What do many athletes and stressed-out school-kids across Europe have in common? They're all proponents of sophrology—the mind-body practice that is essentially a smorgasbord of mindfulness meditation, breath work, visualization, and body awareness techniques.
A couple of years back, after an unexpected and gut-wrenching break-up, I was all over the place – so I threw myself into my yoga practice in the hope of regaining some equilibrium. One day I saw a flyer on the noticeboard at the yoga studio. “Reduce stress and manage emotions,” it said. “Detach and refocus. Instil calm.” Oh yes please, I thought. But what was it? Mindfulness? Meditation? Buddhist chanting? No. Sophrology.
Do you feel tired all of the time? Maybe you’re stressed, anxious, or find it hard to concentrate. Sophrology might help. This relatively modern relaxation technique is popular in mainland Europe; so much so it’s recommended and covered by health insurance companies across France and Switzerland. It's only a matter of time before it lands on our shores.
Evidence from a major review of published research suggests that chronic stress and anxiety damage key brain regions involved in emotional responses, thinking and memory.
Lead author Dr Linda Mah, from the Baycrest Centre for Geriatric Care in Toronto, Canada, said: "Pathological anxiety and chronic stress are associated with structural degeneration and impaired functioning of the hippocampus and the prefrontal cortex (PFC), which may account for the increased risk of developing neuropsychiatric disorders, including depression and dementia."
The review paper, published in the journal 'Current Opinion in Psychiatry', pooled findings from a number of recent studies of stress and fear conditioning in animals, and people undergoing brain scans.
Dr Mah's team looked specifically at neural circuits linked to fear and anxiety in three brain regions, the amygdala, PFC, and hippocampus.
A see-saw pattern was seen in response to chronic stress with the amygdala, associated with emotional responses, becoming over-active and the PFC under-active.
The PFC contains "thinking" areas of the brain that help to regulate emotional responses by appraising them in a rational way.
Temporary episodes of anxiety, fear and stress - experienced before an exam or job interview, for instance - are part of normal life.
But the scientists point out that when such acute emotional reactions become chronic they can "wreak havoc" on immune, metabolic and cardiovascular systems, and damage the brain.
It's commonly said that sports are 90 percent mental and only 10 percent physical. A lack of focus can result in a missed three-point shot, nerves can cause a gymnast to fall out of her landing, and a momentary lapse in confidence can easily make the difference between gold and bronze. So it's no surprise that some of the best professional athletes in the sports world are turning to meditation....(click on article to continue)