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Meditation, Stress, and our Physiological Responses

As an avid meditation practitioner and a kinesiology student, I squeal with excitement when science meets spirit. Additionally, it has been my experience as a meditation and yoga instructor that many Westerners will “buy into” the practice more readily if I mention a few of the documented physiological effects of meditation. Therefore, I have taken the liberty to squish some of my research into this post. Namely, we will dive into the effects of chronic stress on the body and how meditation may serve as a viable antidote. So, if you think that meditation is a woo-woo new age trend, this post is for you. Or maybe you are open to the idea of meditation but you’re sitting on the fence wondering if it’s worth your time. Or, perhaps you are an avid meditator that, like me, loves to devour evidence that supports the use of ancient practices. Whatever brought you here, my hope is to inspire you incorporate meditation into your daily life or offer you some fresh inspiration to continue your practice.
The amount of stress one experiences is informed by genetics and life experiences but there is no denying that each of us encounters bouts of heightened stress over the life course. Therefore, if stress is a universal human experience, it is important that each of us develop a healthy coping mechanism and tools to prevent chronic stress from dominating our reality. Fortunately, not only can meditation be used as a standalone or supplementary treatment of chronic stress, it may be considered a preventative measure to ward off the development of chronic stress because it allows one to develop a helpful coping mechanism to facilitate a calm and non-destructive response to stress and strain.


So, what is meditation?


While meditation was traditionally practiced with the goal of enlightenment, it has taken on a new form and purpose in the modern Western world. It is no longer an exclusive activity for monks or hippies. In fact, it seems that everyone from fitness and wellness enthusiasts to entrepreneurs and lawyers are dabbling in this ancient practice. Is their goal the same as the monks in Tibet? Debatable. It seems more likely that they were inspired by a friend, perhaps casually mentioning the benefits they have experienced from meditation.
Meditation may be done by anyone, anywhere, for any amount of time, and in any position. Some people like to sit or lay on the floor. The position is not important, save that it allows you to be comfortable. My favourite way to describe meditation is the act of focusing on one thing enough, often—but not necessarily—the breath, so that your mind wanders less. Unless you’re enlightened, you will have thoughts at some point during your meditation. However, over time and with regular practice, the spaces between your thoughts will grow longer. The key is to attend the spaces between your thoughts and really be present for those gaps, even if they’re only momentary. You will get more of them over time, I promise.

Common misconceptions about meditation

I would also like to briefly address two pervasive beliefs about meditation. First of all, many people believe that meditation is the act of suspending all thoughts. The truth is, if you’re human, thoughts are going to happen. That is the nature of the human mind. It is really good at analyzing, labeling and compartmentalizing. I will paraphrase what one of my favourite spiritual teachers, Belinda Davidson, said during an interview: the greatest difference between a beginner meditator and a seasoned meditator is that the beginner will resist their thoughts (ironically, resulting in more thoughts) whereas the seasoned meditator will acknowledge that a thought has happened and simply let it go. In other words, an experienced practitioner acknowledges their own human-ness and does not waste their time berating themselves with negative self-talk when a thought happens. Second, I would like to address the common assertion “I cannot meditate, my mind is too busy”! This is ironic because: meditators do not meditate because they have a calm and peaceful mind. Rather, their minds are calm and peaceful because they meditate.


Meditation and the Autonomic Nervous System


Meditation has profound effects on the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system has two branches: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. In the early 1970s, Dr. Herbert Benson, professor, author, cardiologist, and founder of Harvard’s Mind/Body Medical Institute, coined the terms “fight or flight” and “rest and digest”, which describe the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system, respectively. Activation of the parasympathetic nervous system is a state in which we can experience tissue repair, digestion, and psychological integration. As you can imagine, it is very important for overall health and wellness. On the other hand, activation of one’s sympathetic nervous system prepares our body for action: our heart rate, breathing rate and metabolism all increase, pupils dilate, and blood circulation is redirected to skeletal muscles. This would be very helpful in the event we encountered a tiger. Unfortunately, our nervous system has not evolved to distinguish between a tiger and a high-pressure work presentation. And the intense mobilization of our body’s systems, along with release of the stress hormone, cortisol, may have consequences if our sympathetic system is activated too frequently and/or over long periods of time. In fact, chronic stress may cause sleep problems, headaches, heart disease, memory and concentration impairment, digestive problems, depression and anxiety. To address this chronic fight or flight one needs to activate its opposite, rest and digest, which may be accomplished by meditation and deep breathing. Interestingly, the slower and deeper the breathing pattern, the greater the sympathoinhibition. The increased parasympathetic activity and sympathoinhibition are evidenced by tests revealing decreased carbon dioxide elimination and oxygen consumption, a marked decrease in arterial blood lactate concentration, and lowering of heart and respiratory rates. Further, it seems people have the capacity to control excessive stress and modify emotional states by using the voluntary control of breathing and mindset. This is due to the indisputable connection between emotions presented, respiration, and the autonomic nervous system and therefore, breathing deeply and mindfully is considered one of the more effective treatments of excessive stress.


Meditation, hormones, and neurotransmitters


While it is difficult to completely separate the effects of meditation on the nervous system and the endocrine system (unsurprisingly, it is all connected--and likely happening simultaneously), there is some exciting data on meditation’s effects on hormones and neurotransmitters. Firstly, meditation may decrease our well known stress hormone, cortisol, and its two friends, epinephrine and norepinephrine (commonly called adrenaline). This happens alongside an increase in levels of dopamine and serotonin which are associated with feelings of well-being and improved mental health. This is highly beneficial for diminishing stress and anxiety. Secondly, studies have indicated that participating in a single yoga asana class (which, of course, includes meditation) can increase our levels of a certain neurotransmitter, called GABA, by up to 27%. So what is GABA and why do we want to increase it? One of my instructors, Leslie Horita, back at Langara College, described GABA as the neurotransmitter that turns all the lights off in our brain at the end of the night. In other words, it stops the whirling mind so we can finally fall asleep. Sadly, we lose about 1% of our GABA every year that we age. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important that we engage in practices that increase our levels of GABA, such as yoga and meditation, as time goes on. Impressively, a lesser amount of GABA is correlated with increased anxiety and insomnia, whereas those with higher levels of GABA are less anxious and more psychologically robust. Furthermore, studies have found that GABA taken orally may increase alpha brain waves which can stimulate creativity, decrease insomnia, and reduce feelings of depression.

Meditation may be an excellent addition to your practices of self-care due to its effects on the nervous system and the endocrine system. This is because it allows us to unwind our nervous system, thus activating our body’s self-healing mechanisms, and increases feel good hormones and neurotransmitters while decreasing stress hormones. So, if you are feeling wound up, over-stimulated or burnt out, meditation may be a very helpful tool to add to your self-care regime. While there are many ways to elicit these responses in the body, meditation has the benefit of being absolutely free. You can do it anywhere, anytime. All you need in your breath and your intention. Developing a daily practice of meditation may be challenging but, in my humble opinion, it is paramount for long term well-being and stress management. Remember, behaviour change is tough and your goals must be attainable in order for them to stick. If you’re new to meditation, I suggest starting with 5 minutes a day or another amount of time that feels realistic for you.

For inspiration on your meditation journey, sign up for my workshop, Tools to Cultivate a Daily Practice, here

Best wishes,

Ashley


My offerings take place on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish and Musqueam peoples.



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