Get Energized for Good
De-Stress for More Energy
I'm sitting in the office of David Yaden, a mind-body health expert, at the Community Biofeedback Clinic in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania, my right hand splayed on a wood-paneled countertop. One by one, he clips little white sensors to my fingertips. I stare at the multicolored lines and bars dancing across the computer screen. We're monitoring changes in my skin temperature, heart rate, blood volume, and skin conductance (amounts of sweat secreted by my eccrine glands). Currently my vitals are doing a relaxed mambo on the monitor.
"Think of something that makes you stressed," Yaden instructs. I squeeze my eyes shut and conjure a kaleidoscopic image of work deadlines and family obligations. A second later my breathing goes ragged and my heart begins to flutter. "Open your eyes." I look at the Everest-esque spikes on the screen. "Your heart response and skin conductance jumped four times their base levels," he says. Translation: Calm thoughts, steady physiological energy; stressful thoughts and, whish, my sympathetic nervous system's energy output skyrockets to go along with the demands of an escalating heart rate, rising sweat production, and blood pumping like crazy.
Now that I've discovered a major energy "leak" in my body, the question is what to do about it. Controlling my thoughts, Yaden tells me, is key to protecting my energy reserve. But it's not an easy task. With one sensor glued to the top of my head and two clipped to my earlobes, I stare at another monitor, this one showing a computer-generated image of a river flowing through a canyon. My mission is to focus on the water in such a way that an optimum balance of brain waves keeps it moving across the computer screen. The sensors measure my beta waves (the high-energy workhorses in charge of active thought and problem solving) and theta waves (the daydreamy ones that help you conjure pleasant images but also distract you from the task at hand). Learning to maximize my beta and theta wave ratio, Yaden explains, will help me be more focused and waste less mental energy.
The implications extend far beyond a mental exercise. Brain waves produce neuropeptides, chemicals that have a profound impact on our mood and general health. Every thought counts, says Alice Domar, PhD, director of the Domar Center for Mind/Body Health in Waltham, Massachusetts. For instance, when your boss walks into your cube and says, "Can I talk to you for a minute?" your beta waves flare; this fires up your fight-or-flight center, also known as your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, which regulates digestion, mood, and energy expenditure. "This in turn triggers a surge in stress hormones, which raise your heart rate and blood pressure," Domar says. "In today's society, that happens many times a day." The eventual result: fatigue. You can't concentrate, your mood plummets, your sleep suffers, and your weight may rise.
A solution, progressive muscle relaxation techniques, has been found effective by researchers, but it takes time to master. Yaden has me close my eyes, breathe deeply, and concentrate on releasing tension from every muscle from my scalp to my soles, until I feel heavy and at ease. On the computer screen, my vitals return to their pleasant mambo. The energy-draining stress is gone. "With enough practice you'll be able to conjure up that 'beach feeling' of contentment no matter where you are," Yaden says.
Contented, rather than frenetic, energy is what many of us crave -- and what few achieve. In my quest to find my own, I visited some top research labs to be poked, prodded, and worked into a sweaty state, all in the name of science. What I learned about the culprits that tamper with my energy tank can help you keep yours full.
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