Can Meditation Calm Your Stress?
How Meditation can help our ‘Old Fashioned’ Nervous System cope better with ‘Modern Day’ Stress!
OK, so we are always being told to meditate to help bring down our stress and anxiety levels, and to declutter our minds.
I thought it would be interesting to have a look at the scientific thought behind meditating. This may actually motivate people to prioritise this self help technique, which promises improvements in stress, anxiety, emotional health, self awareness, attention span, and memory.
First some interesting biological info about why stress has such an emotional and physical impact on us……
Stress is both a psychological and physical reaction to something that threatens our wellbeing – looming deadlines, poverty, illness, or a fight with your significant other.
When some kind of stressful event occurs, the autonomic nervous system responds with its well-intentioned (but usually not so helpful) emergency system that you’ve probably heard about: ‘fight or flight’.
Through the release of stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline, the ‘fight or flight’ response has rapid effects on multiple bodily systems.
Some things are increased: heart rate, blood pressure, muscle tension, perspiration, narrow focus of attention and food seeking behaviour (for energy). Some things are decreased: such as digestion and immune function.
The Stress Response – Unsuited to Modern Life
Fast forward to the stressors of this modern day, and you can see that our stress response to such things as stressful work-life, cyber bullying, relationship problems and rising house prices, is not so effective.
None of these really benefit from being able to run from a tiger or fight an angry cave-man. Not only that, but our modern stressors cannot be solved in an afternoon, or even within a week.
So what happens when our well-intentioned but unsuitable fight or flight response tries to help us with long-term modern stressors?
With the prolonged release of stress hormones, blood pressure goes up, the cardiovascular system is taxed to do its job, the immune system is weakened, digestion doesn’t happen properly, you get headaches and have trouble winding down.
Not to mention a reduced ability for learning and memory, partly because the resources of the attentional system are being directed rigidly towards immediate threats, rather than flexibly and curiously to all the other interesting things going on in life.
So, our stress response is doing pretty much the same thing as it was doing for our ancestors, but for longer periods.
A short burst of adrenaline gives us motivation and energy for the challenges in life, but a steady stream of it just makes us run down which takes a serious toll on the body.
Chronic stress plays a sizeable role in mental illness and physical states such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, obesity and immunosuppression.
It is best to use the stress system we are equipped with for short bursts of focussed energy , this is what it is made for. If you can reduce chronic stress and maintain a general baseline of calm and relaxation, then you are likely to respond more effectively to the occasional high-stress situations that life throws you – this is where taking time out to regularly meditate can help, as this can soothe the nervous system.
It has only been in recent times that neuroscientists have been able to peer directly into the brain to see what’s going on, the advent of functional MRIs and other brain scanning techniques have largely paved the way.
Here’s the science bit. Stick with it, it’s interesting!
The prefrontal cortex is a region in the front of the brain, basically the control centre of our brains because it helps to control our thoughts and actions.
The main job of the prefrontal cortex is to control our emotional responses to stress so that we do not get too stressed out. This is why the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex share a special connection – the amygdala quickly signals a threat or stress in the environment, and the prefrontal cortex helps the amygdala to see stressful events as a little less scary or frustrating.
This process helps us calm down during a normal stressor by perceiving the situation as non-life threatening. Both of these parts of the brain help us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it, so if meditation improves communication between these two areas, we can see how stress can be reduced.
For long term meditators, activity in the ‘default network’ —the part of our brains that, when not busy with focused activity, ruminates on thoughts, feelings, and experiences—quiets down, suggesting less rumination about ourselves and our place in the world.
How meditation can help.
When we meditate we are basically focussing on our breath, (which isn’t as easy as it sounds, as our minds have a tendency to wander all over the place, but with practice it does get easier), which allows us to unhook ourselves from ruminating on the past, for example, or worrying about the future, which can become a habit we fall in to when we are not feeling so robust.
Other researchers have also found that meditation training boosts the left frontal activity of the brain, which is associated with positive mood, and decreased activity in the amygdala.
One theory proposes that the change in brain function represents the development of an ‘approach state’ characterised by a moving towards, rather than away from, challenging situations or unpleasant feelings, promoting an approach of acceptance towards things that cannot be changed, for example.