From AME Researchers: Why Do Mind-Body Practices Work? Introducing the “Deep Rest” Model of Safety and Cellular Rejuvenation

News Flash! Our group’s model of deep rest, led by Dr. Alexandra Crosswell, and including Dr.’s Stefanie Mayer, Lauren Whitehurst, Martin Picard, and Elissa Epel, was accepted for publication in Psychological Review, a leading journal for theoretical reviews in the field.

Read the paper here, and hear about some of the general points below.

What are deep rest states, why are they missing, and why do they matter to cellular health and aging?

Psychological stress is at epidemic levels, and is increasing over time, with high costs to public health.  UCSF researchers have published a novel integrative and interdisciplinary model to explain the common syndrome of high stress physiological arousal, and the cost to energy levels and health.  They bring together cellular energetics, with sleep and stress science to explain how chronic psychological stress creates energy depletion and rapid cellular aging.  They also describe how the different types of mind-body practices like yoga and meditation have a common pathway, leading to health outcomes through cellular energetics—shifting cell’s activity from burning excessive energy to cellular repair and restoration, providing more energy.   

While decades of work has shown the positive impact of yoga, prayer, and meditation on physical and mental health outcomes, the specific biological mechanisms explaining these relationship have remained elusive. In their newly published paper in a top tier psychology journal – Psychological Review – lead author Alexandra Crosswell, a former UCSF Assistant Professor, Elissa Epel, UCSF Professor and Vice Chair in the department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, and colleagues make a compelling case that mind-body practices allow people to enter the unique psychophysiological state of “deep rest,” a state that enables cellular rejuvenation. Dr. Crosswell explains, “By down regulating the threat response that is common in daily life, and increasing a sense of safety, mind-body practices allow the body to shift energy away from maintaining high stress arousal towards positive cellular restoration processes.”

The researchers make the case that due to chronic subtle stress, even unconscious stress, during the day, many people spend most of their waking time in a state of moderate threat arousal, rarely experiencing true physiological relaxation and possibly completely lacking states of deep rest, when awake, and lower levels of the restorative stage of sleep, deep sleep. 

This integrative model will launch forward the field of preventive public health by creating more knowledge about how to measure and foster deep rest states.

They provide the next generation of hypotheses for researchers to further test the model and create useful metrics and applications. This empirically supported theory has practical value for people seeking mind-body practices to relieve suffering. These implications are threefold: First, that a felt sense of safety is a core component of turning down stress arousal and activating cellular rejuvenation processes.  Second, mind-body practices offer an opportunity to enter a deep rest physiological state that promotes cellular rejuvenation. Slowing breathing alone can often directly help people enter this state.  Third, stimulating the senses with attention or sensory stimuli is a powerful way to shift attention from threatening neural activity to more calming activity.  Sensory experiences move people from thoughts that increase stress arousal and towards bodily experiences that promote feelings of peace and calm. Lastly, people who have experienced trauma with post traumatic symptoms may need extra support in creating social safety, which feeds back to have beneficial physiological effects on restorative biology.   

It is critical to understand that stress effects are powerful, and that they are not just in our head. We can easily experience physiological stress even when we are going about our usual daily activities and not even be aware of it. "When people become aware of the science of how stress works, and that daily stress levels are largely under our personal control, they are more likely to make meaningful shifts to reduce stress and increase their well being.  It’s equally important to realize that deep rest states can both combat stress effects, and are a critical ingredient for optimal cellular health and healthy aging. Getting into deep rest states has important health effects over the long term,” senior author Dr. Epel shared.