Coping with Anxiety: Science Shows That Meditation, Massage, Yoga-Even Laughter-Can Change Bad Habits in the Brain

By Kalb, Claudia | Newsweek, February 24, 2003 | Go to article overview

Coping with Anxiety: Science Shows That Meditation, Massage, Yoga-Even Laughter-Can Change Bad Habits in the Brain


Kalb, Claudia, Newsweek


Byline: Claudia Kalb

There's Cipro, potassium iodide and the smallpox vaccine to ward off biological agents. But is there an antidote to anxiety? "I'm very frightened," said Julie White, as she exited Manhattan's Sonic Yoga last week. But she has a remedy: the stretching and deep breathing of yoga. The practice is so calming that after the terror upgrade, White made an upgrade of her own--from one class a day to two. Yoga, she says, "is my tranquilizer."

You may find the lotus pose hopelessly warm and fuzzy in the face of terror. But there are a host of activities, from working out to going for a massage, that can temper the anxiety. Many of these techniques have been used for decades, if not centuries; now advances in science are showing they can reduce the hormones associated with stress and even affect brain activity. The common trait among all: maintaining control and recognizing that our concerns are a natural response to the world we live in. "We're justified in having this fear," says Dr. Herbert Benson, president of the Mind/Body Medical Institute of Boston. "Life was stressful before 9-11. It's gotten progressively worse."

The first step toward combating fear is identifying it. Keep in mind that headaches, stomachaches, sleeplessness and rapid heartbeat are all symptoms of anxiety. Confront the emotion head-on by naming it, even saying, "I feel fear about this," says Saki Santorelli, executive director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School's Center for Mindfulness. Acknowledging anxiety makes us less passive, less vulnerable and, as a result, more able to cope.

Understand that fear is a component of stress, the complex fight-or-flight response ingrained in us since the cave days. When we're confronted with danger, epinephrine (adrenaline) starts pumping, the heart speeds up, blood pressure increases, breathing quickens.

One of the most efficient ways to reduce stress is to focus inward on one thing we can effectively control: our own breath. At the Mind/Body Medical Institute, participants elicit a "relaxation response," repeating a word--anything from "om" to "Hail Mary"-- silently as they exhale. In numerous studies, Benson has found that the practice leads to lower blood pressure, slower breathing and an overall calm. Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin-Madison recently found that a form of meditative breathing pioneered at the Center for Mindfulness can affect the brain. In a small, soon-to-be- published study, Davidson took brain images of 25 members of a biotech firm who practiced meditation six days a week for eight weeks. He found increased activation in the left side of the prefrontal part of the brain, an area associated with lower anxiety, positive emotion and inhibition of the amygdala, the brain's fear center. …

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