Why? Scientists say the human mind simply didn’t evolve to handle the relentless barrage of new information that technology brings us. Under that information flood, says psychologist Steven Hayes, “our attention becomes less flexible, our minds become more chattering, and the next thing we know, we’re frantic.” Coincidentally, in the past century the average American life span went from just over 50 years to just shy of 79. We’re living long enough now to see what happens when the stress response is continually stuck at on .
“I don’t know you,” Michael Baime tells me over the phone, “but if you check right now, your shoulders are probably too far forward.” I check. They are. “You’re holding them up closer to your ears than they need to be. It’s a protective stress reaction. It shields the head and neck. When you tighten your belly, you’re protecting your internal organs. When your hands tense, you’re making fists. This is all very primitive stuff.”
Baime is the founder and director of the Penn Program for Mindfulness, which in 22 years has helped more than 12,000 people learn to cope with stress. For a long time Baime thought he was going to be a Buddhist monk, until his elderly Tibetan mentor told him he’d touch more people’s lives if he got his medical degree. But he never lost his interest in meditation. “What I did was outside the mainstream for 20 years,” he says. “People rolled their eyes. But now there’s been an explosion of research showing mindfulness isn’t just warm and fuzzy.”
Mindfulness, inspired by Eastern mysticism, is a form of therapy that teaches you to focus on emotions and feelings in the moment. Earlier this year, Kate Pickert began a Time magazine story on mindfulness by eating a raisin:
I notice that the raisin’s skin glistens. Looking closer, I see a small indentation where it once hung from the vine. Eventually, I place the raisin in my mouth and roll the wrinkly little shape over and over with my tongue, feeling its texture. After a while, I push it up against my teeth and slice it open. Then, finally, I chew. …
Mindfulness may not make for scintillating reading, but it was shown in a recent meta-analysis of clinical studies to lessen anxiety, depression and chronic pain — conditions that millions of us suffer from. Americans are willing, Baime says, to spend a fortune tracking blood pressure and cholesterol and making tiny incremental adjustments. We happily ingest 44.4 million monthly prescriptions for Xanax, which can be dangerous and addictive. But when it comes to the stress-fighting strategies that mindfulness teaches, we resist. This despite the fact that stress impairs working memory, concentration, our ability to learn new information, a normal libido, our regulation of caloric intake. …
And what do we offer the stress-ridden among us instead? “We tell them to relax,” Baime says, and laughs.
NICKI DEKUNCHAK KNOWS my knot.
Dekunchak, a masseuse whose company is called Hands at Home, comes to our office every week or so to give staffers 10-minute chair massages. “It feels like a knot,” she tells me about the one in my back. “It’s a myofascial trigger point caused by injury or overuse. There’s literally a buildup of protein and lactic acid. It feels completely different from a muscle that’s relaxed.” The shoulder-hunching Michael Baime intuited has done this to me.
When Dekunchak was little, her mom used to pay her a dollar to rub her neck. “It was just the two of us,” Dekunchak remembers. “She worked two jobs. Instinctively I was like, let me touch you, let me rub you.”
The healing power of touch may be as primitive as the stress response itself. Scientists have shown that the more licking and grooming rats receive when they’re young, the better able they are to cope with stress. But knowing how to break up a knot doesn’t make you immune to stress. “I own my own business,” Dekunchak says. “I’m connected to my cell phone all day. So I do yoga. I get my massages. Someone has to come help me.”
Taking care of your stress is smart; the American Medical Association estimates that stress is the basic cause behind 60 percent of all human illness and disease. Which raises the question: How much of my stress comes from worrying about how stressed I am? To try to tease apart the threads, Daniel Monti and Andrew Newberg, two physicians at Jefferson Hospital’s Myrna Brind Center of Integrative Medicine, have been running a series of experiments on patients who’ve been diagnosed with cancer.