As humans, it can feel like we are always stressed out. Whether it’s due to family life, arguments with friends, or trouble at school, life can sometimes seem like a never-ending cycle of stress.
This constant stress and anxiety can lead to massive physical and mental health problems, including high blood pressure, heart disease, chronic pain, depression, and anxiety. So what’s the best way to cope? Meditation could provide some of the answers you’re searching for.
In this article, we’ll look into what causes stress, in our everyday life and in our bodies. We’ll also explain how meditation can help you deal with that stress. To make sure you have all the tools you need, we’ll introduce you to a mindful breathing technique, and explore a few other great ways to manage stress using mindfulness meditation. Let’s get started.
Research Proven Method for Reducing Stress: Meditation
Meditation has been practised for thousands of years across various different regions and cultures, but it’s only in recent years that mindfulness meditation has been used more widely to manage stress, anxiety, and other mental health issues. Taking the time out of your routine to incorporate mindful breathing and meditate daily can restore your inner peace by bringing you closer to who you truly are.
The benefits of meditation have been proven by numerous studies over the last few decades. In fact, there is so much evidence that shows the positive effects of meditation on our lives that in recent years, the American Psychological Association (APA) has recognized mediation as a useful strategy to enhance metacognition and decrease rumination through disengaging from our persistent cognitive activities such as changing our response to stress and improving our attention through better working memory. In turn, these gains make it easier to manage emotions like stress.
How does mindfulness meditation work?
Essentially, mindfulness meditation is a sum of two parts: attention and acceptance. When we meditate mindfully, we bring our attention or awareness to the present moment. This means bringing your focus to what is happening in the here and now, in your body, mind, and environment. When we cultivate mindfulness in meditation, we accept these occurrences how they are. We observe and note our thoughts, feelings, and experiences but instead of harbouring them, causing them to make us feel worse, we let these thoughts go. The goal of mindfulness meditation is to observe and take note of negative thoughts and feelings, without judgement, in order to be less affected by them.
Mindfulness can be learned informally, although there are also various forms of mindfulness-based therapy used to teach this discipline. Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, was developed by Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1980s at the University of Massachusetts Medical Centre. Mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) is essentially a therapeutic intervention that teaches people how to cultivate mindfulness in a meaningful and impactful way through classes, group sessions, yoga, and meditation. Similarly, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, or MBCT, is an approach to psychotherapy and therapeutic intervention that combines cognitive behavioural therapy and MBSR to help people cope with and treat depression. Though both types of mindfulness therapy can be useful, regular MBSR practice was reported by one study to have a better impact on reducing the amount of time spent participants spent in rumination.
Countless studies have been conducted into the incredible effectiveness of mindfulness-based intervention therapies, and they’ve shown that it greatly lessens the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress. But it can go further. Stress and anxiety oftentimes exhibit physical symptoms such as chronic pain and chronic fatigue. Further studies have shown us that mindfulness and a daily routine of regular meditation practices can tackle the root problems which cause these issues. Let’s delve deeper into how we get stressed in the first place.
What causes our stress?
Stress is something that every one of us will experience from time to time. It happens when we encounter situations or events that challenge our ability to cope effectively with them, and these challenges can come in many different forms. Money trouble, family problems, work issues, or the state of the world’s politics are all things capable of creating anxiety, stress, and mental fatigue. Stress often occurs because we are anticipating and ruminating over an upcoming situation or event. This anticipation is sometimes what separates stress from anxiety.
Anxiety is a tangible, physical feeling that will linger in the body and mind, at times seemingly without a clear cause or reason why it is occurring. Although we often use these terms interchangeably in everyday life, they have different meanings for the state the body is in.
But why does stress happen, and why does it make us feel so bad at the worst of times? Have you ever had a really important presentation to give, that you’re dreading weeks in advance? By the time you are standing in your place, on the day, ready to give the presentation, your stress levels are so high that you tip over into a panic attack, leaving you incapable of performing to your best ability. This happens to us all, even those in the most stressful jobs, like news anchors and athletes. Why is this?
Your Day-to-Day Stress Response
In difficult situations, bodily sensations are the very first sign you will get that you are stressed. Your heart rate rises, we sweat, perhaps we even shake. The disorienting and harmful effects of stress on our physical health can be hard to process. So why and how does the human body do this?
To understand this process, let us introduce you to the “Amygdala“. These are two almond-shaped nodes in our brain that control our reactions to stressful and threatening situations. They control our decision-making, senses, and emotions. Depending on the nature of the situation, the Amygdala either remains in a cool, calm state, reacts to stressors, or, when overstimulated, will cause us to be irrational, overreactive, and thoughtless. The Amygdala is the section of the brain that sends a stress signal to the Hypothalamus section of the brain that releases hormones. This ignites the sympathetic nervous system, putting us into the mode of fight or flight. This is a great evolutionary tactic, but this isn’t really needed in modern life.
Stress in the Workplace
We all know that Monday morning feeling. You are anticipating a big work load and a mental fight to stay on track. Our body’s first line of defence against stress is the central nervous system. Our brain sends signals to our bodies to prepare us physically for the impending perceived “threat” (maybe it’s that looming deadline, or the date of a big meeting). In response to the signals of our sympathetic nervous system, our heart beats faster and our blood pressure rises. If the stressor is too great, the adrenaline release increases until you are in a full-blown adrenaline rush. Now, if we were running from a mountain lion or a bear, maybe this would be helpful. Stress exists to help us in matters of life and death — but how helpful is it when we’re sitting at our desks?
Approaching deadlines and tasks can a constant stream of stress in your mind and body that in turn reshapes your brain’s neuroplasticity. But, it has been proven by countless recent studies, that daily meditation practice will reduce the size of your Amygdala, cutting back on that stress response and allowing you to think clearer in stressful situations. This in turn will repair and reshape certain brain structures and increase your mental resilience. To explore more on Self-Directed Neuroplasticity, explore our excellent article on the subject.
How can meditation help us feel less stressed?
By encouraging self-directed neuroplasticity and developing our ability to react more healthily to stressful situations, meditation can make us feel less stressed. A study published in the Journal of Psychosomatic Medicine found that people who meditate regularly have lower levels of cortisol (the hormone produced by stress) than those who do not. The reduced cortisol levels of people who meditate leads to better overall physical and mental health, which means that long-term meditation meditators are less likely to suffer from conditions that create chronic pain, such as diabetes, cancer, and cardiovascular diseases. Another study on the positive impact of MBSR was focused on those who experience sleep problems due to stress. After an eight-week program, those who took part in the MBSR therapy reported a great improvement in their mental health, citing more positive emotions and better sleep quality and duration.
Clearing away the negative emotions, thoughts, and feelings associated with chronic stress and adjoining anxiety allows us to pay better attention to the present moment and be better connected to our true natures. There are countless ways meditation can tackle the impact of stress, but here are a few key points:
- Meditation promotes equanimity during the day and restful sleep at night.
- Meditation improves focus and attention when we need it most.
- Meditation releases negative emotions.
- Meditation changes our brain’s stress patterns.
- Meditation connects us to our true selves.
- Meditation reverses the negative effects of stress on our physical health
How to Manage Stress with Meditation
Our body has evolved to use stress as a defensive tactic to keep us safe. So, it will be impossible to completely eradicate the feelings of stress from our lives. But when we meditate for a regular 10-20 minutes per day, we can reframe how we see these stressful moments and redirect our responses to these situations. Through exploring different forms of meditation, you will find the best style for you, suited to your emotional health and tailored to make sure you have the best relaxation response to stressful situations.
Forms of mindful meditation like Mindful Breathing are particularly helpful when it comes to reducing stress. Talk a walk through our comprehensive guide to mindfulness meditation for some more detail on this matter.
A Breath Meditation for Stress
Mindful breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing can help you crack down on the main source of your stress and train your body and mind to recognise it but ultimately let it go. We will be exploring a new breathing technique in its article but, to find out more about diaphragmatic breathing check out our article on How to Have a Peaceful Mind.
Counting your breath is a great way to regulate your stress response and bring your attention back to the present moment during a stressful situation. By elongating or altering your exhalations, breathing exercises can help you stop yourself hyperventilating or manage other scary physical sensations and symptoms of stress.
In your next meditation session try these simple steps to reduce stress:
- Take an even, deep breath in and out to ground yourself into this meditation session. Set your intention of taking this moment to meditate and break down your feelings of stress.
- Next, as you inhale press your tongue to the roof of your mouth comfortably and breathe through your nose to the count of five.
- Now, as you exhale, release the breath through your mouth and count to eight.
- Repeat these steps through your meditation as long as you comfortably can. Start with 5 to ten minutes.
- Take note of your lung’s emptying of air and notice how your body feels as you go through this meditation. Can you feel it begin to relax as your mind begins to focus on the present moment?
As with all meditation techniques, create your own variations to find what fits you. You could count to 3 and then six or even 4 and then 10. Adjust this depending on how you respond.
Chronic Stress and Mindfulness
If proper measures aren’t taken to manage stress, it can turn into a chronic condition. Chemical changes occur in the body because of the effects of stress. This can cause alarming rises in blood pressure, heart rate, and blood sugar levels. Chronic stress that persists over a long period of time or at high levels can further damage your physical health, potentially leading to heart attacks and strokes.
A chronic stress-induced lifestyle can be insidious in its effects: we struggle to sleep at night, use caffeine to wake us up in the mornings, numb ourselves to our emotions with fast food, alcohol, or prescription medication, and use social media more than is healthy. Aside from these unhelpful secondary effects, stress leads to inflammation in the body. The body’s immune response to any type of toxins or injury is inflammation. When you heal from a cut, for instance, the site of injury swells and reddens. Then a scab forms and heals, which could be lasting.
The most common cause of chronic disease today is a chronic stress-induced lifestyle. Much of the time dormant chronic diseases are triggered by chronic inflammation, which is caused by chronic stress created by our modern lifestyles.
But we can reverse these symptoms before it gets too late. When we explore different meditation techniques and mindfulness-based therapy, we can begin to redirect our stress responses and break down that damaging fight or flight response that we naturally rely on in stressful situations. The practice of mindfulness allows us to combat stress by developing greater peace and equanimity (even in stressful or scary situations), improving our focus and attention in the present moment, sleeping better, handling negative emotions better, changing our brain patterns, and enhancing our sense of self as well.
We hope this article has offered some useful answers and solutions to your experiences of stress, anxiety and pressure. If you’re after more coping mechanisms, check out our article on the RAIN Meditation technique, a unique way of dealing with negative emotions.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q. What do we know about the effectiveness of meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice, but there has been much modern research into mindfulness meditation programs and their effectiveness for directly treating mental health issues and improving physical health, sometimes in conjunction with regular therapy. Regular practice of meditation in meditation programs, such as MBSR and MBCT, have a proven track record for making marked improvements in people’s lives.
Q. Should I Choose MBSR or MBCT?
As we discussed before, choosing between Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy depends on what you hope to tackle with your mindfulness intervention therapy. It is important to point out that MBCT takes a deliberate approach to deal with low moods and negative thinking early on in the program, so participants gain confidence in their ability to recognize these symptoms and respond to them effectively. So if you are dealing with episodes of depression as well as the negative impacts of stress, MBCT might be the better choice for you.
Q. What do we know about the safety of meditation?
We must remind you all that those of us that suffer from generalized anxiety disorder must tread with caution when meditating or undertaking mindfulness-based stress reduction as it can be detrimental to our health. This is namely be caused by “depersonalization” and studies have been taken to curb these negative responses to mindfulness interventions.
MindOwl Founder – My own struggles in life have led me to this path of understanding the human condition. I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in philosophy before completing a master’s degree in psychology at Regent’s University London. I then completed a postgraduate diploma in philosophical counselling before being trained in ACT (Acceptance and commitment therapy).
I’ve spent the last eight years studying the encounter of meditative practices with modern psychology.