Science, Stress Relief and Meditation

practicing-mindfulnessThe conviction that meditation is good for you is about as old as meditation itself, and with meditation having had at least a few thousand birthdays, this is very old. For much of its history meditation has been a spiritual pursuit, but has recently entered the mainstream, having moved beyond individual enthusiasts to become applied in both corporate and medical settings.

Those who would have dismissed meditation as airy-fairy or mystical have been won over by increasing scientific validation of meditation’s benefits. Scientists have become interested enough in meditation to conduct over 3,000 studies on the subject, and there have been common themes and notable discoveries that make it clear that meditation has a tangible effect on those who practice it.

One of the purported advantages of meditation, stress relief, seems to be the thing that interests people most. As this post explains, reducing stress can be particularly helpful when you want to lose weight, and it comes with array of other health benefits. Scientific insight has given us the opportunity to understand exactly how meditation can reduce our stress levels, and why this is good for us.

Why are we stressed?

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to make much sense that in the modern world, complete with comforts and ease that the people of past generations could only dream about, we are experiencing epidemic levels of stress. One in five Americans report suffering with extreme stress and it seems that our inbuilt “fight or flight” stress response is causing issues when paired with our current lifestyles.

Our bodies react to everyday stressful events (alarm clocks, commutes, deadlines and so on) with the same urgency that the bodies of our evolutionary ancestors would have reacted to life and death situations. With people expected to work ever harder (usually for less reward) and the pace of life going at breakneck speed, our bodies are essentially behaving as though they are constantly being chased down by lions.

What happens when we are stressed?

Our stress response starts in the amygdala, the part of the brain which triggers “flight or fight” and induces fear. Once triggered, our bodies are flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, hormones designed to prepare the body for emergency action. With this comes an increase in heart rate, tightened muscles, raised blood pressure and tunnel vision, as we focus on the perceived danger to the expense of everything else.

As the body is in emergency mode, the sorts of functions that keep us ticking over are neglected. Digestion uses a huge amount of energy which is diverted when we are stressed out, meaning we can get less nutrients from food and problems such as IBS are exacerbated. The immune system also finds itself side lined, leaving us more vulnerable to illness.

While a certain amount of stress is motivating and useful, too much can cause health issues and is counterproductive when you are trying to normalise your weight. This is especially true given that stress can lead us to either over or under eat, both of which are not conducive to good long term health.

What happens when we meditate?

MRI scans have allowed scientists to peers into the brains of people as they meditate, and one of the most striking effects that they observed was a decrease in the amount of information the brain processes. The frontal lobe, which is responsible for reasoning, planning, emotions and self-awareness tends of go offline and other parts of the brain slow down.

It would appear that allowing the brain to rest in this way has a big impact on how you perceive the world and handle stress. This was dramatically demonstrated in a study by Harvard University that revealed meditation can literally change your brain.

The idea that your brain is much shaped by your experiences and lifestyle as your body is was one of the biggest discoveries in neuroscience, and MRI scans have shown that meditation can have a physically transformative effect on the brain.  This particular study found that just 8 weeks of meditation can change the structure of people’s brains for the better, which manifested itself in a development of the hippocampus, which governs memory and learning, and a depletion of the amygdala, the aforementioned stress centre of the brain.

This tallies well with other studies, such as one by Dr Yi-Yang Tan from Dalian University in China that showed that just 5 days for meditation could reduce the amount of stress hormones produced in high pressure situations. Another from John Hopkins University found that symptoms of depression, anxiety and pain had improved in their subjects after an 8 week course of meditation.

All this gives credence to the long-held idea that meditation can be a great practice if you want to be a calmer, happier person. Trying to become healthier can be stressful in itself, full of disappointments and unreasonable expectations on yourself. Anything that can help on the way is always welcome, and increasing amounts of evidence suggest that meditation could be a habit that will support you in your aims.

This post was written by Holly Ashby, a writer who works for Will Williams Meditation, a meditation centre in London.

photo by Sebastien Wiertz

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