Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Repetetive Prayers can Reset Your Stress Thermostat

This is another interesting article I found on how prayers can reset the stress thermostat.

Stress Shrinks the Brain

I am at a conference in Boston. I forgot my computer at home. I found a computer at my hotel and stumbled on this article on stress and the brain.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Allostatic Load, the Secret Enemy

A recent study that appeared in the BBC on Line showed that people in the lower class, (blue collar) compared to their white collar counterparts aged faster. To be more precise they were seven years older than their more affluent counterparts. Another study done on 1552 female underpaid, overworked twins showed the same results when their telomeres were analysed by Tim Spector and his colleagues at the Saint Thomas Hospital, London. Dr Spector suggests that low socioeconomic status and its associated oxidative stress on the telomeres cause them to shorten. He also says:

"The greater psychological stress of being in a low social class, with more people above you in the food chain and less control over your life, is the unseen hand that might mean more stress at cellular level," and the "Oxidative stress does make telomeres shorten."

Allostatic load is the enemy. When people are affected by unrelenting stress, the immune system takes a hit. If the stress is temporary, the cells recover. However, if the stress continues day in day out for years, it will have effect on the body through its effects on the chromosomes and the immune system. Some of the diseases that arise because of the allostatic load include depression, Alzheimer, anxiety, heart attack, cardiomyopathy , metabolic syndrome, insulin resistance, heart failure and atherosclerosis. If stress can cause allostatic load diseases then it's important that we find ways to decrease stress. Apart from ageing faster, we suffer from many ailments. We have it within us to be able to cope and enjoy life to its fullest. What we have to do is to recognise that we are under stress and find ways to decrease the stress which can be more poisonous than the most virulent microbe. We will discuss how we can withstand the onslaught of stress in the next few postings.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Forgive and Heal

Nelson Mandela, a member of the African National Congress, was imprisoned in 1964 by the South African government and spent 24 years in jail. He was released after massive international pressure on the South African apartheid government nearly crippled its economy. After his release, he forgave the Government of South Africa and paved the way for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

That unforgiveness has effect on our health cannot be disputed
. It stresses the person who has been offended and the person who committed the offense. Sometimes, the latter does not even know she is causing somebody grief. Forgiveness has many definitions, both psychological and pastoral. I like the following definition:

"Forgiveness is further described in the psychological literature as: a powerful therapeutic intervention and as an intellectual exercise in which the patient makes a decision to forgive (Fitzgibbons, 1986); a voluntary act and a decision and choice about how one deals with the past (Hope, 1987); a letting-go of a record of wrongs and a need for vengeance and releasing associated negative feelings such as bitterness and resentment (DiBlasio, 1992); the accomplishment of mastery over a wound and the process through which an injured person first fights off, then embraces, then conquers a situation that nearly destroyed him (Flanigan, 1992); both intrapsychic and interpersonal (Benson, 1992); and giving up one's right to hurt back (Pingleton, 1989)."

In our day to day interaction with our neighbors, family members and in our work place, we are bound to offend some of them, either intentionally or unintentionally. On the other hand we may be offended or injured by the people we love or by strangers. In any of these situations when we are offended, to be able to carry on with our lives, we need to forgive and move on. The following pastoral definition is appealing:

"Patton (1985), from a pastoral theological perspective, addresses this issue raised by
Hubaut in his work Is Human Forgiveness Possible? Patton describes human forgiveness as:

not doing something but discovering something - that I am

more like those who have hurt me than different from them.
I am able to forgive when I discover that I am in no position
to forgive. Although the experience of God's forgiveness
may involve confession of, and the sense of being forgiven for,
specific sins, at its heart it is the recognition of my reception
into the community of sinners - those affirmed by God as
his children. (p.16)."

People who have gone through atrocities like the Holocaust, the Rwandan strife, South African Apartheid Regime and the Darfoor atrocities, may find it difficult to forgive without reconciliation. For a group of people to be subjected to these kinds of atrocities, with the whole world watching, wringing its hands, helpless and impotent, a group healing must occur. This should involve confession from the perpetrators of the atrocities. This public display of discussion and repentance like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, has the effect of deterring others from repeating the same mistakes. Reconciliation with penalty assigned to the perpetrators can bring closure to the suffering of countless people.

For most of us, we should know we are human. We will hurt people and people will hurt us. Acknowledging our mistakes and apologizing when we hurt others will give us peace of mind and make us

Saturday, February 03, 2007

Altruism, Jesus' Second Commandment

In August 2006, I joined the International Healthcare Volunteers to work at the Central Regional Health Center in Cape Coast, a coastal town in Ghana. I was called to the hospital's emergency room to see an 18 year old girl who was pregnant and was miscarrying. She was bleeding and was as white as paper. She needed blood. However, the hospital did not have enough blood for her. Her mother was called to get her relatives to donate blood for the patient. The relatives lived in another town and hence could not come to donate the blood in a timely fashion to save the girl's life. Two of my female colleagues (physicians) volunteered and donated 2 pints of blood for the patient. There is no way the blood donors did not benefit from their kindness. The feeling of helping a helpless teenager in no doubt boosted their self esteem and immune system.

A study in the US, designed to assess empathy, altruism, religiousness and spirituality, elicited various
responses from the people surveyed. Altruism is a healthy trait to develop. When helping others the helper also benefits from giving themselves unselfishly. It's like sprinkling perfume on a rotten carcass. The odor from the carcass is taken away and the person doing the sprinkling enjoys a better smell after the sprinkling of the perfume. Dr Martin Luther King and Mahatma Gandhi were altruistic and paid for it with their lives. Dr King summed his idea of altruism as:

"There is a power in love that our world has not discovered yet. Jesus discovered it centuries ago. Mahatma Gandhi of India discovered it a few years ago, but most men and most women never discover it. For they believe in hitting for hitting; they believe in an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth; they believe in hating for hating; but Jesus comes to us and says, "This isn’t the way." And this morning, I think of the fact that our world is in transition now. Our whole world is facing a revolution." Martin Luther King, Jr.

Even animals are altruistic . It appears that we are all born with the capacity to be altruistic. Recent brain scans have been able to find a region of the brain responsible for altruism. Does it mean that if you grow up in an altruistic family, you would also become altruistic because of development of that area of the brain that is responsible for altruism? Does it mean that we can learn altruism in later life? In an article that appeared in the Journal, Spirituality and Science, healthcare givers were given spiritual training on altruism and the:

"Findings indicate the program significantly reduces stress and enhances caregiving self-efficacy, altruistic actions, compassion, empathy, and forgiveness of others and of self, and the effects persisted at an eight-week follow-up. The results support consideration of such a program in continuing education curricula for healthcare professionals."

Love of humanity has positive physiologic effects on the individual showering the love and the recipient of the love. If an altruism center can be found in the brain, then it means we are born with it and all of us can practise it. If we don't practise it now, we can learn to lend a helping hand to a stranger or to a struggling member of our family. This way, the perfume we sprinkle on our neighbor can be smelt on us too, for this is a gift Christ left us - to "love your neighbor as yourself."