This morning’s post could easily be a rant – I have two hanging around. One is about wristbands, the other about the dentist. However, I am trying to live more along the lines of a saying that goes, ‘whatever angers you, owns you.’ In that spirit, I am working not to allow petty annoyances throw my day off kilter this early. Mindfulness practice is the route I take. This non-secular meditation practice also featured on this week’s Horizon programme…
For as long as humans have gone to work, they have suffered occupational accidents and diseases. From the Stone Age hunter who severed an artery making yet another flint-tipped arrow, to the high incidence of scrotal cancer in Victorian chimney sweeps, work has made us ill. Flicking through ‘Diseases of Workers’, published in 1700, shows that, notwithstanding industrial, technological and digital revolutions, certain work-related health issues have persisted, which led to the book’s author, Bernardini Ramazzini, to be dubbed the Father of Occupational Medicine. Take what we call repetitive strain injury: Ramozzini observed that clerks suffered from ‘incessant driving of the pen over paper.’ The unfortunate clerks were also, like many of us now, ‘chair workers’ and could not escape the ‘lumbago’ that he noted ‘afflicts all sedentary workers’. This is an example of 18th century occupational health advice – in Ramazzini’s prescription for a bad back
‘Take physical exercise, at any rate on holidays.’
Surely working conditions have improved over the intervening 313 years – isn’t that why elfin safety was invented? 21st century bakers no longer ‘become bow-legged’ and sewer workers are not completely blinded, so it appears we have reduced perilous working conditions and associated diseases. Modern work can still be physically hazardous, an extreme case being the Texas fertiliser plant explosion, but perhaps the most pernicious is in the invisible killer: stress. We know stress can play an underlying role in many chronic diseases. After bereavement and divorce, work is the third highest contributor to our stress levels and elevated stress levels, over a prolonged period, are seriously deleterious to health, and the nation’s coffers. Ramazzini’s lumbago now costs the UK £7 billion a year, mental health, an almost inconceivable, £100 billion plus. Only yesterday, I met a friend whose apparently fit and healthy husband, in his forties, had suffered a heart attack. The doctors attributed it to work stress. An economy in recession only exacerbates the situation and reducing stress levels should be a personal and political health priority.
Mark Williams, Professor of Clinical Psychology at the University of Oxford, is sobering, ‘If you look at just children and young people and students, their stress and anxiety levels in the 1950s for example, and you track that carefully… what you find is that people by the ’80s and ’90s were now the average level of anxiety that was equivalent to clinical levels in the 1950s.’ And that’s before they get to work… How do we help ourselves? Relax more, certainly, but perhaps not in the way that you might think. Goggling at screens might feel like stress reduction but, biologically, it’s not. There’s a more effective way of actually reducing your levels of the stress hormone cortisol: mindfulness.
Mindfulness is the updated, secular take on the ancient practice of meditation and it doesn’t involve a hard floor whilst tying your legs in a knot. Instead of promising esoteric nirvana, mindfulness practice relies on a growing body of clinical evidence from practitioners like Professor Williams who, with others, has developed mindfulness techniques including Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy – approved by NICE in the UK as a treatment for recurring depression.
New research, published this March in ‘Health Psychology’ suggests regular practice in developing mindfulness techniques may measurably reduce cortisol levels in the body. The study, conducted by the University of California, Davis Centre for Mind and Brain, concluded that it had demonstrated a direct link between increased mindfulness and resting cortisol levels. 57 participants spent 3 months on a meditation retreat, being instructed in elements of mindfulness e.g. focusing on the present moment, mindful breathing and cultivating positive mental states and compassionate hearts. Researchers measured the cortisol levels in participants’ saliva and rated their mindfulness level at the beginning and end of the retreat.
The study reported, ‘At an individual level, there was a correlation between a high score for mindfulness and a low score in cortisol both before and after the retreat. Individuals whose mindfulness score increased after the retreat showed a decrease in cortisol.’ Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher on the project added, ‘The more a person reported directing their cognitive resources to immediate sensory experience and the task at hand, the lower their resting cortisol.’
Regrettably, there was no control group, so one cannot rule out the possibility that simply spending three months on retreat would have had the same effect on cortisol levels… But having tried mindfulness myself, I can subjectively report that its functional benefits don’t seem to be purely confined to the luxury of spending three months with one’s feet up in California. I really do feel less stressed by just keeping my focus in the present moment. Still, this latest finding joins existing research in suggesting that far from being helpless in the face of our stressful lives, reducing its effects might be as simple as where and how we direct our thoughts.
I am ridiculously suggestible; I am not sure if I haven’t always been. Not unlike the persistent use of double negatives, it is certainly a character flaw. I have recently been teaching various self-development courses and, on the face of it, things are going well. That is in that the learners return, are able to say what they are applying usefully in their lives and seem to take the time in the classroom in a reasonably engaged manner. Lately we have been looking at the effects of stress on the body – anxiety being a live issue for many of the class. Me being me, I can’t just stand there yapping about it though; no, I must test various theories and strategies myself, if only to save them the bother. In any case, reducing stress can’t hurt, right?
In that spirit of experimenting on self I downloaded a phone app that purports to not simply measure your pulse, but to measure the times between your heart beat when you place your finger tip over the camera lens on your smart phone. I used it for the first time this morning, when I felt a little tense, after rushing to work and fighting to park the car in an awkward space: Honda Civics present an interesting paradox in that they are lovely to look at – but awful to look out of. The app takes about two minutes to do that which it is that it does, whatever that is, so I stood in the car park with my stuff all on the floor and on the roof of the car, looking completely normal…
My results were not good. I was in the red zone of stress. In the over 80% figures. I was labelled ‘Extreme Stress’. My phone told me what to do. Stop whatever it is that you are doing and RELAX. Easier said than done when the class was due to start, but taking the advice on the chin (and because I was secretly worried I might have a cardiac arrest right there in the car park due to the extreme shock about the extreme stress diagnosis) I repaired to the canteen for a brew. Now, even I know that caffeine and extreme stress are bad bedfellows, so I was hoping for a cup of cat’s wee, otherwise known as camomile. They had run out. I settled for a fruit tea instead and quickly took my stress level again. I was now deemed to be at a very low stress level – around 10%
All was good then and the class went ahead as usual. Teaching is demanding, both physically and mentally. To be fair, my class were all fairly unstressed when we tested them during proceedings, but after the class I was doing some admin and became aware of a little niggle headache coming on behind the eyes. I took some paracetamol and whipped out the stress app again (in the name of science you understand, I am in no way obsessed). Unbelievably, I was in Extreme Stress mode once again. Suddenly I felt close to a heart or panic attack and my first thought was that admin is so deleterious to my health I must rush home to preserve myself. Somehow I rode out the storm and by the time I got home and tested myself (again) I was down to 0% stress.
I was still concerned about the effect the extreme levels were having on me (if you’d have asked me I wouldn’t have said it was an especially stressful day prior to the app). so I thought I would be best to get straight down the seafront with the children to meditate on an ice-cream, as ice-cream, I mean meditation, is shown to reduce cortisol (the stress hormone) in the bloodstream. All was fine until I realised that
a) I didn’t like the ice-cream and gave it to the dog
b) I didn’t know where the children were
As it turned out, they were the two dots somewhere out there…
Which was also completely fine, until I realised that the tide was coming in, that they could drown and then my stress levels shot through the roof. The truth is when you are REALLY stressed the last thing you are going to do is measure it for two minutes on a bloody smart phone app.
Then when I got home and zoomed in on them in the shot, I could see that they were as far from stressed as could be. It was just me. The class weren’t stressed and neither were the kids or the dog. It was just me and the app busting our chops.
And that, at the end of a funny sort of day, was a good thing to know.
So I remember, like it was last night’s dream
Not some other time, in spring.
The other woman, sitting on the bed.
You, having quit, smoking.
The cigarettes, your dragging stress
The room surely crackling with it now
I was sent away, or I was left.
It has never been quite clear to me, which.
I sat, on the loo, in a downstairs bathroom
Outside, a courtyard, perhaps. Waiting.
I had to wake up to find out what happened.
Next. There I was, in a high window
Overlooking a park full of cars.
A silvery snail trailed away…
Into an unknown, old bathroom, again
such hushed urgency, no smoke, some fire
In the end, the door closed behind you, hard sprung
It reminded me of the other you feared opening, once
Not then. ‘Be strong’ you had said, then gone.
So, I picked up your most discarded elastic band
(you took the shirt on your back)
And then I put the band around my wrist, to twang and
Work out what it all means. When I wake up.
Because it’s there. It’s its job. It doesn’t answer back.
When given 6000+ words on subjects not of my choice I can only clear my mind by writing an equal quantity of words on matters of my own choice. This is, however, a knackering approach to life when combined with actual work and stuff. Yesterday was odd. I spent two hours in a meeting which gave me a bit of a headache. Some of it was about logistics; logistics give me a headache.
Then I was in work trying to finish a report (assignment), the title of which is too boring to repeat. It turned out it was nearly too boring to write and enforced sitting at the desk made me delirious. Fortunately I was sitting between two good colleagues who were unperturbed by my Tourettes-like muttering, gripping onto the edge of the desk, typing swear words to myself in bold, and generally interrupting them from time to time. One gave me some talking therapy, the other fetched me a cup of tea. I was careful to thank them when I left. I am sure they breathed a sigh of relief, amongst other things.
Then I came home and drank some Christmas spirit very quickly, so it wouldn’t really count, and went to bed at about 6 pm. I woke up later and could not move. I was definitely awake. It felt like someone was holding my left hand. Actually it was just twisted up under my head at an awkward angle, but, as I said, I could NOT MOVE. I had a pain in my chest. I wondered if I was having a heart attack. I remembered that which I usually forget, that I have a heart murmur – perhaps it was now fatal. Then I remembered that which I always remember – that I have scarred lungs. This never pleases me. I still couldn’t move but my mouth worked so I called for water and the asthma pump – the pump doesn’t work but I use it for its placebo effect – my daughter brought them, kindly but with harsh words you would reserve the right to use when your mother has taken to her bed before you do.
Then I wondered if this was the dramatic sudden onset of my annual Christmas chest infection. Anyway, I am still here. The QA/QIP report awaits me – I am hoping that getting all that off my chest means I can get on with it without having another attack of paralysing fatigue and delirium. You see, much of this stuff is all in the mind. Now I can leave it on the blog and I none of the above will happen…
We will see.