Personal Stress Relief
Take a Deep Breath – And Be Healthy
Psychosomatic disorders wrought by the pressure of modern life have become our biggest enemy. What can you do to resuscitate your stressed-out mind and body?
Take a Deep Breath – And Be HealthyBy Rebecca Lin, Ming-Ling Hsieh
From CommonWealth Magazine (vol. 473 )
Breathe in. Breathe out.
It's a seemingly effortless gulp of air, yet Liu Hsiu-ting has been learning to master it for two years now.
By studying breathing techniques and meditation, this insurance industry executive with a hectic travel schedule has been learning nothing other than the art of "tranquility."
"My heart rate used to be upwards of 90 beats per minute. Now it's down to just over 70," Liu says, a continuous smile adorning her face as she speaks, illustrating her words with hand gestures.
An increasing number of people are, like Liu, shelling out cash to learn the techniques of tranquility. At the Watermoon Arannya Zen Meditation Center in the Shipai district of Taipei, the students in attendance are not exclusively adherents of Buddhism. They come from all walks of life – scientists from the Chungshan Institute of Science and Technology, stock traders, cram school directors, Taipower executives, ordinary office workers, even fifth grade elementary school students.
Why do they come to learn meditation? Some say to learn to relax and reduce stress, some say they are looking to be more centered and improve their temperament, but at the end of the day what they are all seeking most is peace of mind and tranquility. While this is not necessarily some esoterically profound knowledge, neither is it easy to learn.
Affix Your Mind to Your Breath
Watermoon Arannya director Joseph Chen says most people commonly associate meditation with long sessions of "sitting in repose," but with their hectic daily work lives or complex and difficult interpersonal relationships, they often find their minds scattered in all directions despite efforts to take time to meditate.
"It's akin to Sun Wu Kong [the fabled Monkey King], whose one somersault stretched 10,000 miles," as Chen describes it. What they find, however, is that the more they seek to meditate, the more vexed they become.
Although intensive courses in Buddhist meditation have been cropping up all over Taiwan in recent years, many people "head up the mountain" full of pure intentions only to throw in the towel after three or four days and head back to the city.
At Watermoon Arannya, the first steps toward learning are focused entirely on breathing.
"You need to affix your mind to your breathing – inhale, exhale. The idea is to not let your thoughts go wandering wildly about," Chen instructs as those in attendance close their eyes and focus on the rhythms of their own breathing.
The key element from which there can be no deviation is that it must be practiced continuously, starting with five minutes per day, increasing to 15 minutes per day after one week and on to 30 minutes per day after six months. In time, practitioners become accustomed to monitoring their own breathing.
Starting slowly with breathing, one can eventually learn to turn walking, eating, even drinking coffee or bathing, into acts of meditation. The aim is to maintain a steady mind unfazed by peripheral distractions.
"Even in meetings at the office, I can sit and tranquilly listen to each person speak without my mind being perturbed by the outside world," says one student.
Discussing what she has personally gained from her study of Zen, Liu Hsiu-ting, the insurance executive, says what strikes her most is how she used to be endlessly troubled by office matters, even after returning home from work. Now, when she gets home from work, she is able to leave her troubles behind.
Plagued with implacable insomnia for more than a decade, an attorney surnamed Chen says he saw countless doctors, took sleeping pills daily and practiced Qigong, all the while never imagining that the peace he has now found could come from understanding that it is not worth being so overly attached to everything in this world, as taught through Buddhist doctrine.
"I no longer take sleeping pills and my insomnia is almost completely resolved," he says.
Perhaps people come to find that when the mind is settled, their thoughts can take a turn for the better.
Beating Psychosomatic Disorders: Sleep, Exercise, Diet
Biologically speaking, there are only three main avenues toward mental and physical health: sound sleep, solid exercise, and a good diet, says Dr. Yang Tsung-tsair, who chairs the Mental Health Index Unit of Taiwan's Mental Health Foundation.
Sleep is the body's main support pillar. Inadequate sleep can lead to mood swings and interfere with the immune system, leaving the body increasingly susceptible to illness.
In order to sleep soundly, one must get enough exercise. Yang recommends adhering to this simple principle: exercise for at least 30 minutes, at least three times per week. From a neurological perspective, exercise prompts the brain to produce endorphins and enhances the effectiveness of serotonin, reducing feelings of exhaustion, burning off excess energy and helping to improve sleep.
A proper diet means eating fixed amounts at fixed times. A lot of tech workers find themselves subsisting on fast food and living out of convenience stores for long periods of time, resulting in a diet high in calories and lacking in balanced nutrition. Coupled with generally low levels of exercise, a convergence of factors has resulted in an increased frequency of metabolism disorders within this group. A better approach would incorporate an appropriate amount of a Mediterranean-style diet with increased intake of fruits and vegetables.
Psychologically, one might get started by altering one's mindset. Han Der-yan, an assistant professor with Taipei Municipal University of Education's Department of Psychology and Counseling, recommends that people learn positive thinking, so that even with the onset of stressful situations – for example, a major job assignment or organizational change – they can still envision the possibility of positive outcomes, which will not only incline internal brain secretions toward the positive, but can also improve physical well-being.
Cultivating Communication Skills
Additionally, people can also avoid some of life's pressures by learning improved communication skills. For example, Han say that by initiating communication with others, people can better discern others' thoughts and feelings and will be less inclined to fret about perceived slights.
He offers a little communication technique he terms "my message." It comprises three simple steps: First, point out the actions of the other party. Second, express your own feelings about it. Third, elucidate your hopes for a change on the part of the other party. For example: "It's very confusing when you make that kind of suggestion, and it leaves me at a loss as to what to do. Do you think you could be a little clearer and more specific?"
You too can make yourself stronger than your enemy, psychosomatic illness. But Professor Lee Ming-been of National Taiwan University College of Medicine's Department of Psychiatry and Social Medicine reminds us that these are only methods of prevention" or "rehabilitation"; if psychosomatic disorders surface in our daily lives, it is important to seek professional medical help.
Translated from the Chinese by Brian Kennedy
11 Secrets to Vanquishing Stress
1. Verbalize your feelings
2. Take a timeout
3. Anger management
4. Yield occasionally
5. Look for some small sense of accomplishment
6. Do one thing at a time
7. Avoid a "superman image"
8. Take criticism in stride
9. Give others a chance
10. Be more open
11. Develop hobbies
Source: Taipei City Hospital Songde Branch