Meditation has been scientifically proven effective in reducing stress – a major health issue in modern life – and has other important benefits.
The word stress has become a common descriptor identifying how we feel in this modern fast-paced world we inhabit. We use the word stress to describe the turmoil going on within us. It’s no longer applied to a single element of discomfort. The descriptors are endless. Stress is incredibly complex, effecting vast areas of our bodies, minds and behaviour with catastrophic results. It seems that we cannot escape this frantic life we lead. We are sadly at emotional war with the world we live in!
Stress means different things to different people depending on their personality and how they respond to situations. Some people worry themselves sick while others respond passively letting everything wash over them like water on a duck’s back. They are somehow less sensitive, more responsive than reactive to the bumps along the way. Others find stress harder to deal with and reach for something to help them cope – something to dull the senses – allowing them to function.
Medication just suppresses the symptoms
While medication will be effective in numbing the emotions, nothing really changes. Anxiety remains within, pushed down below the surface like holding balls under the water. The minute you stop the medication the suppressed stress will rise to the surface with a rush causing anxiety which can be more unsettling and confronting than ever. The realisation dawns that you have no separation from the stress without the medication; you need the medication to keep the lid on and be in control.
When you are in a stressful situation your body releases hormones and automatically goes into a fight or flight mode. Your breathing gets faster, your heartbeat increases, your muscles tense, and you begin to sweat. You are on the alert for danger. Generally this is a short-term response to keep you safe and your body recovers from it quite quickly. However if you are stressed for long periods of time the constant rush of stress hormones will impact on your health, dramatically causing your body to age prematurely and be more prone to disease.
Short and long-term stresses
Short-term stress can cause headache, fatigue, difficulty sleeping, difficulty concentrating, upset stomach and irritability, and other symptoms.
Long-term stress, however, can lead to more serious health issues. These include depression, high blood pressure, arrhythmia, hardening of the arteries, heart disease, weight gain or loss and many other serious conditions. Biologist Elizabeth Blackburn has received a Nobel Prize for her groundbreaking work on what makes our bodies age, and the one glaring fact is stress. Managing your stress can make a real difference to your health, and meditation is a natural element that can help to manage and alleviate stress, with a host of other benefits.
There is no cost to meditation and the benefits are priceless. Neuroscience has proven that meditation calms the mind and stops recursive loops of thought often known as monkey mind. It also suppresses ‘negativity bias’ – a survival mode of thinking where we are always on the alert, looking for possible danger. After meditating, the ability to regain focus with a reduced sense of beta, means you are more relaxed and have the ability to be more solution focused. Meditation also produces more gamma waves, opening the opportunity to have insights.
Research on meditation
Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first scientists to take the anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation and mindfulness and test them in brain scans. What she found was that meditating can literally change your brain. She explains: “The amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain, which is is important for anxiety, fear and stress in general… got smaller in the group that went through the mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The change in the amygdala was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.”. When questioned about how long someone has to meditate before they begin to see changes in their brain, Lazar responded that her data showed changes in the brain after just eight weeks.
Lazar also reported that studies show that meditation changes brain physiology to slow ageing. She notes; “Cognition seems to be preserved in meditators”. She adds that meditators have more grey matter – literally, more brain cells.
Lazar’s colleague, Elizabeth Hoge, did a study that showed meditators also have longer telomeres. These are the caps on chromosomes indicative of biological age (rather than chronological). Hoge says: “There is something about meditation that is associated with longer telomeres … [perhaps that] it reduces stress and its effects on the body.” This is the same field of study for which biologist Elizabeth Blackburn won her Nobel Prize. It was the shrinking of the telomeres from stress, anxiety and trauma that Blackburn attributed to the onset of ageing and disease. Meditation may keep us more at ease than disease!
So what would be your response to dealing with stress? Medicate and live your life with numbed emotions? Keeping stress and emotions submerged but not attended to? Or meditate and allow your emotions to flow in their natural way while gaining the abundant benefits that meditation, a natural and effective buffer, provides? It has been documented that meditation improves alertness and focus, gives better sleep. It also enhances memory, concentration and perception, increases levels of happiness and compassion and improves the immune system. The practice benefits cardiovascular and the immune system, inducing relaxation and improves immunity.
If you are wondering what happens when you meditate for a long time, it only gets better. Scientific studies were carried out on Buddhist monks and practitioners who had practised the art of meditation over years, highlighting the long-term effects of meditation on the brain. They showed an elevated brain activity within those regions associated with self-awareness, relaxation, happiness, concentration and other positive emotions. Also the brain areas responsible for stress and anxiety had shrunk. So why not give it a try? You have everything to gain and nothing to lose but stress and anxiety!
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