into what’s most important.
Dr. Rob Rutledge is a Radiation Oncologist in Halifax, Nova Scotia, specializing in breast, prostate and pediatric cancers. He is also an Associate Professor in the Faculty of Medicine at Dalhousie University.
In 1999, Rob co-created the ‘Skills for Healing’ Cancer Weekend Retreats. These weekend support groups teach a powerful and integrated approach to the cancer diagnosis and ways to heal at levels of body, mind and spirit. To date, more than 1,600 people have attended the retreats in over 20 cities across Canada and abroad.
Rob also leads the Healing and Cancer Foundation, a Registered Charity, that freely offers educational videos, documentaries, and webcasting seminars – and he is co-author of a book called The Healing Circle, which captures the teachings and inspirational stories from the weekend retreats.
In 2010, Rob received Cancer Care Nova Scotia’s Award for Excellence in Patient Care and, in 2006 Doctors Nova Scotia presented him with the Health Promotion Award in recognition of his contribution to physician health and health promotion in cancer patients.