by Jeff Martens
Ghosts in the Attic
Ghosts can seem frightening as a child. Most adults can easily dismiss such fears. But what if that ghost is you?
When you are not yourself who are you? The unreal is a fabrication, an illusion or projection. Your ego is a ghostly apparition supported by past suffering that turns into fearful expectations. Your limbic or emotional brain is part of an Animal Brain that, among other things, is concerned with keeping you moving along the evolutionary path of survival. This self-preservation instinct leads to hormonal, chemical and structural changes in the brain and body – even if the self that is being preserved is not real! A false or phantom-self that is continually reliving the past exists at-odds with the present moment. To try and ease this pain the ego declares a reactionary war with the external environment, constantly struggling to assert itself and gain control in a futile effort to feel safe and intact. The practice of yoga and meditation is one way to leash the animal mind’s hormonal triggers by exercising a present moment intentional focus that can change the very essence of who you are biologically, emotionally and physically… All the way down to your genetic code.
In the microenvironment of the cell, Telomeres are special sequences in the genetic code integrating the ends of chromosomes to help keep genetic information in sequence and intact. In addition to aging, telomeres could be shortened by radiation, smoking, taking care of a chronically ill person or anything that consistently raises the presence of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood.[i] The experience of mental or physical trauma in childhood – defined as an ongoing and intense state of fear that comes from bullying or regularly witnessing or experiencing domestic violence – can create the enduring perception of a threatening environment well into adulthood. This perception is reflected in a loss of telomeres and the unraveling of DNA sequences. Such survival-based cellular reaction continues long after the initial abuse is over, typically boosting inflammatory responses in the body that increase risks for cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis and other maladies that could shorten life-span by up to 15 years.[ii] Another study showed how maternal abuse with physical violence or bullying actually shortens the telomeres of children’s DNA, making them more susceptible to disease and shortened lifespan as adults.[iii]
Disease, early death, premature aging… These terrifying phantoms can all seem overwhelming when they are breathing down your neck. Yet they can all be recognized as unreal and their effects diminished or neutralized. By using intentional focus to leash the stress-identified animal brain through the practice of meditation, they may even be reversed. There have been over 500 case studies demonstrating the positive effects of meditation on a specific ailment, 40 of these long-term.[iv] Recent research on family caregivers of dementia patients at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston demonstrates that practicing yogic meditation for just 12 minutes a day for eight weeks drastically improved mental health and cognitive functioning while significantly lowering depression. On a molecular and genetic level, the 12 minutes of daily meditation worked to improve telomerase activity by nearly 40% over those who just listened to relaxing music for the same amount of time.[v] To become conscious of the way you feel and of what you focus on in your life can address the cause of a dis-ease and re-orient us to a healing state.
One study published by the American Heart Association for example has shown meditation lowers blood pressure, stress and anger while reducing the occurrence of heart-attacks in those with heart dis-ease by almost 50%.[vi] Working with the intentional focus honed by meditation and noticing and directing how you wish to feel addresses the cause of dis-ease as a stress-related phenomenon. And what bigger stress is there than forgetting who you really are and believing that you are your actions, perceptions or biological state of being?
The self-fulfilling dogma of fate
And I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and the opiates serve multiple functions related to behavioral award and aversion, but these biological chemicals are just the messengers. It was once believed that the neurons in your brain were fairly fixed after birth without the ability to regenerate or change. Up to the turn of the 21st century, the biological expression of fate consisted of the predestined instructions locked into the supposedly unalterable structure of the genetic code. First labeled as the “Central Genetic Dogma” by Francis Crick in 1958, the elevation of DNA to the status of a cellular “God” that overrode all other influences went largely unchallenged by the scientific establishment for almost half a century. Though Bruce Lipton’s work in the 1960s showed how the inter-membrane protein (IMP) was the ‘brain’ of the cell and not the DNA, it took an award-winning scientist at the turn of the millennium to make significant inroads through a genetic dogma that up to that point had been force-fed to almost every student from grade one to post-doc. Eric Kandel’s discoveries about nervous system signal transduction, for which he won the Nobel Prize in 2000, was the beginning of a revolutionary understanding of just how cells actually worked. Kandel especially focused on how memory affects DNA. His research showed that memory, thoughts and perception were all able to alter the structure of the brain right down to a neuron’s genetic code.[vii] It is now fairly common scientific knowledge that the brain’s structure along with the activation of your genetic code has the potential to be changing all the time according to your thoughts and perceptions.
The scientific term “neuroplasticity” refers to how the brain is able to change, adapt and evolve according to how it is being used. The more you use a neuron or a particular neural net to perpetuate a repeated thought, the stronger that particular cellular association will be. Hebbian Theory states that this wiring together of frequently associated nerve cells is a function of vibratory attraction and efficiency.[viii] If you react a certain way over and over again to the sight of your own shadow, after a while that reaction is going to become habitual. A constant fearful state creates what is known as dukha, literally “bad-space” or suffering in yoga. Lost in dukha, the vital responses that make up living a full and rich life are replaced by the urgency of self-preservation.
Not so long ago it was believed that when it came to the propensity for certain dis-eases and conditions, your DNA alone determined your health destiny. In fact this genetically biased point-of-view can cause a sort of predetermined fatalism influencing the perception of the self and the world.[ix] If you were to go beyond the tyranny of the genetic dogma you would soon find a process that is at the very least highly influenced if not determined outright by environmental factors.[x] Many branches of modern genetic treatement hold to the idea of somehow manipulating or changing the expression of genetic traits using external agents. Other traditional methods for treating dis-ease tend to focus on trying to pharmaceutically mute the symptom or alleviate the collateral damage caused to associated glands and organs surrounding the dis-ease without truly addressing its original cause. Only by addressing the cause of a life-disorder can you address the health of the entire organism.
Surviving the Nightmare, Living the Dream
Beyond the genetic approach to dis-ease, the normal treatment of debilitating somatic conditions and chronic illness often incorporates drugs that can be quite toxic.[xi] [xii] [xiii] Many more modern drugs are approved by boards made up of “experts” who represent the same drug companies that would receive great financial rewards if their product were to be approved. Drugs often treat mere symptoms or fail to regenerate organs or activate the body’s own healing mechanisms. Perhaps good health is not merely the absence of dis-ease or its symptoms, but the expression of a vitality and consciousness that transcends the very idea of self-as-sickness in the first place. One example of the ineffectiveness of addressing only symptoms to treat dis-ease is the way that many doctors approach advanced coronary artery or heart dis-ease through the use of angioplasty (inflating a balloon inside artery walls to compress built-up plaque and ostensibly create better blood flow) or stents (an expandable micro-structure that opens like an umbrella inside an artery in an invasive attempt to improve circulation). A definitive meta-study on the use of stents and angioplasty to treat coronary artery disease proved that these traditional invasive procedures had no effect on the prevention of heart attacks, nor did they decrease mortality when compared to control groups.[xiv] In fact the only treatment presently shown to successfully heal and reverse the effects of heart disease incorporates yoga, meditation, moderate exercise, establishing a supportive social network and a healthy diet as lifestyle changes.[xv]
Neurotransmitters like dopamine, serotonin and the opiates serve multiple functions related to behavioral award and aversion, but these biological chemicals are just the messengers. Emotions play a large role in the production and utilization of dopamine, serotonin and other monoamine neurotransmitters. Many peptide chain and neurotransmitter molecules of emotion including dopamine are produced in the brain and throughout the body by strong feelings of attraction and aversion. These biological correlates to our emotions play a large role in learning and behavioral reinforcement and are influential in the way that fear is perceived and processed. Dopamine levels in particular have been linked to our expectations of a painful or pleasurable future.[xvi] Immune cells can release dopamine directly into the extracellular environment where it significantly influences the health of the nervous system.[xvii] Dopamine also functions as a sort of self-stimulator to the same immune cells that secrete it, motivating either the increase or decrease of local immune activity. The effects of the presence of dopamine, if any, can depend upon extremely specific variables including exact saturation levels and the cellular receptor that is activated. Indeed, different dopamine receptors on the same immune cell may produce different effects.[xviii][xix]
Anticipating struggle in life can bring much fear and stress. If your emotional state can trigger dopamine production, it seems logical to assume that modulating the perceptions that produce your emotions can effect the deployment of this neurochemical. Research indicates that other dis-eases such as cancer, diabetes and autoimmune disorders such as rheumatoid arthritis may also be prevented or even reversed by making significant lifestyle or dietary changes. [xx] [xxi] [xxii] [xxiii] As anyone who has ever tried to diet, lower stress levels or change exercise habits can tell you, the ability to engage and endure in such foundational life changes arises from a change in the way you perceive yourself and the world, requiring a fundamental change in self-concept. Just as you know that stressful life situations can negatively effect genetic activity and effectively create a somatic bias toward dis-ease, changing our perception can lead to health. It can even change the way that your genes contribute to our health. Genetically speaking, telomeres protect the ends of our chromosomes. They help keep our DNA from unraveling or mistakenly binding with surrounding genetic information. Telomere length is a reliable marker for aging and the susceptibility to dis-eases such as cancer, cardiovascular dis-ease and diabetes. There is growing evidence that related changes in self-concept and the way you live your life has the potential to positively change telomere length in our cells.[xxiv] [xxv] [xxvi]
What’s the Story?
There are many scripts written in cellular DNA. Which scripts are activated and the roles that you will play may depend upon your self-concept and your perception of the present moment. The perception of a loving, safer environment can heal many of the negative effects of a chronic fear-based perception. Children who spent the first two years of their life in Romanian institutions that provided relatively little stimulation or human contact demonstrated increased brain abnormalities and abnormal social interactions later in life. Trauma and chronic childhood stress damages the body’s ability to create allostasis (maintaining stability through physiological and cellular adaptability), and predisposes adults to more illness from a genetic, hormonal and immunological level.[xxvii] Just because these genetic tendencies may be established at an early age, however, does not mean that you are condemned to play out the same debilitating drama for the rest of your life.
Updating your self concept from who you were then to who you really are now alleviates the cause of dis-ease in the body by untangling your identity from a past or phantom self. Many different spiritual traditions teach that you are consciousness, or pure awareness. The awareness of “I Am That I Am.” The human organism is incredibly resilient and is packed to bursting with the potential to adapt and heal. While it is true that kids who grow up in cold and unfeeling environments reflect this lack of care in their minds and chromosomes, it is also true that kids in foster care seem to fare better when it came to their telomeres than kids who spend most of their time in isolating institutions.[xxviii] Indeed it has been shown that therapy, exercise, meditation, yoga and/or a truly healthy diet all have the capacity to reverse the effects of childhood trauma.[xxix] Though it may seem at first that playing the lead role in a fear-based drama condemns us to all kinds of negative outcomes, the effects of wearing such a painful mask need not be a life sentence determined by unvarying genes and can surely be reversed. In general, prior fear-based environmental deficits may be reduced or even reversed entirely by alleviating chronic stress and inflammatory responses in the body and in the consciousness that has created the somatic patterning. Taken one step further, by consistently altering your habitual perception of danger to one of experiencing an abundant and safe environment, you may actually reverse and heal from the devastating effects that come from identifying with a negative past. Just taking a deep breath as if all is well is the first step to feeling a different reality and making that reality a neurobiological and genetic reality.
Continuing to believe that you are still living out a past script however, the body can easily forget that this past was just a role in search of an actor.
Writing a Different Story
Your beliefs really do shape and inform your reality. Whatever you think with feeling becomes real. In one landmark 2012 study, 30,000 adults were asked how much stress was experienced in the last year. Then they were asked if they believed that stress was harmful to them. Those who reported experiencing a lot of stress in the previous year had a 43% greater chance of dying eight years later – but only for those who believed that stress is “bad” for your heath. Those who experienced a lot of stress but did not believe that stress was harmful had the lowest death rate in the study.[xxx] According to the findings of this study, experiencing stress is associated with the perception that stress is bad for you killed close to 200,000 people!
How can you change a negative reality into a positive one? Whether you are talking about scientific studies or personal satisfation, you must look for what you want. When you have a stress response, for example, your body produces cortisol and oxytocin. The stress hormone cortisol is associated with adrenalin puts you into a state of survival and fight or flight. The hormone oxytocin is produced by the heart and hypothalamus as a promoter of socialization, intimacy, resilience and love. In fact oxytocin actually heals cardiac muscle cells.[xxxi] Your attention is the most valuable thing that you have to offer. Whatever you focus on with feeling becomes a reality to the brain and body. The presence of both cortisol and oxytocin offers you a biological choice. Which feeling are you going to nurture with your ongoing attention? Which neurotransmitter level is going to rise from your chosen focus? Which feeling is going to become even stronger in your life?
In yoga there is a state of feeling-becoming – a term known as bhavanam. Patanjali encouraged cultivating the opposite of what you perceive when encountering vitarka or negative thinking. Indulging in negativity and criticism creates those feelings. Cultivating the opposite of vitarka means experiencing acceptance, joy, fun, peace, harmony, kindness, grace, generosity or love.
Which story would you rather be a part of?
Which story would you rather write?
Which story do you want to feel real?
Jeff Martens is the co-founder of the Healing Emphasis Yoga Therapy program and a co-owner of Inner Vision Yoga.
[i] Choi, Jenny, Steven R. Fauce, and Rita B. Effros. “Reduced telomerase activity in human T lymphocytes exposed to cortisol.” Brain, behavior, and immunity 22.4 (2008): 600-605.
[ii] Janice K. Kiecolt-Glaser et al, (2011). Childhood Adversity Heightens the Impact of Later-Life Caregiving Stress on Telomere Length and Inflammation. Psychosomatic Medicine 73:16–22 (2011)
[iii] I Shalev, T E Moffitt, K Sugden, B Williams, R M Houts, A Danese, J Mill, L Arseneault and A Caspi (2012). Exposure to violence during childhood is associated with telomere erosion from 5 to 10 years of age: a longitudinal study. Molecular Psychiatry , (24 April 2012) | doi:10.1038/mp.2012.32
[iv] Murali Doraiswamy, professor of psychiatry at Duke University Medical Center in Durham, N.C., as quoted in the article “Doctor’s Orders: 20 Minutes of Meditation Twice a Day” Wall Street Journal Online, April 15, 2013.
[v] Lavretsky, H., et al. “A pilot study of yogic meditation for family dementia caregivers with depressive symptoms: effects on mental health, cognition, and telomerase activity.” International journal of geriatric psychiatry 28.1 (2013): 57-65.
[vi] Schneider, Robert H., et al. “Stress Reduction in the Secondary Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease Randomized, Controlled Trial of Transcendental Meditation and Health Education in Blacks.” Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes 5.6 (2012): 750-758.
[vii] Kandel, Eric R. (2005), “The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage: A Dialog Between Genes and Synapses”, Bioscience Reports 24 (4–5): 475–522.
[viii] Hebb, D.O. (1949). The Organization of Behavior. New York: Wiley & Sons.
[ix] Dar-Nimrod, I., & Heine, S. J. (2011). Genetic essentialism: on the deceptive determinism of DNA. Psychological bulletin, 137(5), 800.
[x] Szyf, M. (2013). Social Environment and DNA Methylation: A Mechanism for Linking Nurture and Nature. In Environmental Epigenomics in Health and Disease (pp. 21-35). Springer Berlin Heidelberg.
[xi] Hippisley-Cox J, Coupland C. Unintended effects of statins in men and women in England and Wales: population based cohort study using the QResearch database. BMJ 2010 May 20;340:c2197.
[xii] FDA. “Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF) Blockers (marketed as Remicade, Enbrel, Humira, Cimzia, and Simponi) August 2009.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration. http://www.fda.gov/Safety/MedWatch/SafetyInformation/SafetyAlertsforHumanMedicalproducts/ucm175843.htm (accessed February 2011)
[xiii] Aithal GP; Medscape. Hepatotoxicity related to antirheumatic drugs. Nat Rev Rheumatol. 2011 Jan 25. [Epub ahead of print] PubMed PMID: 21263458.
[xiv]Trikalinos TA, Alsheikh-Ali AA, Tatsioni A, et al. Percutaneous coronary interventions for non-acute coronary artery disease: a quantitative 20-year synopsis and a network meta-analysis. Lancet 2009; 373(9667):911-918.
[xv] Ornish D, Scherwitz LW, Billings JH, et al: Intensive lifestyle changes for reversal of coronary heart disease. JAMA 1998;280:2001-2007.
[xvii] Prado C, Bernales S, Pacheco R. Modulation of T-cell mediated immunity by dopamine receptor D5. Endocr Metab Immune Disord Drug Targets (2013) 13:184–94
[xviii] Sharot et al., Dopamine Enhances Expectation of Pleasure in Humans, Current Biology (2009), doi:10.1016/j.cub.2009.10.025
[xix] From book: Nerve-Driven Immunity: Neurotransmitters and Neuropeptides in the Immune System edited by Dr. Mia Levite, Springer Wien, NY Feb 15, 2012 pp 15-17
[xx] Anand, Preetha, et al. “Cancer is a preventable disease that requires major lifestyle changes.” Pharmaceutical research 25.9 (2008): 2097-2116.
[xxi] Tuomilehto, Jaakko, et al. “Prevention of type 2 diabetes mellitus by changes in lifestyle among subjects with impaired glucose tolerance.” New England Journal of Medicine 344.18 (2001): 1343-1350.
[xxii] McDougall J, Bruce B, Spiller G, et al. Effects of a very low-fat, vegan diet in subjects with rheumatoid arthritis. J Altern Complement Med. 2002;8(1):71-75.
[xxiii] Muller H, de Toledo FW, Resch KL, et al. Fasting followed by vegetarian diet in patients with rheumatoid arthritis: a systematic review. Scand J Rheumatol. 2001;30(1):1-10.
[xxiv] Ornish, Dean, et al. “Effect of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomerase activity and telomere length in men with biopsy-proven low-risk prostate cancer: 5-year follow-up of a descriptive pilot study.” The lancet oncology 14.11 (2013): 1112-1120.
[xxv] Daubenmier, Jennifer, et al. “Changes in stress, eating, and metabolic factors are related to changes in telomerase activity in a randomized mindfulness intervention pilot study.” Psychoneuroendocrinology 37.7 (2012): 917-928.
[xxvi] ŠKROBOT VIDAČEK, N. I. K. O. L. I. N. A., et al. “Lifestyle, telomeres and aging–what is the connection?.” Periodicum biologorum 115.4 (2013): 465-468.
[xxvii] McEwen, B. S. (2003). Mood disorders and allostatic load. Biological Psychiatry, 54, 200-207.
[xxviii] C. Nelson. Understanding early experience: The Bucharest Early Intervention Project. American Association for the Advancement of Science. February 17, 2012.
[xxix] Kiecolt-Glaser JK (2010). Stress, food, and inflammation: Psychoneuroimmunology and nutrition at the cutting edge. Psychosomatic Medicine, 72, 365-369. PMC2868080; see also Childhood Adversity Heightens the Impact of Later-Life Caregiving Stress on Telomere Length and Inflammation.
[xxx] Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health psychology, 31(5), 677.
[xxxi] Jamieson, J. P., Nock, M. K., & Mendes, W. B. (2012). Mind over matter: reappraising arousal improves cardiovascular and cognitive responses to stress. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 141(3), 417.