stress

The Most Effective Way to Fight Giants Is In YOUR Armor

Remember the ancient story about David and Goliath?  A young shepherd David going to battle against the enemy giant Goliath?  He ends up killing Goliath with only a few smooth stones torpedoed by his leather slingshot. The part of the story that is particularly powerful is what happens before that final scene.  The King, whose people are battling Goliath's army, calls David before his throne and offers his own personal body armor to wear to go up against the giant.

Now this is no small offer.  The King has been a hugely successful warrior and leader of his people, achieving epic victories through the years.  And he's always worn this special armor to protect himself and he's used the sacred sword to defeat his enemies.  Now he offers them to David.

So David tries on the armor and the sword.  But they don't fit him ... at all!  He staggers and stumbles around under the weight of someone else's armory.

And now David makes the most strategic decision possible.  The King and others see it as foolish.  But David knows it's smart and courageous.

"Thanks for your generous offer, O King, but I have to go into battle in my own armor, using what I've always relied on and what I'm best at!"

So David goes to face the giant, dressed in his shepherd's clothing, and holding in his hand the weapon that has brought him success in protecting his sheep against the wild animals in the wilderness--a leather slingshot and some smooth stones.

And the rest is history.

Here's the point.  When it comes to facing your life well, the most effective, strategic decision you can make is to stand in your own armor, not someone else's.

Why?  Because standing in your armor is when you're at your strongest, most powerful, and fulfilled place.  It's all about strategic energy management.

I'm talking about your brain function and its natural preferences.

Brain Function and Natural Preferences

Your brain is wired with neuronal synapses--connections between cells (neurons) that produce certain behaviors.  By the time you're sixteen years old, you've lost half of these networks (billions and billions)--thankfully--otherwise, you would as an adult be like a small child frozen in sensory overload.  So in this case, less is more.

By your teenage years, the synapses that have remained are the ones from which are created your talents, your natural preferences.

Your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections.

As Marcus Buckingham puts it,

"Nature forces you to shut down billions of connections precisely so that you can be freed up to exploit the ones remaining."

So you begin to notice that when you engage in certain behaviors and reactions, they just "feel right" to you, while others, no matter how hard you practice, always seem stilted and forced.  This is good and as it should be.

Strategic energy management is all about utilizing and building on your natural preferences.  That's the most energy efficient.

Brain experts remind us that when we are operating outside of our natural brain preferences, our brains are expending 100 times the level of resistance; as contrasted  to when we are leading with our natural preferences which expends 1 times the level of resistance.  So which way is more energy efficient?

T1 vs. Dial-up Connections

It's like connecting our computers with a hyper-fast T1 line versus an old dial-up connection.  Which works better?  Which is more efficient?  Which has the greatest speed and productivity?

Living our lives from a place of personal natural preference is the T1 connection.  Living life trying to be something we're not is the ancient dial-up connection.

And the consequences of "dial-up" is devastating:  fatigue, hyper-vigilance, immune system suppression, reduced function of the frontal lobe (the thinking, processing, evaluating, and creativity brain center), memory problems, discouragement and depression, self-esteem problems, high levels of ongoing stress.  We are literally killing ourselves prematurely.

Dr. Phil puts it this way,

"Ignoring who you truly, authentically are can literally be killing you.  Forcing yourself to be someone you are not or stuffing down who you really are will tax you so much that it will shorten your life by years and years."

Why Strengths Work Is So Vital

This is why I value strengths work so much.  It's about identifying our natural preferences and then discovering specific ways we can utilize those strengths more intentionally.  It's about validating and affirming each other's strengths (which really is a way of validating the true person in front of you and setting them free, via their T1 line, to be at their best and strongest place).  It's about exploring together how each person's strengths can be brought together with the other person's strengths and strategically managed and leveraged in ways that help the couple to be at their strongest, most effective relational place--discovering the relationship's T1 line.

Imagine what happens when couples approach their relationship from this vantage point--the affirmation and honoring of each other's most authentic self, and then building a relationship on this strongest of strong foundations.  It's allowing each other to wear the right armor as opposed to forcing them to wear something else.  It's identifying the couple's unique armor and then together going into battle to face the giants of life.  That's the way giants are battled successfully.

Here's the way one couple I did this strengths work with described their experience:

"My husband and I have been married for 14 years and have worked through our share of challenges during that time.  Working with Greg helped us re-kindle the spark that we had lost track of during those challenges.  We now have a renewed vision of why we're together and how to honor and leverage each of our strengths in exciting ways.  Thank-you, Greg!"

I'm teaching a strengths workshop for couples about these very issues (March 23, 1-5 pm, San Francisco, CA).  Registration deadline is March 17.  And it's limited to 10 couples.  If you're interested, go to this link for more information:  Strengths-based Couples.

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Looking for a Speaker or Coach?

If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.

It's All About Energy Management!

Higher Demands, Less EnergyExhaustion The American culture is becoming increasingly a place of higher demands.  Employers are trying to squeeze more and more from their employees.  Expectations for productivity are higher than ever.  Competition is fiercer than ever.  And compensation isn't keeping up with the demands.

The average American worker is not only given less annual vacation time than counterparts around the world, he or she actually takes less of this time than the others.  Americans are working harder and longer than ever before.

A consistent theme I hear from the leaders and senior managers I coach is the insane amount of work they are engaging in on a daily basis - almost to the point of complete breakdown.  And they all feel somewhat trapped in this never-ending cycle.  It is definitely not a sustainable strategy.

Energy Is Renewable

One of the things I've learned is that life is all about energy management.  Truth is, time is a finite resource.  But energy is renewable.  We all have the opportunity to make choices that can actually increase our energy.  It all depends on how we manage this amazing resource.

I read a profound article in the Harvard Business Review written by Tony Schwartz and Catherine McCarthy, "Manage Your Energy, Not Your Time" (Oct. 2007).  In the article, they suggest that "energy comes from four main wellsprings in human beings: the body, emotions, mind, and spirit. In each, energy can be systematically expanded and regularly renewed by establishing specific rituals— behaviors that are intentionally practiced and precisely scheduled, with the goal of making them unconscious and automatic as quickly as possible."

I love this perspective because it provides hope that we all have it within our power to do something about our energy which is so often lagging and drooping from the incessant demands we face regularly:  we can learn to recognize the energy-depleting behaviors / activities we engage in; and we can learn what instead energizes us and so develop ways to more intentionally step into those.

It's all about energy management.

How Strengths Renew Energy

This is why I coach and consult people and organizations around strengths.  Strengths are in fact wired into us - they are our natural preferences - innate talents that come from the natural flow of electricity (energy) via certain neural pathways (each one leading to certain specific behaviors).  Because of the chemicals released in these pathways, the pathways become ingrained in us.  If they're our natural preference pathways, they're pleasant for us to stimulate so we tend to stimulate them more than others.  And the more we use them, the more we strengthen them.  It's a powerful feedback loop.

So when we pay attention to what our natural strengths are, and when we choose to use them more intentionally, we are putting ourselves in an energy flow that is not only more efficient and fulfilling but also more sustainable, renewable.  Using our innate resources (like strengths) actually increases energy because it's aligning with our unique individual biology - it's stewarding our brains effectively by leveraging those neural pathways with their accompanying electricity and chemicals.

When we are not using our natural preferences, according to neuroscientists our brains are actually expending 100x the energy than when we're leading with our natural preferences (our innate wiring and talents).  One hundred times!  So instead of making deposits, we're making massive withdrawals from our energy bank unnecessarily.  Our brains are wearing out.  And consequently, our whole feeling of energy lags and droops.  We're not being "fully alive."

It's all about energy management.

Take the StrengthsFinder Assessment

If you  haven't taken the strengthsfinder assessment yet to discover your top natural strength preferences, you need to!  There are two ways to take the test:  buy the book StrengthsFinder 2.0 from Amazon for $14.00, or go directly online to the Gallup site, pay $9.99, and take the test.  What a small price to pay to radically increase your ability to renew your energy!

My work as a coach and consultant is to unpack these results for people and organizations.  I give them opportunity to think through and strategize how they can be more intentional about using their strengths in every aspect of their lives - work, relationships, spirituality.  When people take this work seriously and really engage via their strengths, the results are always amazing - people have more energy, more fulfillment, more effective productivity, less stress, more of a feeling of flow, more of being, as Schwartz and McCarthy describe, "effortlessly absorbed."  Who wouldn't want all that??

It's all about energy management.

It's time for people to stop trying to simply work harder and start working smarter.  Leverage your natural preferences, your strengths.  Let your brain work effectively and efficiently the way it was designed to.  Learn what makes you unique from everyone else.  And then embrace it, step into it, stand in your truth, and let yourself be the powerful person you are.  Develop a truly sustainable life.

You want more energy?  Try managing and stewarding the energy you have.  I guarantee:  you'll find your energy is in deed a renewable resource.

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If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it.  And interested in strengths coaching?  Feel free to email me at greg@gregorypnelson.com.

How Hope Can Trump Fear

This last Saturday at Second Wind we began a new series ("Applying Your  Spirituality To This Week's Glocal Hot Spot") in which we're taking a very current event happening in the world and asking what the story tells us about the journey of spirituality.  How does this event inform and shape our spirituality so that we develop a real-world kind of spirituality, a perspective on faith and the spiritual life that works in real life, that embraces contemporary life in a relevant way.  Saturday we focused on the story unfolding in Chile with the 33 trapped miners which has already broken the record for the number of days miners have been imprisoned underground.   Experts are predicting that it will be at least another 3 months before the men are able to be rescued, provided more collapses don't take place.  A heartbreaking story, to say the least. Imagine if you were a family member or one of the miners.  How would you be feeling?  What would keep you alive and hanging on?  Would you hope for a good ending, even if the possibility existed that it might not happen?  Would you allow hope to set you up for a potential catastrophic disappointment?  Does hope work?

The Washington Post last week reported about Jerry Linenger  who was the only American on the Mir space station in 1997 when a small fire caused a crisis that left him isolated in space for four months with two Russian astronauts. Cut off from his family and facing a lot of stress, Linenger endured a period of uncertainty that provides a good parallel to what the 33 Chilean miners are facing.

The initial explosion terrified and galvanized the crew of six. After the fire, the connection between the two modules that made up the space station was cut, leaving Linenger alone with the Russians. Over the next months, the Mir lost its oxygen generator and had serious trouble with the carbon dioxide scrubber. The toilets malfunctioned, and communications broke down. But the worst aspect, Linenger said, was being led to expect something that failed to materialize.

"Expectations unmet are a horrible thing," Linenger recalled, "especially when you're already psychologically stressed. The biggest dips for me and the others is when we were told something would happen and it didn't."

Among the many examples he could point to, the one that remains raw after 13 years is when he was told he would be able to speak with his pregnant wife at a time when potentially life-threatening problems had begun to mount.  "They said I could talk to her for a short time as we passed over a ground antenna near Moscow," he remembered, "and I prepared for a week. I wrote down what I would say and then crossed things off and added new ones. I was so excited. But the time came, they said she was on the line, and all I got was static. And then another emergency started and we were cut off entirely. After that, I expected nothing and was psychologically more healthy."

What do you make of Linenger's conclusion?  Is it healthier to simply not hope, to not have expectations, in order to prevent disappointment?

Though I can appreciate the need to try to minimize emotional pain from loss and grief (I've gone through this many times myself), the truth is that according to recent neuroscience about brain formation and function, hope is one of the most significant brain functions to not only taking away fear but also to producing profound life transformation.

As we know, our brains were originally wired for fear responses - it was to protect humans from being gobbled up by predators - it's the basis for the fight or flight response.  And according to recent research, fear is so wired into our brains that the brain actually "senses" fear-producing stimuli even at an unconscious level (before we recognize it).  When something dangerous occurs outside of awareness, the conscious brain reacts to it.  In other words, as experts are telling us, your brain prepares you to respond to danger faster than it does to other tasks, and it starts to respond to frightening things before you even realize they are frightening.

And unless this wiring tendency is proactively dealt with, fear always trumps everything.  And when we live in fear, our stress levels stay heightened, causing us to live on increased cortisol which keeps our physical and emotional systems over-stimulated and thereby more susceptible to disease and deterioration.

I'm reading a book right now written by Dr. Srinivasan Pillay, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the former director of the Outpatient Anxiety Disorders Program and the Panic Disorders Research Program in the Brain Imaging Center at McLean Hospital.  Dr. Pillay is writing about the recent neuroscience findings about the brain and fear and how to overcome the tendency to be paralyzed from from fear:  Life Unlocked:  7 Revolutionary Lessons to Overcome Fear.

He says that hope is the choice to make the assumption that something is possible.  Instead of allowing the facts to justify fear, we use hope to reveal new facts and remove the fears.  This is precisely what people like former South African president Nelson Mandella, world-class athlete and cancer survivor Lance Armstrong, and countless others have done every day.  Rather than wait for their fears to disappear or for facts to back up their hope, they used hope to create new facts and reach their goals.

According to brain science discoveries, hope and fear both wander around in the unconscious parts of our brains.  They both require amygdala activation, and whichever one is stronger will win the amygdala for its own use (the amgydala is the almond-shaped part of the brain, a mass of nerve cell bodies, designed to be the danger alert system, "the guard dog of the human brain."  "It's so powerful and efficient that it alerts us to danger in our environment within tens of milliseconds of detecting it.").

Dr. Pillay's point is this:  "To be processed by the amygdala, emotions have to stand in a queue, with their order determined by their strength - the strongest soldier gets to the front of the line.  If fear is strongest, then it will grab the amygdala's power and dominate all the other soldiers in the line.  If hope is stronger, then it will be preferentially processed over fear ... So we have to develop a strategy to help hope 'bulk up' and have an intelligence that supersedes the intelligence of fear.  This isn't easy because, as we've learned, our brains are structured so that the amygdala processes fear first in order to protect us from danger."  (p. 52-3)

This certainly explains why it's easier for us to give in to the impulse of fear instead of building hope.  But it also explains why it's so important for us to choose hope, to give intentional attention to hope and what it is we're hoping for.  Regularly imagining the state of life that hope is directed to.  Those specific activities build up our hope response.  And when we hope, says Dr. Pillay, we stimulate out brain center (amygdala) to use its mass of nerve pathways to empower our bodies to act in harmony with that hope instead of short-circuiting it with fear.

Hope isn't a naive, feel-good fantasy approach to life.  It's central to using our brain structure to facilitate positive, profound life transformation.  We do need fear, too.  We need to feel fear to keep us from dangerous situations - we need the fight or flight response for survival.  But we can't live there - we end up destroying our systems if we do.  So we must "bulk up" hope.  We must choose to imagine what we truly want our lives to become.  We must spend time directing our attention to that picture.  We must allow our emotional, rational, physiological systems to mobilize us toward that preferred future.

No wonder many of the sacred scriptures of the great faith traditions talk about hope and setting our minds and hearts on the object of our hope.  "Faith is the confidence that what we hope for will actually happen; it gives us assurance about things we cannot see."  (Hebrews 11:1)  Confidence.  Assurance.  And the rest of that chapter describes how those qualities lead to dramatic and transforming action.  Maintaining that kind of hope is what empowers us to take necessary steps to bring it into reality.

It's significant that all the families of the 33 trapped Chilean miners are staying on the mining site in a tent village that they're calling Camp Hope.  They are choosing to stay focused and to embrace hope.  Like Elizabeth Segovia, the wife of one of the trapped miners (reported by CNN).  The day before the tragic mine collapse, she received a piece of great news - she was pregnant with a girl - an ultrasound had confirmed it.  The next day, her world collapsed.  She cried and cried.  As the weeks went by, she found herself talking to her baby girl inside her, "Daddy's okay?  Daddy's okay!  It's going to be alright!"

Last Thursday, Segovia got a handwritten letter from her husband Ticona proposing they name their daughter Esperanza Elizabeth -- esperanza is Spanish for hope.  "First, because we never lost hope," she said, and "second, because it's the name of the camp where the families are living; and third, because the 33 miners never lost hope either."

With her daughter due to arrive in less than two weeks, and her husband due to arrive in perhaps four months, Segovia plans to make a video of the birth to ensure he doesn't miss it altogether.  "We have to record the birth in great detail, as well as everything that happens to my baby day by day so we can show him," she said.

What do you need to hope for in your life?  What is your preferred future?  What do you need to hang on to in order to stimulate your brain center into powerful action?  Where are you most fearful?  Is your fear paralyzing you?  Can renewed hope in you create new facts to bolster that hope and bring transformation?  Esperanza.  Hope. Best to hang on to it!

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The Spirituality of Stress: Gender and Sexual Orientation Inequality

Dr. Robert Sapolsky is considered one of America's leading scientists doing work on the psychosocial and physiological effects of stress on human life.  He began his ground breaking research back in 1978 by studying baboon troops in Kenya.  One of the things he noticed was how a baboon's status in the troop impacted it's physiological condition.  He noticed, for instance, that the males at the bottom of the hierarchy were thinner and more nervous in general. “They just didn’t look very healthy,” he said. “That’s when I began thinking about how damn stressful it must be to have no status. You never know when you’re going to get beat up. You never get laid. You have to work a lot harder for food.” So he would shoot these baboons with anesthetic darts and then, while they were plunged into sleep, quickly measure their immune system function and the levels of stress hormones and cholesterol in their blood.  What he discovered was stunning.  These lower status baboons were living in a state of chronic stress - they had to fight for everything and continually "bow" to those males at the top of the totem pole.  And this chronic stress, measured by Sapolsky via their blood samples, revealed that it was a profound chemistry problem that he and other specialists have shown to be true over and over again since that discovery.

Here's how a recent article in Wired magazine described it:  When there's stress like this, "a tiny circuit in the base of the brain triggers the release of glucocorticoids, a family of stress hormones that puts the body in a heightened state of alert. The molecules are named after their ability to rapidly increase levels of glucose in the blood, thus providing muscles with a burst of energy. They also shut down all nonessential bodily processes, such as digestion and the immune response. 'This is just the body being efficient,' Sapolsky says. 'When you’re being chased by a lion, you don’t want to waste resources on the small intestine. You’ll ovulate some other time. You need every ounce of energy just to get away.'

"But glucocorticoids have a nasty side effect: When they linger in the bloodstream, as they might due to chronic stress related to low rank, damage accumulates. It’s the physiological version of a government devoting too many resources to its defense department, Sapolsky says. The body is so worried about war that it doesn’t fix the roads or invest in schools. Interestingly, the effects of stress appear particularly toxic to the brain."

One of the profound impacts of Dr. Sapolsky's research was to show how even one's status in a social group led to a state of chronic stress with the related physiological symptoms being able to be clearly measured and repeated.  The long term impact was hugely negative:  increased heart rate and blood pressure, a rise in arterial plaque even when fed a low-fat diet, and more than twice as likely to suffer from heart disease and a correspondingly premature death.

Numerous studies among humans since those early primate studies have reconfirmed the powerful negative effects of stress caused by subordination in position and status.  When people have a sense of control and power over their lives, stress decreases and health increases.  When they don't, stress with all the negative effects, especially when it's chronic, impacts the entire system - and the system ultimately dies.

Here's the way Wired put it:  "The moral is that the most dangerous kinds of stress don’t feel that stressful. It’s not the late night at the office that’s going to kill us; it’s the feeling that nothing can be done. The person most at risk for heart disease isn’t the high-powered executive anxious about their endless to-do list — it’s the frustrated janitor stuck with existential despair."

Or, it's the person who because of gender or sexual orientation feels consigned to a "lower status" in society - who feels a sense of powerless because the policies or practices of an organization and laws of the land conspire against their ability and opportunity to rise to higher levels of position and acceptance in their environment.  The tragic result of creating this state of imposed potential helplessness and powerlessness is that we as a society, whether intentionally or not, are reproducing experiences of chronic stress and sentencing such people to the risks associated with major health problems.  Inequality and prejudice do impact stress levels.

In my opinion, this makes our contemporary religious and social issues of women's ordination and same gender marriage hugely spiritual issues.  The fact that in our religious and political organizations we've developed a hierarchy of acceptance and status, denying equality in position and power and therefore rights and opportunities based upon gender and sexual orientation, means that we are also denying a quality of life with its proven and profound health benefits and longevity to some and not others.  We are ironically mirroring the baboon troops that live purely instinctual survival existences.

Isn't this in distinct contrast to the model of life Jesus described himself coming to bring to all?  "I have come that people will have life, the abundant life!"  (John 10:10)  Jesus was about lifting people up, increasing their quality of life, empowering and building up people in an atmosphere of equality and acceptance.  As opposed to the thief, he pointed out, whose sole purpose is to steal, to kill, to diminish and destroy life for others.

When we develop pyramidal hierarchies where there's an "upper" and a "lower" based upon gender or sexual orientation, and then we develop practices and policies that ensure that the value of that "status" is chronic (and then we top it off by using religious / spiritual language to justify our pyramidal laws and values), we are no better than thieves, stealing from them the abundant, free, and high quality life Jesus came to give them.

Research has also shown another tragic outcome of the state of chronic stress.  The stress response can get hardwired into our system especially when it happens at an early stage in life, making people more vulnerable to stress-related diseases and conditions.  Here's how it works:  "The physiology underlying this response has been elegantly revealed in the laboratory. When lab rats are stressed repeatedly, the amygdala — an almond-shaped nub in the center of the brain — enlarges dramatically. (This swelling comes at the expense of the hippocampus, which is crucial for learning and memory and shrinks under severe stress.) The main job of the amygdala is to perceive danger and help generate the stress response; it’s the brain area turned on by dark alleys and Hitchcock movies. Unfortunately, a swollen amygdala means that we’re more likely to notice potential threats in the first place, which means we spend more time in a state of anxiety. (This helps explain why a more active amygdala is closely correlated with atherosclerosis.) The end result is that we become more vulnerable to the very thing that’s killing us."

Meaningful and effective spirituality is about empowering ourselves and others to experience the highest quality life possible.  It's being faithful to the kind of life Jesus said he came to give freely to people - the abundant life - a life where people can become the very best they can be at every stage of life.  And genuine spirituality involves facing the structures, policies, practices, and beliefs that people put into place that are diminishing and destroying life for others - facing them and changing them.  Equality and justice are spiritual issues that impact the quality of life for all people!  To fail to address them is to diminish our own souls, our bodies, and our whole lives - for when even one person in this world is diminished we are all.  And when one person is lifted up, we all are lifted up, we all are enhanced.

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A Secret to Living in the Moment and Enjoying More Peace

[If you like these posts, feel free to share them with others - click on the share button to the right.  If you would like to receive each new blog post as an automatic email, please subscribe at the right.] So what does it take for you to live in the moment - to be truly present in a place of peace?

Karen Armstrong is a former nun and now one of the world's foremost authorities on comparative religions with her latest book A Case For God topping the best-seller list.  She is also the recent creator of the "Charter for Compassion," whose signatories (like Prince Hassan of Jordan and the Dalai Lama) fight extremism, hatred, and exploitation throughout the world.  She was recently asked by Oprah's O Magazine what it takes to live in the moment, to seize the day.  She replied:

"Sometimes you wake up at 3 A.M. when everything seems dark, and you think, 'Life isn't fair. I've got too much to do. I'm too put-upon.' It's a rat run of self-pity! But when you feel compassion, you dethrone yourself from the center of the world. Doing that has made me a more peaceful person."

It's amazing how much stress we put ourselves under when we sit on the throne of our lives, trying to be in control of everything.  Rather than producing peace, this worldview contributes to anxiety and distress instead.  It's kind of like trying to spin multiple plates on sticks.  The first few plates we seem to handle pretty well.  But as the plates get added, we're running around trying to keep them all from falling and breaking into pieces.  It isn't long before the task is simply too much for us, no matter how gifted or full of energy we might be.  So much for ruling our kingdoms with ease.

I like Karen Armstrong's perspective - what helps to dethrone us from the center of the world is compassion - having an outward focus of empathy and caring toward others.  Counter-intuitively, including more people in our lives that we give love to actually decreases our dis-stress and anxiety and centers us more in a peaceful frame of heart, mind, and spirit.  It's almost like we were designed to live with compassion.

And actually, we were!  Neuroscience research in fact reveals that compassion, helping others, triggers activity in the portions of the brain that turn on when people receive rewards or experience pleasure.  Every compassionate act causes a pleasurable physiological response.  In addition, behaviors associated with compassionate love—warm smiles, friendly hand gestures, affirmative forward leans—actually produce more oxytocin in the body which is the hormone that promotes feelings of warmth and connection to others and enhances feelings of trust.

And the compassionate act doesn't have to fancy or extreme or complicated at all.  Dr. Lorne Ladner, a clinical psychologist in private practice in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., wrote:  “I just recently read one research study that found that people who pray for others tend to live longer than those who do not. The point is that when we develop feelings of love or compassion, we may not always be able to actually benefit others in a direct way, but we ourselves do always benefit from such feelings. They serve as causes for our own happiness.” When's the last time you chose to actually pray a blessing for someone else?  How difficult is that?

So Karen Armstrong seems to be on to something when she talks about her personal experience of how compassion actually helps her live more peacefully.  The act of dethroning self with our obsessive need to control life by giving authentic love and compassion to others is a eustress rather than a distress - the positive, energy-producing kind of stress rather than the debilitating kind.   And the long term affects of this are truly transformative.

Compassionate acts as simple as loving, sympathetic touch are powerful, too.  According to experts in a study about emotion and touch, sympathetic touches are processed by receptors under the surface of the skin, and set in motion a cascade of beneficial physiological responses:

"Female participants waiting anxiously for an electric shock showed activation in threat-related regions of the brain, a response quickly turned off when their hands were held by loved ones nearby. Friendly touch stimulates activation in the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves in the chest that calms fight-or-flight cardiovascular response and triggers the release of oxytocin, which enables feelings of trust.  Research by Darlene Francis and Michael Meaney reveals that sympathetic environments — those filled with warm touch — create individuals better suited to survival and reproduction, as Darwin long ago surmised. Rat pups who receive high levels of tactile contact from their mothers — in the form of licking, grooming, and close bodily contact — later as mature rats show reduced levels of stress hormones in response to being restrained, explore novel environments with greater gusto, show fewer stress-related neurons in the brain, and have more robust immune systems."

The practice of compassion has the potential of radically transforming the life of the giver as well as the lives of the receivers.  No wonder Jesus, in concluding his public discourse about the values of God's kingdom, connected the giving of compassion, living a life of unconditional love and care for all others (including even our enemies) with a life characterized by freedom from worry, anxiety, and distress (Matthew 5-6).  Compassion, one of the most godly things we can do in life, puts us in place of inner peace and tranquility, a state of trust and unselfishness in the very heart of the Divine Life.

So what empowers you to be able to live in the moment, to seize the day, even in the midst of stress?  Have you tried compassion lately?  As the spiritual and scientific experts reminds us, it just might help transform your heart, mind, spirit, and body.