Aug 13 2011
Years ago I saw a movie in which a busy, stressed-out woman was diagnosed with terminal cancer and, understandably, she was terrified. She started working with a Chinese doctor who taught her the healing power of relaxation and told her to repeat the mantra, “No hurry, no worry.” She said those words often and followed his healing regimen and was eventually cured! Those words have stayed with me over the years and I often say them to myself whenever I feel stressed. “No hurry, no worry.” Or, as my teenage niece says, ”Chillax!”
There’s a direct correlation between stress and illness, especially cancer. We all have cancer cells in our bodies and a strong immune system is what keeps them from multiplying. However, STRESS SUPPRESSES THE IMMUNE SYSTEM, and in some people this allows cancer to grow out of control. Stress also creates an acidic condition in the body, which cancer thrives on. In addition, stress creates inflammation, another dangerous breeding ground for cancer and other illnesses.
When I think about what probably most contributed to my having cancer, the answer is stress. Many years ago I was aware of how much tension I had in my body – I noticed a habitual clenching, particularly in my stomach and pelvic area. I had the thought, “If I ever have health problems, this is where it will be.” Sure enough, three years ago all hell broke loose down there, starting with a ruptured, necrotic, gangrenous appendix, the worst my doctor had ever seen, followed by the discovery of uterine cancer, and finally recurring uterine cancer.
Since stress turns off my immune system, in order to heal I know I need to relax. I can hear a frantic part of me imploring, “RELAX OR DIE!” But it’s hard to relax with a cancer diagnosis – while tension is a precursor of cancer, it is also a natural reaction to it once you have it. Therefore, I am diligently committed to cultivating a relaxing path of “No hurry, no worry”, which includes meditation, exercise, visualization, and trusting that I am loved and guided and right where I’m supposed to be.
Lately, I’ve added a new refrain, “Viva La Vagus!,” in celebration of the amazing vagus nerve. (I’ve been singing the Elvis song, Viva Las Vegas, in my head all day!) I’ve recently learned that the vagus nerve activates the immune system, and deep, slow, abdominal breaths activate the vagus nerve. I was alerted to this when my brilliant scientist friend, Peggy LaCerra, wrote on Facebook, “When people are panicked because of an illness, I tell them to simply take 10 VERY DEEP breaths repeatedly throughout the day because, when we breath deeply, the diaphragm drops to the bottom of the thoracic cavity. The vagus nerve – the main ‘neural cable’ of the parasympathetic system runs through the diaphragm muscle. When the diaphragm drops down and then rises and drops down and rises repeatedly, it stimulates the vagus nerve and initiates a shift back to a parasympathetic state.” The parasympathetic state triggers a relaxation response and activates the immune system, helping our bodies heal, repair, and renew.
I’ve since been researching the vagus nerve and found that taking the deep, slow, abdominal breaths that trigger it promotes healing in numerous ways: it oxygenates the body (cancer hates oxygen), creates alkalinity in the body (cancer is said to flourish in acidity and wither in alkalinity), helps control obesity (which is another risk factor for cancer and other illnesses), reduces inflammation, makes our lymphatic system work better, improves memory, fights depression, lowers blood pressure, enhances brain and heart activity, purifies our blood, aids digestion, rejuvenates our skin, and reduces pain. Deep breathing delivers a wealth of health benefits! And it’s completely FREE! I just need to remember to do it!
The healing power of breath is not news to me. After all, my e-mail address of the last ten years has been JanBreathe, because I wanted to remind myself to breathe. I’ve also studied breath work with breath master Gay Hendricks, and learned well the importance of conscious breathing. Yet…I forget, I go unconscious and revert back to my old habitual shallow breath.
But now, knowing that the best chance I have of completely healing from this life-threatening illness is having a strong immune system, and knowing that deep breath triggers the vagus nerve which in turn triggers the immune system, I’m all about breathing deep, slow breaths all day, every day! I want to live, and, also, it just plain feels good! What I’m finding as I’ve been focusing on deep breathing is that it energizes and enlivens me. When I’m fully breathing, I’m fully alive. When I’m shallow breathing, I’m shallowly alive. “He lives most life whoever breathes most air.”-Elizabeth Barrett Browning.
I can see where early in life I unconsciously adopted a life strategy to breathe shallowly as a way to blunt my feelings. The flaw in that strategy is that shallow breathing contributes to stress, tension, illness, anxiety, depression and more things to feel fear about. Fully breathing is committing to being in my body and feeling my full aliveness, including being willing to feel all my feelings.
One of my favorite cartoons shows in the first frame a man sitting at a desk with a blank look on his face. In the second frame his eyes are wide open and he looks vitalized and excited. In the third and final frame he once again has a blank expression. The caption reads, “Herb has a brief but intense near-life experience.” As I breathe deep, slow breaths throughout the day, I’m having a prolonged and intense near-life experience! I’m feeling invigorated and calm at the same time.
Being a multi-tasker, when I can remember, I add a smile to my breathing, (stimulating healing endorphins), and say the words “I love you” (activating healing oxytocin). As an added bonus to all the health benefits, I’m finding that focusing on deep breathing is an instant portal to the present moment. That’s the place I want to be.
“Breathing in, I calm body and mind. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment I know this is the only moment.” -Thich Nhat Hanh
I say a big YES to fully breathing and being fully alive, fully in my body, AND fully healed! I’ll breathe to that!
How about you? Are you committed to fully breathing and being fully alive? No hurry, no worry – just take some deep, slow breaths and join me in a spirited chorus of “Viva La Vagus!” Here’s to a stimulated immune system and a stimulating life!