Most of us would agree that we live in an age of stress. Losing our tempers, losing our jobs, losing our minds over the stresses we juggle tells us that stress is an unwelcome guest in our lives. Whether we worry about the past, future or all the terrible things that are or could happen to us is exhausting. Scientists tell us that stress is a major cause of most illnesses. Stress affects our brain and body including our thinking, heart, metabolism, skin, emotion, breathing, digestion, immune system and our sensitivity to pain. Fortunately much of the neuroscience research has given us proven ways to manage our stress.
Published: Monday, January 09, 2012, 6:22 AM
By Terri Finch Hamilton | The Grand Rapids Press MLive.com
Bill Weitzel is stressing me out.
I’m here in his office at Catholic Charities West Michigan, where he’s a therapist who counsels people in all kinds of turmoil. He’s teaching a class this month on managing stress.
I’m trying to get some tips, notebook and pen poised for duty.
“Put your notebook down,” Weitzel says.
Sorry, Bill — I have to write down the stuff you say.
“You need to put it down,” he repeats gently. “I want you to put the tips of your first fingers against the tips of your thumbs.”
But then I won’t be able to ...
Weitzel reaches over and takes my notebook and pen, setting them down on the table. I can feel my blood pressure rising. He smiles reassuringly.
“Close your eyes, and put your fingertips against your thumbs,” he says, demonstrating. “Now think of a place that relaxes you, a place that makes you happy.”
Anyplace where I can have my notebook and pen back, I think. But I say, obligingly, “The beach.”
Then, Weitzel starts describing my beach — the waves lapping, the balmy breeze, the blue sky, some other sensations I can’t remember exactly because he wouldn’t let me write them down. His calm voice is soothing. I imagine the sand between my toes and the warm sun on my face.
“Breathe,” he says quietly.
I can do this little exercise anywhere, Weitzel says. Touching my fingertips to my thumb tips gets it going, he says, then my mind will follow.
Weitzel is a big believer in how our minds can help us control stress. He’s a member of the Grand Rapids Center for Mindfulness, which teaches people how to use mindfulness to manage stress. Its programs are based on work at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
“Your thoughts and your mind have a lot to do with physical stress,” Weitzel says.
He knows a bit about stress.
A few years ago, he was laid off from his longtime career at Aquinas College.
“I had never been unemployed,” he says. “I had panic attacks. The first time, I thought I was having a heart attack.
“We have a better understanding now of the way the brain works,” he says. “How our thoughts and worries make chemical changes in our bodies.”
He talks about exercising your mind to reduce stress.
“Bring your attention from all these crazy thoughts — all these thoughts rob you from being in the moment,” he says. “Bring your thoughts in. When they start to go back to your stress, pull them back in again.
“The first time you do it, it’s flabby,” Weitzel says. “But do it more, and you strengthen your ability to focus. You strengthen that attention muscle.”
Weitzel touts “breath awareness.” Notice your breathing. Notice where the breath goes when it enters and leaves your body.
Don’t try to change it, he says, but it may change naturally as you observe it.
If your mind wanders away, gently bring your attention back to your breath. Do this for 15 to 20 minutes, he says.
Other experts in stress control echo Weitzel’s advice.
photo by: Katie Greene | The Grand Rapids Press