Repetitive prayer can reset your stress thermostat
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WASHINGTON (CNS) - Are you all stressed out? Try a few prayers and some meditation. How about reciting a few decades of the rosary?
If you are a believer, your faith may well contain the tools to combat stress and in the process improve your chances of living longer. Stress, a scourge to psychological health, cuts into physical health by aging the body's cells and their ability to reproduce. It also causes hormone rushes that can cripple the body's chemistry. Health care professionals dealing with stress-related problems note that there is no preventive stress medicine. Stress is part of life. The health issue is how people deal with stress to minimize the harmful effects. "Managing stress" is the term often used, and it involves techniques for letting go of the stress rather than internalizing it. In terms of letting go, "I can't overemphasize the importance of the early training of Catholics in prayer," said Dr. Herbert Benson, who specializes in stress-related illnesses. Prayer repetition is a relaxation technique that helps people disregard thoughts that cause stress and the harmful physical consequences produced, said Benson, director of the Mind/Body Medical Institute in Chestnut Hill, Mass., and a Harvard University associate professor of medicine. People who are not religious can repeat muscular movements, words meaningful to them or sounds such as in chanting, he said. Relaxation techniques have been used for thousands of years in different cultures, Benson added. It's a question of finding the repetition techniques that have meaning in a person's culture, he said. "In the West, for Catholics nothing beats the rosary," said Benson, who is Jewish. Stress occurs when people are in a situation that requires them to change behavior patterns, he said. "Stress evokes a flight response. It prepares you for running or fighting," Benson said. Physically, blood pressure rises, the heart beats faster and brain waves speed up, he said. These are the results of hormones rushing into use, he explained. Most of the time people under stress don't run or fight, but the hormones are still rushing through their bodies, Benson said. "Repetition breaks the train of everyday thoughts that can cause stress, like worrying about an accident, losing money or worrying that there is a terrorist ahead," he said. It's not even necessary to repeat the entire "Hail Mary" prayer, he said. "Just repeat 'Hail Mary full of grace' over and over. When a stressful thought or situation arises, say 'Oh well' and repeat the prayer," he said. A repetition technique "allows us to tap into the inborn capacity we have to combat stress," said Benson. "For a religious person, this is contact with God." For a nonreligious person, a repetition technique is a way to get in contact with processes within them derived from evolution, he added. These techniques decrease metabolism, lower the heart beat and "quiet down the brain," he said. Benson cites research showing that stress releases a hormone, norepinephrine, that can cause or worsen existing diseases (such as circulatory illnesses and infertility), while relaxation techniques release nitric oxide, which counteracts the hormone. Good health care has three components: medicine, surgery and self-care, said Benson. "There are no drugs or surgery to counteract stress," he said. It comes down to self-care, and for believers spirituality is an important part, he added. Benson suggested daily relaxation techniques for about 10-20 minutes to keep the nitric oxide flowing. "Get up. Shower. Breath slowly, and say 'Hail Mary,'" Benson said. But does all this really prolong life instead of just getting people through a momentary crisis? Apparently yes, answered Dr. Thomas Perls, director of the New England Centenarian Project and a Boston University associate professor of medicine. His centenarian project is a nationwide study of people 100 years old or older and their children. "A very large percentage of centenarians are religious, so it makes you wonder if religion helps manage stress," he said. "Religion gives you a global view. You don't sweat the small stuff," said Perls. "Prayer, meditation, breathing right - these help reset your thermostat," he said. Perls was organizing a study to investigate the role of religion and spirituality in longevity. Meanwhile, science is establishing links between stress and aging. Perls cited new research showing that the constant stress suffered by women with chronically ill children was causing the tiny caps on their cells' chromosomes to shrink. These cells are called telomeres, and when they become too short the cells become "older," stop multiplying and eventually die. - - - Bono is a staff writer at Catholic News Service.
Copyright (c) 2007 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops
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