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Meditation and Stress

FEELING STRESSED?

Do you feel pressured from problems with work, relationships or your personal finances? Doctors call it stress when mental and emotional pressures builds up.

Stress can be harmful. It distracts you from getting on with enjoying your life. It gets in the way of your attempts to sort out the problems causing it. If you let it get the better of you, it can even make you physically ill. So dealing with your stress is important.

WHY DO WE GET STRESSED?

Stress is primarily designed to help us get out of physical danger. When we feel threatened, a part of our brain called the amygdala sets off an alarm bell which triggers the “fight or flight” response of our nervous system, making us ready to respond. Our blood is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, as well as our respiration. This allows us to transport oxygen to our muscles quickly so we can “act fast”.

While this heightened state once helped us with the physical threat of, say, a sabre-toothed tiger, it does little to help us with today’s worries, such as when we’ve forgotten to hit “save” on a word document. But the response is still the same.

WHY IS IT SO DAMAGING?

Stress stops the normal functioning of our body. The body assumes there’s a physical threat at hand, so it channels energy into getting out of immediate danger. To do this, it shuts down non-essential systems which are taking up energy. Our digestive processes, immune system, growth and reproductive processes are inhibited (no time for eating or sex when we’re being chased!)

A bit of stress in short doses is useful in improving our memory and enhancing performance. However, too much, too regularly, is extremely damaging to our mental and physical well-being. It can lead to stomach ulcers, heart problems, illnesses, lowered libido… the list goes on.

HOW CAN MINDFULNESS HELP WITH STRESS?

Simply put, meditation for stress soothes our nervous system. While stress activates the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system, mindfulness meditation activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, helping with stress management. Our heart rate slows, our respiration slows and our blood pressure drops. This is often called the “relaxation response”. While chronic activation of the fight or flight response can be extremely damaging to the body, the relaxation response is restorative, so meditation benefits our wellbeing.

IT CHANGES THE BRAIN

People who practise mindfulness meditation regularly report feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced. According to neuroscientists, as you continue to meditate, your brain physically changes, even though you’re not aware of it re-shaping itself. They’re also beginning to understand why meditation is effective for managing stress. Using brain imaging techniques, they’ve observed changes in the threat system of the brain. The response kicks-off in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for triggering fear. People who suffer from chronic anxiety have a more reactive amygdala, and this leaves them feeling threatened much of the time.

…evidence that meditation served as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique.

A study performed at Stanford found that an 8-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress. Similarly, researchers from Harvard University discovered corresponding changes in the physical structure of the brain with a similar meditation course; there was a lower density of neurons in the amygdala and greater density of neurons in areas involved in emotional control – evidence that meditation served as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique