“Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
You may already know that meditation is a great way to relax, let go, and reduce stress, but do you know why? In this article, we’ll explore why meditation has such a profound effect on stress levels, as well as overall well-being.
We’ll take a look at the science behind meditation’s profound healing effects, and later we’ll help you start your meditation as stress relief and bring some peace and clarity to your life every day.
So, if you want to know more about the stress-busting powers of mediation and how you can reap its benefits, sit down or lay back and read on.
‘Stress’ isn’t a bad word, yet it does have negative connotations. In general, it refers to the internal experience of external pressure. For example, we might feel stressed if we have to meet a looming deadline at work or struggle to pay this month’s rent because there is pressure on us. Pressure is what’s happening outside; stress is what’s happening inside.
Stress is functional. The brain and body are hardwired to respond to pressure and life’s demands with a highly effective threat response system that helps us survive danger. Without healthy stress and timely stress response, our species probably wouldn’t have survived very long. Stress keeps us awake and alert for danger and helps us fight or run away from danger. It helped our ancestors deal with physical threats such as the need for food or a confrontation with a predator.
Unfortunately, our brains and bodies aren’t very good at coming down from stress. We get stressed easily but often find it difficult to let go of that stress once the threat has passed. We might even find ourselves feeling stressed and exhausted for hours, days, and sometimes, even weeks after a stressful event. Modern life isn’t organized in such a way that promotes relaxation. We often feel a lot of pressure to be productive and ‘successful,’ and rarely do we take the time to look after our minds and bodies through adequate rest.
What happens when we get stressed?
When we get stressed, we experience a rush of stress-related chemicals throughout the body. The brain, more specifically the amygdala, notices a potential threat (which can be real or perceived) and, within a split second, elicits the release of these chemicals (hormones) throughout the body. The most dominant stress hormones are cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, and they all lead to a rapid heartbeat, sweating, muscle tension, and hyper-alertness, all of which help us survive a potential threat by preparing us to fight, flee, or freeze.
Stressful events, such as daily stressors of excess work demands, concern for one’s loved ones, finance or home-related difficulties, and general life in a world as busy, hectic, and relentless as it is, can take a toll on mental and physical health and well-being.
Ideally, we deal with stress as it happens, notice when we are safe again, and let go of that stress. This ideal situation keeps stress adaptive and prevents it from hurting our well-being. However, we often don’t let go of stress but instead carry it around to blend into multiple aspects of our lives and wreak havoc. Held stress makes it hard to sleep and focus, makes relationships and work far more challenging, and can damage our overall health.
Meditation is the practice of letting go of tension, detaching from our thoughts, and paying focused attention to the rhythm of the breath. It’s called a practice because it’s not something you can necessarily get ‘right’ or ‘wrong,’ and there is no end-goal. Even though meditation is used by many successful people and touted as a great tool to help us achieve our goals, this is an indirect result of meditation.
The practice itself is goal-less. It is about paying attention to the breath, noticing the rhythms and dynamics in the body and the mind, and letting go of both. If there is any goal to meditation, it’s not one of external success or achievement but of fostering a deeper connection to ourselves.
It sounds simple, and it is, but many people find it deeply challenging to commit to a practice. Many of us find when we begin to practice that the mind is far more full of thoughts, worries, projections, expectations, and anxieties than we were previously aware of. This makes it hard to commit to practice because to do it with honesty and authenticity, the only way one should, requires a confrontation with unaddressed parts of ourselves.
Meditation has become somewhat of a buzzword in recent years, but the art and practice of meditation have been around since ancient times. It’s typically associated with Buddhism, but all religions and spiritual practices involve a powerful form of meditation – prayer.
Still, you don’t need to follow any creed or belief system to reap the benefits of meditation. In its purest form, meditation is about your breath and your unity with everything else around you.
What happens when we meditate?
Meditation calms the body’s stress response. The stress response gets activated along with the SNS (sympathetic nervous system). When we are in SNS activation, we are more alert than usual. We are primed and ready to fight, flight, or freeze in the face of a threat, and situations and circumstances that may not bother another person or which we would be indifferent to a relaxed person become more stressful because we’re on the lookout for danger and threat.
In mediation, we practice letting go of thoughts and paying attention to the breath. It’s important to not try hard or focus on doing something, instead just letting yourself be. One technique in all meditation practice is to allow the breath to go deeper than usual. This is called diaphragmatic breathing and is one of the main aspects of mediation responsible for its calming, relaxing, and stress-reducing effects.
When we breathe deeply into the diaphragm, we communicate with the brain and body. Unlike self-criticism and unhelpful demands, such as telling ourselves to ‘forget about’ or ‘just get over the stress, we communicate the nervous system in its language.
Since SNS activation and the stress response is associated with hyper-alertness and shallow breathing, we can hack the response and guide yourselves into calm relaxation through breathing, If we’re deep breathing into the diaphragms and consciously releasing tension from the body, the brain gets the message that we must be safe. If we weren’t safe, our breathing wouldn’t be so slow and controlled, and our muscles wouldn’t be so relaxed.
Is meditation medicine?
Meditation is one of several mind-body complementary and alternative medicines (CAMs) that doctors and other health professionals can prescribe in addition to traditional or conventional healing modalities, such as therapy, counseling, antidepressants, and other stress-reduction-oriented treatments.
Other mind-body based CAMs include:
- Yoga, tai chi
- Guided imagery
CAMs are not intended for use as a complete replacement for traditional medical or therapeutic modalities but instead to be used alongside these approaches to optimize their efficacy and support positive treatment outcomes.
For example, a client struggling with a generalized anxiety disorder will likely receive treatment in the form of cognitive-behavioral therapy and, if necessary, anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) medications. In addition to these approaches, a therapist, counselor, or doctor might advise the patient to practice mediation.
Not only does meditation promote relaxation in and of itself, thus making it a useful tool in the face of anxiety, but it also leads to greater engagement in treatment, supported by more willingness to engage and greater levels of emotional resilience in the face of stress.
In physical health issues such as cardiovascular problems, inflammation, and immune system functioning, chronic pain, It has been found to reduce blood pressure, lower inflammation, boost immune system health and increase pain tolerance.
The benefits of meditation
The most apparent benefit of mediation is its power to help us relax and unwind and its role in stress management. However, the benefits of meditation are many. Committing to a regular meditation practice has such a positive effect on all areas of life that it will likely be a cherished part of your day once you begin to practice.
One of the most profound effects of meditation and one of its most significant benefits is its ability to help us transcend the hectic, noisy, and dizzying mental state that accompanies being human in today’s world and instead come lovingly into the present moment. It’s also widely used to help clients dealing with chronic stress and has been reported as an effective tool for relaxation in people with terminal physical illness
When you sit or lie down to practice, you generally tune in to how fast your thoughts are moving, how much stress you’re carrying from your day, and how absorbed and concerned you are with trivial things. Through mediation, we learn to let go of the stress of daily life, the words of others, the anxieties, and insecurities and just begin to rest in the present.
“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are,” explains Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
Kabat Zinn is one of many mindfulness pioneers who experienced profound insight and self-awareness on their travels throughout the East and brought them home to the West. Kabat Zinn’s MBSR teaches us the power of mindfulness meditation in daily life as a powerful tool for healing.
How to use meditation for stress relief
Below we’ve outlined some tips and advice to help you add meditation to your daily routine its many benefits.
Let go of your expectations to reduce stress
The first and most important tip to help you begin your meditation practice is to understand that you might have a misconceived notion of what meditation is. Images of a cross-legged yogi on a hilltop or a yoga-pants-wearing incense-burning mediation teacher might come to mind, but don’t be fooled by appearances. Anyone can practice meditation – you don’t need to be a yogi or even wear any particular clothing though comfortable clothing is practical).
Jon Kabat Zinn, founder of MBSR and advocate for mindfulness meditation, explains:
“When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, “space cadet,” cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher. Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is.”
Have ready-to-go relaxation techniques
When you’re feeling stressed but don’t have the time or opportunity to commit to an extended meditation, you can still manage your stress. There are quick, practical, and effective techniques you can use anywhere. Such as at your desk, on a train or bus, or even at a gathering.
If you can take even two to three minutes out of whatever you’re doing to sit down, check-in with your body, notice your breath, and intentionally breathe deep and let your breath fall out, you’ll find yourself more relaxed and focused than you were before. Sure, you might not reap the same benefits as you would if you were to lie on a mat for an hour and distance yourself from all distractions, but anything you can do to help you manage stress and prevent it from overwhelming you will help you feel better.
Try guided meditation techniques to manage stress
There are a plethora of guided meditations available online. There are great tools to use whether you’re a beginner or you’ve been meditating for years, such as on YouTube.
Try different types of meditation in stressful situations
Meditation is an umbrella term for various practices and techniques, all of which can help you relieve stress and overcome the anxieties in your life, in both the long and short term.
Body scans are a great way to ground yourself and begin to notice your physical sensations. In a body scan, the mindful attention you pay to your body – its sensations, its temperature, areas of tension, and relaxation – centers your focus in the here and now, taking it away from a stressful memory or anticipation of some future challenge.
Similar to body scans are progressive muscle relaxation techniques. Both often happen together. In this technique, you begin with your head or your feet and gently ask yourself to release tension in your muscles. You stay with that part of your body until you feel a release of tension, enjoy it, then move on to another body part.
May your life become your mediation
“Meditation is not just for relaxation; its primary purpose is to help you develop the capacity to respond skillfully and gracefully to life’s difficulties as well as its joys.” – Shyalpa Tenzin Rinpoche
As you begin to develop a mediation practice, you’ll likely notice the profound sense of peace and relaxation that it brings. As you keep practicing, try to bring what you’ve learned into your daily experience. It’s great to start on a mat or in a peaceful environment, but the more familiar you become with your practice and the more attuned you become to your levels of peace and stress, the easier you’ll find it to live your life in a more meditative, mindful, and compassionate state.