Learning to Tame the Inner Fretter
In the morning, before oatmeal and a crossword, I’ve been sitting at my desk, eyes closed, listening for the gong of a meditation bell billowing from an audio clip on my computer. The sound is lush and vibrant. As it slowly fades, a voice reminds me to follow the tone, notice how it lingers, and then recall the sound in my mind.
Dutifully, I “think” the bong of an imaginary bell in my head. As I listen, I glance out the window briefly. The ping of raindrops on the glass has distracted me and questions flicker through my thoughts. How long will these sprinkles last? Maybe the gym instead of a walk today?
The gong sounds again from the computer, gently silencing mental chatter. Ten minutes of this, a barrage of research purports, can improve both the quality and quantity of the life I have left. It’s not new, this insistence on the effectiveness of meditation in promoting a healthy life. But recent research by a psychologist at Oregon State University has given meditation fresh significance for seniors.
Carolyn Aldwin, Ph.D., director of the Center for Healthy Aging Research at Oregon State University, sifted through the data of an 18-year study of male veterans and determined that stress can curb your life span. What the data revealed, she says, is that it’s not so much the cause of the stress as the response that threatens longevity. What it also revealed is that it doesn’t take a major life event to put your health in peril. An accumulation of hassles, frustrations, annoyances deliver the same risk.
If you consider your life stressful most of the time, you face higher odds of health challenges and shorter life span than people who roll with the punches and regain balance, says Aldwin, who shared her findings in an interview on National Public Radio.
Aldwin’s warning emerged from data collected in a study of male veterans with an average age of 65 conducted through the US Department of Veterans Affairs. But most of the research conducted at OSU’s interdisciplinary Center for Healthy Aging Research draws participants from a pool of volunteer
Oregonians aged 50 and above who have completed the Life Registry enrollment form found on the Center for Healthy Aging Research website. (http://health.oregonstate.edu/healthy-aging/life-registry.)
If you think life is Stressful,
Those thoughts could making you old
The Center coordinates aging studies from researchers throughout the university with topics ranging from safe driving for seniors to fall prevention, nutrition, and home safety.
But it was stress that caught my attention first. The dangers of stress, of course, are not new. What’s new is a persistent buzz of little annoyances can be as damaging as a catastrophe. This is important to me because I excel at fretting. I can dither about almost anything. I have way more second, third, and fourth thoughts than fresh starts. It seems harmless enough, but Aldwin believes it’s not.
So, how does she suggest we learn to roll with the punches? “Basically, it’s an exercise in mindfulness,” she advises me in a telephone interview. “One exercise that is useful is to ask yourself on a scale of one to ten, how stressful is this? People need to have perspective. That can help you not over-stress.”
Mindfulness! That advice sent me to the Internet where a YouTube search for 10-minute meditations produced dozens of options for calming the mental maelstrom. I’m hoping that a frequent dose of Tibetan bell reverberations will assuage anxieties raised by a flow of studies and reports pinpointing stress as a major player in the complexities that accompany aging.
Earlier this year TIME magazine devoted a special issue to longevity with a series of articles that seemed to echo Aldwin by putting emphasis on mindfulness, exercise, and gratitude as pillars of healthy aging. The exercise part of the healthy aging formula I satisfy quite happily with my love of walking.
Thirty years ago I read “The Relaxation Response,” cardiologist Herbert Benson’s pioneering look at stress, meditation and heart health and decided to make my fitness walks a blend of movement and meditation. A double-pronged approach to heart insurance. Now it appears that heart disease is the tip of a massive stressed-out iceberg. Large or small, negative stress impacts the life span of our cells and the rate at which we age.
Have I been doing enough to combat it? (Ack! There’s the fretter again!)
Minfulness, Exercise and Gratitude add Years to Life
“Learn to relax and your blood pressure goes down, emerge from depression and your immune system picks up,” TIME reported in March. “If the mind can heal the body, can it also rejuvenate it? Can it slow the aging process?”
Dean Shrock, 70, thinks it can. Shrock is a counseling psychologist whose early career work with oncologist Carl Simonton sealed his faith in the healing power of the mind and led him to create wellness programs for a group of cancer centers in Pennsylvania.
“I no longer work for the cancer centers, but I am anything but retired,” insists Shrock, who three years ago moved to the West Coast and settled in Yachats with his wife. Earlier this month he offered a workshop on “Mindfulness, Meditation, & Imagery for the Older Adult” at OSU’s annual 39th Annual Gerontology Conference.
“It’s interesting,” he says “I don’t feel 70. I don’t act 70. I can’t do everything I used to do, but the last thing I am thinking about is retiring. I love my work too much.”
Stress is a given, Shrock confirms, when I call to seek his advice on coping tools for a chronic fretter like me. “Life is going to have traumatic events. It’s about learning to roll with the punches and putting life in perspective.” We do that he says, by engaging the mind. Meditation, mindfulness, or mental imagery are tools that help us harness the healing power of the mind. It’s simple, he says, but not so easy.
Shrock validates mindfulness by comparing it with the placebo effect—the positive outcome some people experience when given a sugar pill. We usually consider a strong placebo effect evidence that a particular drug is not effective. Instead, why don’t we see it as confirmation of the mind’s power to produce the result it seeks? Why not harness that power? he asks.
The place to start, Shrock suggests, is to follow your bliss. What he means is, find something you love to do, something that absorbs you completely. Then make time to do it. Go fishing. Knit an afghan. Take a walk. Play the piano. Do a jigsaw puzzle. Or, imagine you are doing it. Guided imagery, he says, is a form of mental rehearsal. So guided imagery for healthy aging might be to imagine yourself doing something you love at any age.
“See yourself happy and healthy,” he says. “How would you feel if you were truly healthy and happy? What would you imagine saying to yourself if you were healthy and happy? Imagine doing that.”
On the Oregon coast, you might spend a few quiet minutes watching waves of the Pacific spill along the shore, as Shrock does. Let yourself simply follow the flicker of flames in the fireplace.
“Those things are going to be remarkable effective in helping people become relaxed and allowing body functions to be healthy and normal,” he says. “Honestly, meditation is just a narrowing of attention to something neutral.”
The key is taking time to neutralize the stress that is part of every life.
OSU’s Aldwin agrees: “It’s not the number of hassles that does you in,” she says. “It’s the perception of them being a big deal that causes problems. Taking things in stride may protect you.”
Ah, “in stride,” she said! “Taking things in stride!” There’s a prescription that suits me perfectly. I’m off to follow my bliss on a walk.
Carolyn Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer,
and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at email@example.com.