Anxiety & Stress – the Silent Killer
“Every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.”Dr. Hans Selye, the Austrian-Canadian 20th century pioneer in endocrinology and nominee for the Nobel Prize. Validated by a recent study from the University of California that tested 58 mothers and discovered that the immune systems of women under stress had undergone the equivalent of ten years’ aging.
The intention of REAL STRENGTH NOW training is to teach the student to understand the body from the inside, out and become his or her own teacher. Everything else, health of mind and body, will flow from this training. BREATH IS LIFE.
We were building our dream house on twenty acres of land just a couple of miles from the center of town. On a mountaintop, overlooking the Ojai valley. Doing it ourselves: without the assistance of a general contractor or on-site architect. It was a strain, but what a view. I was pitching projects in Los Angeles, working with big film and TV producers and praying that the big break was only one meeting away. My sons were doing well in school, the oldest attending a tennis academy and the younger, at nine, already an accomplished swimmer. I had book royalties to sustain us, but they were not enough. Hollywood was as tough as everyone had warned. Still, it was an exciting roller coaster and there was always that chance. “If we get into a third season with this TV series, your grandkids will have enough money to retire,” my manager whispered as we entered the definitive meeting on a series based upon my books. I had rehearsed my sales pitch for days. Timed it. Recited it. And delivered it a half dozen times to the mirror. It was the deal closer.
The pitch went well.
We waited. One day, two, three, and on the fourth, “We love the concept and really enjoyed the pitch but its so close to a show that HBO is doing that we’re going to have to pass,” the TV executive whined down the line to my manager. That was it, years of work, if you include writing the book, gone with the click of a cell phone… Close but no cigar…
A screenplay I had written was stolen and made into a hit film. I sued the film company, and lost. Hollywood was a cutthroat world. Tough, but I could take it. I had my family to support me, and I had my health and that was what really counted. The rest was pie in the sky. Until the morning I noticed something missing from my wife’s left hand. “Where’s your wedding ring?” I asked. She hung her head. When she looked up her eyes were misty with tears. I felt something terrible about to happen. “I can’t be married to you anymore,” she said. It felt like the floor had dropped from beneath me and I was freefalling. “Why?” I asked. She shook her head. “I don’t know.” And that was it.
Despite therapy and pleas, the marriage was over. She never told me why, and finally it no longer mattered. We continued to live together and life went on, in separate rooms, for the sake of the boys. There was no fighting, just a quiet acceptance that when the oldest was in college and the youngest had finished high school she would move back to London, the place where she felt most at home. It was the worst hurt I had even known. I lost sleep but I continued to train, to swim, to box and hit my bags. I continued my personal yoga practice and concentrated on breathing, attempting to master my mind rather then be mastered by it. “You must be under a lot of stress,” concerned friends would comment. “No, I’m fine,” I’d answer. Believing it. Fact was, I really didn’t understand stress. I had always considered it an affliction of the weak and powerless. It was, to me, some abstract term, something obscure. I trained, on the land and in the water. I was not vulnerable to stress, whatever it was.
I was sixty-four. Had never considered myself old, or even getting old. Now, suddenly I did: I felt old, lost, and very vulnerable.
A year passed. Nothing improved. I stopped writing and concentrated on building the dream house, no longer a dream but something we had to finish. The stock markets crashed. We lost a lot of our savings. Still, we had to finish the house. It was worth nothing as a wooden frame. My book royalties dried up and eventually disappeared. I borrowed money. Sold the house we were living in, at a loss. My closest friend and confidante died suddenly. It was devastating. A business venture headed south and took me with it, on a long painful journey to a lawsuit. Heaven turned to hell. Still, I trained. Too hard, resulting in a hernia.
I turned sixty-five.
And woke up one morning with a strange feeling in my chest, like I’d been struck with a dull edged dagger, more a sensation than an actual physical feeling. I knew it was not a heart attack, but it had something to do with my heart, like it had been stolen from me during the night. I sensed death, close at hand, and for the first time in my life a true sense of mortality. I got up. Said hello to my estranged wife, sent the boys off to school.
The following morning my hips hurt. I put it down to swimming, too much kicking. Then my shoulders ached. I thought swimming again. A week later, I struggled to get out of bed. My physical strength declined rapidly. Full range of motion movements became nearly impossible. Everything hurt, but it was a hurt that I had never experienced before.
My bodyweight plummeted from 174 pounds to 159. My neck was sore and there was, by then, searing pain through my shoulders and hips. I could not lift my arm to brush my teeth or shave. I walked like a cripple. I was a cripple. I managed to continue my breathing practice, lying down or sitting on the side of the bed, at least working my diaphragm and stimulating my heart and lungs through conscious breathing. My doctor suggested blood tests. I went to a massage therapist. He worked tirelessly on my shoulders then presented me with a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. A Vietnam Vet with a warrior’s attitude and a matter of fact outlook on life, he said, “Drink up. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I don’t think you’re going to die.” I wasn’t so sure. I visited a chiropractor with a professorial knowledge of anatomy. “Have you been having a lot of sex?” I hesitated to answer. “You may have honey moon hips.” Wouldn’t that be nice, I thought. I had x-rays taken. “The joints look good,” the orthopedic surgeon said. I went to Prolotherapy and had dextrose and water injected into my rotator cuff tendons, endeavoring to heal any tears through the body’s natural immune response. Nothing worked. I could no longer sleep because I could not find a position that didn’t cause agony. So I walked the floor at night, for hours at a time. I phoned my brother Roy in Philadelphia, a true night person, when its three AM in Roy’s world its noon in everyone else’s. “You’ll get through this,” he reassured. A writer, artist and gifted therapist, he became my ten o’clock fix, his voice a stabilizer in the midst of an insomnia-ridden nightmare. Finally, the blood work came back. My SED count (inflammation levels) was nine times normal. My GP immediately referred me to a rheumatologist.
I looked at myself in the mirror. A scared, tired old man looked back at me.
“Health is your greatest wealth.” And I had clearly lost mine.
My body was broken. I walked the floor at night, and wondered what the hell to do. My life was in tatters.
It took a few minutes to unfold myself as I climbed out of the car in Ventura, literally limping into the doctor’s office. Sitting on a table in the examination room, stripped to my underwear, skin hanging over atrophied muscles, waiting for the bad news. The door finally opened and she walked in, young, Chinese, and very pretty.
“Hello, I’m Doctor Cheng.”
“Hello.” I waited.
“I’ve had a look at your blood work and your symptoms and I believe you have Polymyalgia rheumatica.”
I stared at her, my face a blank.
“It’s an autoimmune disease.”
“How did I get it?”
“Most likely, it was stress.”
The last five years of my life rolled through my mind like a funeral procession.
“Stress,” I repeated the word like maybe it was the first time I’d heard of it.
“Yes, we’re not certain if it’s a viral infection or something else. Basically, your immune system is not functioning properly and the white blood cells have attacked the linings of your joints, causing acute inflammation. It can be very painful.”
Dr. Cheng was gentle, but firm at the same time and I trusted her intuitively. She had a fine soothing energy, that intangible quality known as bedside manner, something that is not always included with the diploma from medical school.
“How long will I have it?”
“It generally cycles through the body in one to three years.”
I felt like applauding; it wasn’t permanent.
She proceeded to examine me, making sure I did not have temporal arteritis, a disease that often accompanies PMR and can cause difficulty with eyesight.
“I’m going to put you on Prednisone.”
Prednisone. I knew what it was, a synthetic cortical steroid used to suppress the immune system by blocking the function of the adrenal glands, specifically cortisol which is the body’s own anti-inflammatory hormone.
“You may put on some bodyweight,” She said.
I’d also heard the horror stories, insatiable appetites, water retention, swollen limbs and fifty pounds of fat in twelve weeks.
“And its not the kind of weight that you’ll like,” she added, confirming my fears.
The pretty face looked up at me on the table, her brown eyes kind but puzzled. Was I actually refusing treatment for a condition that had virtually crippled me?
“I won’t put on any weight,” I answered her question.
“Maybe you won’t,” she said. “You seem very disciplined.”
The fact was that Dr. Tammy Cheng had given me a reprieve. Anything that hurt so badly had to be terminal, or that’s what my runaway mind had convinced me. I’d already said goodbye, in my thoughts, to my children on several occasions.
I took my 20 Mg. dose in the morning with my whole-wheat muffin and orange juice and waited for a miracle. Continued my breathing exercises and started to get angry with myself. I knew what it was, PMR, an autoimmune disease. My body was not terminal. It was my mind; set steadfast on a course of disaster. My sense of indignation intensified. It was only pain. I needed to exercise. Why leave it all to the Prednisone? Dr. Cheng had not forbidden movement.
I began with the mother of all exercise, walking, in the pool. Taking the controlled breathing exercises from the side of the bed and into the water. I set my digital timer for twenty minutes and began. Four steps on the inhalation, four on the exhalation, round and round. No limping. Concentrating on my feet as they pushed off the bottom and propelled me forward, then turning around and walking backwards. Leaning back until the water felt like a cool hammock. Merging the breath with the movement and the movement with the water. The sense of empowerment was instant. I could do something to heal myself.
Pain forces the recipient into the here and now, into present tense awareness.
The Prednisone hit on the tenth day. My hips did not hurt and I could swim with my left arm. My right shoulder still did not have a full range of motion. It was time for the gym. Time to send some blood to my starving muscles. If ego is involved in strength training, regarding how much resistance or weight one can move in various exercises, an autoimmune disease that inflames the muscles to near immobility, resulting in two months of atrophy, is a stern teacher. But I intuitively felt that I needed to maintain blood and breath circulation and a full range of muscular and joint motion, even if it meant acknowledging my physical weakness. The weights I had been using prior to the illness looked like weights that superman had used before he’d been subjected to Kryptonite. How the hell had I ever budged them? Even stripping the plates off the bars proved difficult, the single forty-five pound plates felt like lead truck tires. And that’s where I began again, with the machines, void of any weights. “Heal yourself, don’t hurt yourself,” I promised as I began. A close friend had advised, “This time rebuild your body with love, not aggression. Make yourself stronger than your were before. But be patient, take your time.” The movements came more easily than I expected, bicycling on the iso-lateral leg press, slowly, then pushing in and out on the chest press and pulling down on the overhead machine as the old muscle memory kicked in. Over and over again, combined with slow full nasal breaths, till I could feel the oxygen filling my lungs and the blood flowing through my body. It was exhilarating, just that knowledge that I could move, that everything worked. ‘I could even add weights to the bars,’ I thought. My friend’s voice, in my head, stopped me. ‘Rebuild yourself with love, not aggression.” So, I stopped, went to the pool and walked, and breathed. It was the breathing that centered my mind and held my ‘add weights to the bar’ ego in check.
Breathing is the center of life.
The specific breath exercises I used, both sitting and training included:
Conscious breathing. In other words, full yoga breaths while counting each breath, centering the mind as if the breath is a rider on a horse, holding the reigns, controlling the thoughts. Keeping negative thoughts at bay or under control while creating calm.
Ruffle The Flame: Filling the lungs completely before exhalation, pursing the lips and using the muscles of the stomach to push the air from the body while contracting the Pelvic Floor, blowing out through the mouth as if to ruffle a candle’s flame a few feet away. Making full use of the diaphragm this empties the body of carbon dioxide to make room for more oxygen. This is a cleansing breath – removing toxins – and can be used during certain exercises.
Chugging breath (Kapalabhati in yoga): Using the diaphragm for propulsion, inhale then begin to quickly breath out in short, rapid breaths, always propelled by the movement of the diaphragm. The cadence or rhythm should be fast and steady and allow for sets of perhaps thirty to one hundred repetitions, or until the breath is no longer even and rhythmic. This is a cleansing breath, clearing the nose and lungs and cleansing the system while exercising the diaphragm and keeping it flexible
Alternate nostril breathing (in yoga, nadi shodhana) Alternating nostrils while breathing in then breathing out by blocking air flow to right then left nostril (and reverse) with the hand held, fingers touching forehead and thumb and third finger used to control the air flow, like a valve. This is a good practice for mental stability as well as an energizer. It is a good stress releaser and reserved for seated, not training, practice.
The Great Lock (in yoga, Maha Bandha) This Great Lock is best performed after doing other breathing exercises so that the lungs are prepared for retention of breath and the more extreme movement of the abdominal muscles and the diaphragm. The Great Lock is an excellent practice for the breathing mechanisms and central nervous system. It is also good for stabilizing the mind. It is done during a breath hold, or pause, on full or half full lungs by pulling the pelvic floor muscles (the muscles of the rectum and perineum) and holding them in a contracted position while lifting the abdominal muscles inwards and upwards, as if to touch the spine. This will cause a full relaxation of the diaphragm. As you do this close the throat and press your chin down towards your sternum (not forcibly) as the chest is lifted up. This will hold air in the lungs. This ‘throat lock’ is unlocked as you exhale. The three components of The Great Lock can be practiced individually or all at once.
I also use/used several breath holds or pauses, from eight seconds to two and a half minutes, to activate my Vagus nerve and trigger the parasympathetic nervous system to stimulate calm and recovery. The pauses or holds should be natural, never strained, in as much as exhalation should be controlled and the next inhalation not a gasp for air. I sometimes use pauses at the end of a training session but never until I am able to breath easily using just my nose; they are the beginning of the recovery phase.
BREATHING SHOULD NEVER BE STRAINED.
I waited two weeks to add weights to the bars and, by then, I was using less resistance than my fourteen-year old son – in some exercises a lot less. But it was progression. I watched my diet, ate protein, fruit and salads. I weighed myself every day. And stayed between 159 and 162. My body began to heal. Then, one day during a pool walk I thought I’d try swimming freestyle with both arms. I was frightened. What if the right still didn’t work? Would I force my arm to move in order to prove I was getting better or be honest and say, “no, not yet.” I pushed off the side and swam a slow length. My right shoulder was still sore but it rotated as I pulled myself through the water. I made it to the other side. And felt like I had when as an eight-year old boy, I flailed across the local public pool in order to show my dad I deserved proper swimming lessons. Accomplished.
My wise friend, the one who suggested I treat myself with kindness, not aggression, advised acupuncture. “I think it would help unblock your shoulders,” she said. Introducing me to Alan Chang, a handsome young Chinese man, who comes from a long lineage of doctors and acupuncture practitioners; I was going from Cheng to Chang.
Alan was extremely kind and very gentle. He had compassion spilling from his brown eyes. We spoke of energy and the inner energy body, which I understood as the ki or chi or prana, or simply the vital flow of electricity that animates the body and flows on the currents of oxygen and blood. So I got pinned, or needled, in a quiet muted room with gentle music playing in the background; it was enough to capture my mind and put me at peace. And each time I experienced the deepest levels of relaxation I had known in many years. Sometimes my mind would wander and land on my failed marriage, or my financial situation and I would guide it back to the breath, drifting away on silver strands of flute or voices that sounded like waves breaking gently against a distant shore. Often I would have a release of energy, in the form of deep sorrow, even tears. It was as if I was being opened and reborn, discarding many fears and negatives as my inner energy body reassembled and reconnected. Alan provided genuine and honest friendship and support. He endorsed the practice of breath as an exercise; an avid meditator he understood, above all else, compassion for the self.
My bodyweight remained stable at 162.
Dr. Cheng looked at me and said, “‘Wow. What have you been doing?”
I told her about the breathing, the water walking and the acupuncture. She endorsed every bit of it. Saying, “It’s wise to mix eastern and western medicine, both have something to offer, ” and reduced my Prednisone by 5 Ml. Explaining, “You must taper this drug slowly to allow you adrenal glands to begin working again.”
I swam. I walked in the water. I strength trained. I practiced my breath and began to learn to sit, in meditation, for brief periods, trying to catch my thoughts as they arose, and let them go. Attempting to control the runaway horse that can be the mind. Finding moments of stillness, and peace. I continued the acupuncture.
My Predisone was reduced again, and again.
Dr. Tammy Cheng was always a positive, reassuring spirit.
“You look like a rock star,” she said.
My strength, five months after the diagnosis returned to the level it had been before the disease. I was sleeping better.
I learned great lessons while I was sick, lessons in mortality and fear and the transience of all life. Lessons in humility that I pray stay with me in wellness.
And through it all, in sickness and in health, I breathed. The way every animal breathes, yet, with practice, those breaths – a finite number in the life of a living creature – have become more conscious. And with consciousness a present awareness of life develops, a greater respect for the time we have, the number of breaths we will take, the quality of life and the certainty of death. Real strength is awareness and living in the present, whether that present means lifting a lead weight from the floor or a baby from a crib. It is the unity of the body and the mind, muscle and breath, and the cultivation of both.
There is a famous Tibetan meditation teacher. His name is Penor Rinpoche. When talking about life he said, “ Life is more difficult if you worry. It’s better to deal with things as they come up.”
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