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Healthy Outlook

Help control your ‘fight or flight’ reaction

By David Ezra, MFT

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

For the past 8 years I have been leading weekly meditation classes to help people learn to relax, cope with stress, and minimize impulsive behaviors. Though sometimes skeptical at first, participants report that meditation has helped them to minimize the "fight or flight" stress response. Meditation can produce real results that lead to fewer medical visits and fewer behavioral problems.

Participants in my classes report being able to connect deeply to their feelings but at the same time, regulate their emotional responses to those feelings. They often can see the bigger picture even in very challenging circumstances. The results of these classes have been remarkable, especially remarkable, in that the people in my classes are incarcerated.

Meditation can be beneficial for people from all walks of life. Perhaps you are prone to depression or anxiety, perhaps your emotions get the better of you, perhaps you are experiencing a difficult life event or simply riding the bumps of everyday living. Perhaps you are parenting.

No matter how in control of our lives we feel, we encounter moments in which survival instincts emerge. This can happen in a bout of road rage, frustration with our children or families, or because the world is not how we want it to be. In some way, we feel threatened.

Two parts of the brain (the amygdala and prefrontal cortex) determine how we will react. The amygdala, sometimes called the primitive brain, causes the release of powerful brain stimulants along with a flood of emotions. The need to respond quickly in the face of immediate danger is a good thing. But most often, our stressors don’t require such "snap" decisions. The prefrontal cortex helps us think clearly, assists with problem solving and helps us to gain a better perspective. Like my students experienced, people are better able to respond skillfully if they gain some awareness of the situation and can turn down their "reactivity."

According to some reports, 43% of adults suffer adverse health effects from stress. Many studies have shown that people who meditate regularly are at lower risk for high blood pressure, asthma, allergies, ulcers and many other diseases. Studies also show decreased depression and anxiety and overall increase in sense of wellbeing with regular practice.

For further discussion of meditation, I recommend any of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s books such as "Wherever You Go, There You Are."

If you can’t wait, here are some tips for beginners.

  1. Set aside 10-15 minutes of uninterrupted time every morning or evening.
  2. Sit in a comfortable but upright position with feet on the floor and hands resting on thighs, elbows bent slightly as not to pull on shoulders and neck. Head not up or down- just straight
  3. Close your eyes and begin to focus on your breath- just watching and feeling the inhale and exhale. Make this the focus of your concentration. Let any thoughts, emotions, or thinking about what you have to do today simply rise up and pass like waves in the ocean or clouds in a blue sky. Return to the breath over and over. Don’t judge anything. Just try not to chase your thoughts or deny them. Just sit. Remember, you are bigger than these passing experiences.

Healthy Outlook is written by the professional staff of Contra Costa Health Services, the county health department. Send questions to series coordinator Dr. David Pepper at theairdoctor@gmail.com. For more health information, go to www.cchealth.org.
About the Author
Ezra is a Mental Health Clinical Specialist for the Detention Mental Health of Contra Costa Health Services.