BEIRUT: Our bodies are the “wildest pharmacies,” qualified medical doctor and certified yoga and meditation instructor Mayssam Saliba tells The Daily Star as she explains the physiology of stress and discusses stress management techniques.
Q: What causes people to suffer from stress?
A: As a human species we have something called the flight-fight response. This is a self-preservation mechanism that we developed throughout [thousands of] years.
So, let’s say you are walking in the jungle ... and you hear a sound. You know that OK, this is a tiger in the bushes. Within five seconds, your whole physiology, your whole anatomic nervous system, will decide should I run away to save my life or should I fight this tiger and save my life.
So, what happens is that within five seconds we start to perspire, we start to sweat because we have to reduce the heat of the body. ... We start to breathe really fast and shallow to pump in the oxygen into the blood stream. ... The blood goes from the internal organs into the hands and the feet, so it shunts into the extremities to give us force to fight or run away. Our platelets, these tiny particles of the blood, they start to become sticky, because ... we need to be ready if we get a cut so we won’t bleed to death.
Then the brain thinks, the physiology thinks: “You know, I don’t think I need the growth hormone in this moment, so let’s shut down the growth hormone. I don’t need the sex hormones, let’s shut down the sex hormones. I don’t need the immunity ... so let’s shut down the immunity. And let’s elevate the stress hormones, let’s elevate the adrenalin, let’s elevate the cortisone, let’s elevate the glucagon.”
Glucagon is like eating five snickers bars at one time. It’s like [a] supercharging energy for the body, either to fight or run away for your life.
And this is a very good mechanism if you have a tiger. ... If there’s a bombing in the street it’s a very good mechanism. You will be supercharged with energy either to run away or to save whomever you want to save.
In our daily lives there aren’t many tigers. ... In everyday life, we don’t really need this kind of response [but] we develop something called ... ego-reactive response.
In this ego-reactive response we activate the same things that happen in the fight-flight response, but not when we face a tiger or we are running for our lives, rather when somebody gives us a compliment that’s not as good as we are expecting [or] if our boss talks to us in a way that we didn’t like, [or] if somebody challenges what we own [or] even our opinions. ... We have the same things activated in the body over the challenge of the ego.
Q: Why is it so important to relieve the stress, what exactly happens if it goes unrelieved?
A: If you have a stress relieving practice, like meditation in specific, ... you would have something called [a] restful-awareness response [to ego challenging situations].
In this response you wouldn’t perspire more; you would perspire less. Your blood flow wouldn’t have a shunt to your extremities; it would flow really normally into the internal organs. You wouldn’t have any problems like digestives problems, like stress problems. Your heart would pump really easy and slow. Your breath would be deep and slow and go into the deep part of your lungs where we have more vessels for oxygen. Your platelets wouldn’t be so sticky, so you wouldn’t be prone to stokes and infractions to your heart. Your immunity will go up. Your growth hormone will go up. Your sex hormones will go into normal levels, and you will shut down the stress hormones. ... Basically, you would be more prepared internally for whatever comes into your way.
Q: How does a person go about finding a stress relief system that works for them?
A: We define stress as our reaction when anything we expect doesn’t happen. We are expecting our day to go from A-Z in a certain way. If it goes from A-Z in another way, [how] we react to that, it’s our reaction to stress.
Some people, they would be freaking out, [others] withdrawing or being aggressive.
If you are somebody who is overcharged, we would advise you to de-charge in another way; [for example], to use your competitiveness in sports.
I would advise meditation to all the three kinds ... because meditation balances the mind-body connection so it puts us, as I describe it, in a bubble, so we are not reacting, [rather] we are acting from a conscious place.
If you want to include some other techniques, I would advise yoga. ... For people who withdraw, we would have some invigorating techniques, to put them more out there, to put them more into the challenge.
For people who would blame themselves all the time, [I would advise them] to meditate every single morning and every single evening because they are the people who are prone to over think. ... Once you get them more centered in who they are and what they are and what they do, they may be more out there and not [feeling] like whatever happens is their fault all the time.
Q: Are there negative ways to deal with stress?
A: There’s a lot of that. We numb ourselves instead of facing what’s in front of us. We try to numb ourselves through alcohol, through drugs, through Xanax, through Prozac. ... I’m not saying that it’s not essential for some kinds of situation ... but our brain and our physiology is the wildest pharmacy that you will ever know, if we pay a little bit of attention [to it].
Q: What if a person feels they don’t have time to introduce stress relieving activities in their schedule?
A: If you don’t have time to meditate once a day, you should meditate twice a day!
But, you know, I would tell you this: Time is perceptual. ... If your physiology deep inside is calm ... and you’re not dealing with life in a stressful manner, you will have more time in your life.
Q: But really, what if you just can’t fit in a class?
A: You can do it at the comfort of your home. ... Part of my course is how to make the practice real in your life. ... What we teach is something called RPM – rise, pee, meditate. You fit your meditation in first thing in the morning. ... I would suggest waking up 15 minutes earlier, and rise, pee, meditate. Go to the bathroom, and then just get into meditation practice. And then just take one minute from each activity that you do in the morning. ... If you have fifteen things you do in the morning, you would have [gained] a pure half an hour [for meditation].
An hour of meditation equals four hours of sleep. So even if you wake up 15 minutes earlier you will be resting during your meditation so you wouldn’t miss out on your sleep.
Q: Do people have to learn how to meditate effectively?
A: I suggest yes.
I give a very general technique which is focusing on the breath. So what you do is you sit down, you center yourself, you take a couple of deep breaths, and then on the inhale you would say the word “so” and on the exhale you would say the word “hum” without moving your mouth tongue or lips.
This is what we call a mantra meditation. ... It’s as if you’re giving a little kid some toy and he would be playing with the toy so he would stop nagging at you. Our minds have about 60,000 to 80,000 thoughts per day. ... We are thinking and thoughts are coming and we don’t want that to stop. Our mind is a thought-generating organ, just as our heart pumps blood. You cannot stop the thoughts, but in the process of meditation you would calm down the mind so you would have gaps between one thought and the next thought, and even if this gap is milliseconds ... this is what we call meditation.
Meditation is a practice, so the more you practice the more you would be able to spend time in this space between the thoughts. How would you do that? You would give your mind a mantra.
You can do it anytime, anywhere, and anyplace. ... You could have some quite time in your office, in your home, in your car, and you could meditate. You could meditate in Place d’Etoile and you wouldn’t have any problem.