— Quieting Your HPA Axis

The body has two defense systems: one to detect and respond to perceived threats in the external environment, and the other to detect and respond to internal threats. The first is the fight-or-flight response. The second is the immune system.

The fight-or-flight response works through the HPA (hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal) axis. When there are no perceived external threats, the HPA axis is at rest and all the body’s resources are dedicated to the renewal of its systems and the growth of new cells. When the body perceives an external threat, such as the blare of an automobile horn, the HPA axis kicks in and signals the release of cortisol and adrenaline — which constrict blood vessels in the digestive tract and redirect blood flow away from the internal organs to the extremities, preparing us to fight or flee.

These hormones also constrict blood vessels in the prefrontal cortex, where our logic and reasoning centers are located, and redirect blood to the old brain, where instinctive action originates. As a result, our thinking becomes muddled and we operate like a cornered animal. This is an ancient survival mechanism that continues to serve us well. The problem is that the old brain does not differentiate between perceived danger and actual danger.

Day-to-day life in the 21st century keeps us awash in a torrent of stress hormones. Traffic jams, toxic emotional assaults at the office or at home, and violent TV shows keep us in a hypervigilant state, our amygdale at high alert. The most damaging of these hormones, at least from the brain’s perspective, is cortisol. In chronically stressed and depressed individuals both the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex are physically shriveled and shrunken — they experience much more rapid breakdown of the brain than the their nonstressed counterparts.

The shamanic practice of quieting your HPA axis is a form of meditation, similar to a technique employed in a recent study to determine if meditation could slow cellular aging. This study examined the length of telomeres, which are the protective endcaps of chromosomes and a representative measure of cellular aging, in two groups of mothers. One group was experiencing high levels of stress due to coping with chronically ill children, while the other women had healthy children and experienced only low, or what might be considered normal, levels of stress.

The authors discovered that the mothers who had been caring for their chronically ill children had shorter telomeres — an indication of a more advanced degree of cellular aging. The authors concluded that some forms of meditation may have salutary effects on telomere length by reducing cognitive stress and stress arousal and increasing positive states of mind.

The following exercise will help you relax deeply and reset the fight-or-flight response that might have been triggered by stress or trauma. You accomplish this by “tuning” your chakra system.

Exercise: Do this in a bathtub while taking a Shaman’s Bath (below), or in bed before going to sleep. Lie back comfortably and close your eyes, breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. Inhale for a slow count of four. Exhale for a slow count of four, drawing out the breath and making a slight whooshing sound.

After a few minutes of this rhythmic breathing, place your left hand on the center of your chest, at the level of your heart. Try to find your heartbeat, and bring your attention to this master drummer that sets the rhythm for your entire body. Notice how your heart rate quiets as you make your breaths softer and longer.

After a couple of minutes, bring your right hand to your second chakra, right below your belly button. Try to feel your heartbeat here as well, through your right hand, even though it is nowhere near your heart. Realize that the second chakra is linked to the adrenal glands, which produce adrenaline and keep the fight-or-flight system active. Imagine that your heartbeat is setting the tempo for your adrenals, helping them to slow down and relax. Tap the fingers of your right hand softly on your lower belly to bring your awareness to this area of your body. Practice for ten minutes.

The Shaman’s Bath is a very cleansing and healing formula. Repeat this bath as often as you like, especially on your day of fasting. Sage is used by shamans throughout the Americas to cleanse the energy of a person or a place.

½ cup baking soda
½ cup sea salt
10 drops of sage oil (essential oil)

Pour ingredients into a tub as you are filling it with warm water and soak your body for 20 minutes. Rinse off. Go straight to bed.