Finding Serenity in Your Life


In the event of tragedy, some have managed to bounce back and even to be serene about it all.

Anything from turning to family to working out to finding a renewed purpose has done the trick. For others, using a one-word mantra to get by has upped the odds of finding tranquility in the face of disaster.

In the past decade, "mind-body medicine" has gained considerable legitimacy in science and medicine in ways that we couldn't have imagined. A whole new wing of exploration is centered on testing the efficacy of age-old remedies: slow-down herbs, relaxation beads, copper bracelets, and other odes to tranquility that live in the mind and play out on the body.

Richard Davidson, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, knows much about these chemicals and their effects. An expert in the association between brain-wave activity and human emotion, he heads one of five national research centers for the study of mind/body interactions. Dr. Davidson and his team are studying how brainwave activity relates to emotional style and stress-related illness. Researchers have discovered distinct brain waves — alpha, beta, delta and theta — that relate to specific mental activity. The frequency, extent and density of these brain waves are measurable.

Dr. Davidson has found that positive emotions, such as peace of mind and composure, appear to depend on the precise arousal of brain chemicals along a network of neural circuits. EEG tests show that most people have more electrical activation in one frontal lobe than in the other. His team discovered that people with hyper-activation in the left frontal lobe may be more optimistic, less susceptible to mood disorders, and more stress resilient. That network, Davidson said, links both hemispheres of the prefrontal cortex with the amygdala and the hippocampus, a chili-shaped region deep in the brain. For those of us not necessarily blessed with hyper-activation in the left (or rather right) frontal lobe, there is still hope for finding peace and maybe living longer and happier, despite the onslaught.

To expel stress requires getting to its roots, pronounces Allen Elkin, PhD, director of the Stress Management and Counseling Center in New York and author of Stress Management for Dummies, though there is clearly more than one path to nirvana.

Alice Domar, PhD, director of women's health at Boston's Deaconess Hospital, (part of Harvard Medical School's Division of Behavioral Medicine) and co-author with Henry Dreher of Healing Mind, Healthy Woman, found that while 20% of infertile women got pregnant with standard medical treatment, a whopping 57% did when their medical regimen included support groups, anger management skills, and guided imagery.

Betsy Singh, Brian Berman, Victoria Hadhazy and Paul Creamer of the Complementary Medicine Program at the University of Maryland School of Medicine showed in a pilot study of 28 patients with fibromyalgia (for more common questions and expert answers on Fibromyalgia, visit Sharecare.com) that patient education, meditation and qigong movement therapy eased pain, fatigue, and sleeplessness and improved mood, function and general health.

A Closer Look At The Study

Blair Justice, Mary Ann Richardson and their associates at the University of Texas-Houston School of Public Health, conducted a pilot study to explore the effects of imagery vs. support on coping, attitude, immune function and emotional well-being after breast cancer. For all women, immune function and quality of life improved. Both intervention groups showed better coping skills than the standard care group, while the imagery group had less stress, more stamina and better quality of life.

Beyond the value of antidepressants and other mood elevators, which are the grist of another story, are some tried-and-true natural recipes for coping with anguish:

  • Learn to relax: Dr. Elkin uges rapid relaxation. "Take a deep breath, deeper than normal, and hold it in until there is slight discomfort. At the same time, squeeze your thumb and first finger together (as if you were making the okay sign) for six seconds. Exhale slowly through your mouth, release the pressure in your fingers, allow the tension to drain out. Repeat three times. With each breath, let your shoulders droop and drop your jaw
  • Forgive mistakes. Letting go of old hurts can lift your mind and spirit. A guest on "Oprah" grew up to forgive his abusive mother, who had savagely mistreated him as a child, and went on to triumph in his career and as a loving father and husband.
  • Think positive thoughts. Happiness expert, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor Martin Seligman, and author of Learned Optimism and The Optimistic Child, says that optimistic people minimize their misfortunes, while pessimistic people tend to blame themselves when things go wrong and attribute positive experiences to chance.
  • Focus your mind. Researchers at Maharishi say relaxing and reducing stress through transcendental meditation may reduce artery blockage and the risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study in the American Heart Association's journal Stroke during meditation the brain acts to quiet the body through concentrated breathing or word repetition, evoking a relaxation response that minimizes the harmful effects of stress.
  • Sara Lazar, Ph.D., a Harvard research fellow in psychology at Massachusetts General Hospital, in Boston, suggests meditation activates specific regions of the brain that may influence heart and breathing rates. Using a brain imaging technique known as functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, Lazar measured blood flow changes in seasoned meditators. "We found significant decrease in blood flow and activity in specific areas of the brain," says the study's senior author Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Mass. and author of "Staying Healthy in a Stressful World."
  • Benson, who also wrote The Relaxation Response, has shown that simple exercises can dramatically lower catecholamine levels in anxious and normal people to reduce risk of heart disease, high blood pressure, and ulcers. "The usual, fight-or-flight brain response liberates adrenalin and is stressful to the body but the relaxation response causes a decrease in activity for the entire brain," he says.

Tips For Finding Serenity

The list of tips for finding serenity continues below.

  • Look for beauty all around you. When someone sent a friend a nasty birthday card, she considered retaliating before taking another road. "I went out and enjoyed the sunshine...it was a much sweeter revenge," she explained.
  • Smell the roses. Aromatherapy can help you find peace by working through the brain - through the mind - and through the emotions. Aromas such as bergamot, atlas cedar, cypress, jasmine, juniper, neroli, frankincense, clary sage, vetiver, rosemary and ylang ylang may balance the nervous system, ease worry and stress, lift melancholy, encourage restful sleep, relieve crying, guilt, obsessions and compulsions, hostility, and panic.
  • Work your body. Aerobic exercise may lead to reduced output of fight-or-flight hormones and may decrease heart rate in some people. This may be part of why very fit people seem better able to tolerate stress. Aerobic exercise may also increase natural "relaxation chemicals" in the brain, called endorphins, which give you greater self-esteem, make you feel more in control, and better able to handle stressful situations. Research has shown that they may also contribute to clarity of mind. According to Dr. Larry Eckstein, a Boulder, Colo. internist who specializes in acupuncture and nutrition, whether target shooting or skiing, working out can make you feel less rattled by stressful situations and happier overall. One theory, he explains, is that stress can cause complex changes in the levels of "fight-or-flight" hormones, such as cortisol and adrenaline, which prepare us for emotional and physical threats.
  • The bottom line, according to Benson, is that all techniques that evoke the relaxation response are of equal benefit as long as they combine the benefits of breathing, muscle relaxation and meditation while toning and stretching the muscles. "The essence of relaxation is to break the train of everyday thought," he says, "whether with a rosary, meditation, musical instrument, Lamaze, shooting baskets, yoga, tai chi, or qi-gong."
  • Serenity through journaling. Nearly half the arthritis and asthma sufferers participating in one study got better by writing about stressful/traumatic things in their life, such as the death of a loved one or being raped. Keep a diary reflecting upsetting or overwhelming situations, as well as rewarding experiences that have made you feel serene and accomplished. Julia Cameron, author of the national best-seller, "The Artist's Way," says that it is one way to overcome internalized negativity and creativity myths and monsters."
  • Laugh and have fun. Research has shown that people who laugh intensely during tragic events, such as the death of a loved one, remember this laughter as helping them to endure the emotional pain.
  • Get a good snooze. During sleep, the subconscious works on problems, allowing you to break the stress cycle. If you can't sleep, take a hot bath or drink hot tea and milk to relax tense muscles.