Monday, September 28, 2015

The Power of AWE on Health and Well Being


"When people think of an Ironman competition, it may elicit the emotion of awe...at least it does in me. And, when a person strives to overcome a disease like osteoporosis, to me, it elicits awe as well. But awe is apparent in every aspect in life - big and small. The key is to put away distractions and stay completely present and connected; you will experience awe-inspiring stuff all around you."
                                                                                                              Dr. McCormick

What is "awe"?
Wikipedia says that awe is "an emotion comparable to wonder but less joyous." The dictionary defines it as "an overwhelming feeling of reverence, admiration, fear..." and "produced by that which is grand, sublime, extremely powerful..." Maybe a more gut-generated definition would be "that which drops your jaw"..."that which leaves your mouth agape"..."that which powers through your
body, not just as some exciting visual titillation, but something that sends extreme ripples of energy throughout every single cell, tissue, fluid and organ in your body"...and yes, even your bones (more about that soon!)

The emotion of awe can be aroused by a sight, sound, feeling, smell, or taste, or any combination there of. It can be evoked by the actions of a person, an animal, or by a weather event or music. It can be caused by something as small as nanoparticles or as large as the universe. It can be inspired by something as common as a crow or as rare as a natural pearl. It can be from something that may cause one person's heart to race while barely producing a blip in another. It can be fickle...something that may inspire awe in a person one day may completely flat line on another. And awe can also be both complex and simple. I've sometimes been left in awe by something only to analyze it later and then loose the awe. Sometimes it's best to not over-think or analyze the thing that gives you awe. Just let whatever it is do its thing. Let it simply and thoroughly pull that guttural awwwwwwwe of inspiration out of you.. and then let it continue producing the awwwwwwwe of expiration...as it tantalizes all through your body...all the way to your bones.

J.E. Stellar and colleagues explain in a recent issue of the journal, Emotion, that awe has clear health benefits. We have all experienced a grumpy neighbor or coworker who is negative about everything and has every health issue in the book; it's difficult to know if the negativity is responsible for the health problems or the poor health is the root of the negative attitude. Suppose you were able to help that individual experience things in a new light - elicit a smile and physical signs of joy, open his/her eyes to new possibilities and the good, amazing things that happen every day all around us? Stellar has shown that it really would help - emotionally, physically, and bio-chemically.

Stellar studied college student's reactions to various emotions and found that there was a relationship between discrete positive emotions and the blood level of the pro-inflammatory cytokine, interleukin-6 (IL-6). This is very important because excessive levels of IL-6 not only promote inflammation but it also stokes osteoclasts, the cells that break down bone and are responsible for bone loss. (For more on how this happens and what it does to your skeleton check out Chapter 4, "Chronic Systemic Inflammation and the Conflagration of Bone" in The Whole-Body Approach to Osteoporosis

We want to lower IL-6 levels. IL-6 is natural to the body but when its levels get too high we are in a state of chronic systemic inflammation and this leads to disease...to osteoporosis. We want to do everything we can to lower this pro-inflammatory cytokine and Stellar's work demonstrates how important it really is to be more positive in our lives. Stellar specifically demonstrates that the positive emotion of awe is "the strongest predictor of lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines."

Rudolf Steiner, the great Austrian philosopher who founded the first Waldorf Steiner School, believed that wonder and awe were key to the acquisition of knowledge. It was through the opening of one's body, mind, and spirit to the wonders of nature that Steiner believed we were best able to develop acute emotional sensitivity and a state of well being. Steiner didn't know anything about IL-6 but he sure understood the importance of awe.

Make it a point to look on the bright side of things, check out the greatness of life...and above all, simply observe sometimes and be in awe.

Stellar, J.E., et al. 2015. Positive affect and markers of inflammation: discrete positive emotions predict lower levels of inflammatory cytokines.
Emotion 15(2):129-33.
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