In a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association, 44% of Americans reported that their stress levels had increased over the last five years. Why does it feel like we are in a stress epidemic?
Why is everyone stressed?
Researchers think that people are feeling increasingly stressed as our natural stress response is not well adapted to modern life. We’ve all heard of the fight or flight response. When something threatens our physical or mental well-being, our nervous systems responds by releasing stress hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline that affect systems across the body. Our heart rate and blood pressure increase, our muscles tense, our food seeking instincts kick in to help us accumulate energy, and our digestive and immune system function decreases, again to help us conserve energy. This is an ideal physical response for someone who needs to engage in hand to hand combat with another human (fight) or outrun a lion (flight). It is not an ideal response to modern stressors.
The kinds of things that bring stress into our lives today, such as tight work deadlines, online bullying, and the pressure to ‘have it all’, cannot be resolved rapidly like Palaeolithic stressors – win or die. Instead, these stresses continue on a low burn for days, months and even years. This means that our bodies are also releasing low levels of stress hormones for long periods of time, increasing our blood pressure, decreasing our immune system, and adversely impacting on both our mental and physical health.
How Meditation Reduces Stress
Meditation is a practical tool for coping with the stressors of modern life. Meditation provides your brain with an opportunity to put things in perspective so that you can make better decisions and develop better coping mechanisms, which is extremely positive. But meditation also physically affects how your body responds to stress.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts conducted a study that recorded the brain waves of stressed employees at a high-tech firm. Half the group were asked to learn and practice meditation for a period of eight weeks, while the other half of the group were kept as a control. The researchers observed that the meditators shifted their brain activity from the stress processing right frontal cortex to the calmer left frontal cortex, physically reducing the negative impacts of stress, mild depression, and anxiety. The meditators also displayed less activity in the amygdala, which is the part of the brain that processes fear. In short, the meditators were happier and less stressed.
Getting Started With Meditation
With such great potential benefits for our physical and mental health, we can often wonder why more people don’t meditate. One challenge is that there are so many different types of meditation practice, some deceptively simple, some extremely challenging, and some slightly esoteric (including chanting for example). It can be difficult for those wanting to start a meditation practice to know which path to choose. The other significant challenge is that starting a meditation can be difficult and it takes practice. Many people fail on the first few attempts then decide that meditation ‘isn’t for me’.
There is no single way, or right way, to meditate. The most important part of a meditation practice, which has the strongest impact on brain activity, is the act of clearing the mind of active thought. This has a relaxing effect on the brain which is even more rejuvenating that sleep. The way you choose to approach your meditation can be the difference between a new healthy habit or a failed attempt. For instance, using tools such as crystals and candles create a calming environment which can be helpful to clear the mind.
If you are thinking of developing a meditation practice, here are a few suggestions to help make the process easier:
- Commit to a short amount of time each day, starting with just 5 minutes. When you first start meditating and clearing your mind of conscious thought, even 30 seconds can feel like an eternity as unwanted thoughts repeatedly crash into your conscious mind. It can be easy to give up, especially when you hear about experienced meditators sitting for hours on end. Everyone started somewhere, so start by just committing to try for a short period of time every day, starting with 5 minutes, and increasing gradually as you develop.
- Eliminate distraction. When you start meditating and trying to clear your mind, your brain will try and bombard you with active thoughts – this is a common experience. Be sure to eliminate other distractions, such as a pinging mobile phone.
- Get comfortable. Make sure you position yourself in a place and a way that is comfortable for you. Again, you don’t want to be unduly distracted by the worry that the neighbors might be watching you, or the discomfort of sitting cross-legged if you aren’t used to it. Get any meditation supplies you have, find a space where you are comfortable, and sit on the floor, lie down, whatever is comfortable for you.
- Breath slowly and deeply. Breathing is an important part of all meditation practices, as it helps create a connection between the brain’s activity and the rest of your body. Make sure that your breathing is deep and slow, and when in doubt or if your mind starts to wander, focus your attention on your breathing.
- Try Mindfulness. If you are just starting out, Mindfulness is often considered meditation for beginners, as it is relatively easy to do. As a quick summary, Mindfulness calls you to focus on what is happening during the meditation, and will sometimes suggest that you hold something, or eat something, to give your brain something simple to focus on. Mindfulness has become very popular in recent years, and there is a wide range of literature available for those wanting to get started.
With so many potential benefits to meditation, there seems no downside to trying to incorporate some type of meditation into your daily routine. While it sounds easy, developing a meditation practice is actually quite challenging for our active brains, so the main thing to remember is not to give up, the only way to improve is through practice.