As if the social and economic stress of 2009 isn’t enough, here we are in the 11 hour of the most stressful time of the year: Christmas. Got to get the gifts in the mail on time so they make it there by the 25th. Got to send the cards out and make sure that we include everyone who sent us a card this year too. Got to make the cookies for the office. Got to attend all those holiday parties. Don’t forget the decorations and the lights! It’s enough to drive you insane – or at the very least put unnecessary stress on your body.
Stress is the reaction of the body to a perceived threat or expected outcome. I’ve placed emphasis on the words perceived and expected, because these are the operational words in stress. To the degree that we perceive something to be a threat or expect something to turn out poorly, our stress will rise proportionally. If Aunt Mathilda doesn’t receive her Christmas card on time, we will perceive ourselves as not living up to her expectations which may create tension in the family relationship which will make us feel inadequate…. and so forth.
The key is to monitor what we perceive and what we expect. We need to be careful here because perceiving something to be a threat requires us to anticipate a future possibility, just as expecting a certain outcome is a projection into what is only a possible outcome. When we find ourselves in this future, anticipatory consciousness by definition we are not present in the moment. If you are fearing the future, you can’t be in the present. The paradox is that our ability to monitor our perceptions and expectations exists only in the present moment. It’s staying in the moment, that’s the trick.
Enter the three wise men. Legend has it that one of the gifts of the magi was frankincense. Frankincense is an aromatic resin produced from the sap of the Boswellia tree and was a prized herbal remedy during the time of Jesus, so it’s no surprise it was brought as a gift, but why. Frankincense (as is Myrrh, another of the gifts) is an anti-inflammatory. It is particularly useful in reducing inflammation of the lungs and bronchial tubes thereby allowing a deeper breath and helping a person under stress to relax. The Mayo Clinic even today lists frankincense as an effective herbal remedy in treating asthma. So it might have been helpful in aiding a new-born or even the mother in breathing after delivery.
New research has also verified the psychoactive properties of frankincense, which may have been helpful in calming and anxious mother and reduce the effects of postpartum depression or calming a baby suffering from colic. In a 2008 study published in the on-line Journal of the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, researchers from Johns Hopkins University and the Hebrew University in Jerusalem found that a constituent of frankincense called incensole acetate activated channels in the brain that lowers anxiety and creates anti-depressive behavior.
So how can all of this help you with your holiday stress? Frankincense is available in modern times as resin nuggets and as essential oil which is distilled from steaming the resin. Inhaling the smoke from the burning resin or the aroma from the essential oil will deepen the breath, open the lungs and calm the nervous system. Inhaling the sweet, balsamic aroma of frankincense can produce a meditative state from which you can focus yourself in the present moment and objectively monitor your perceptions of possible threats and expectations about the outcomes of your choices. When you can do that, stress is much more manageable.
So give yourself one of the gifts of the magi and treat yourself to some frankincense. ‘Tis the season.
– Paul Kulpinski, LMT