No matter what your home life looks like or what profession you find yourself in, stress is something we all experience to one degree or another. Anxiety, too, is prevalent with statistics indicating there were an estimated 284 million people globally living with an anxiety disorder in 2017 - a number i was recently told by a colleague has nearly doubled by 2021. Further the estimate of stressed souls is now 1 in 3!
One might rationally expect a population to grow more resilient as its culture develops; however, it appears we are moving in the opposite direction. In the United States, for instance, one study revealed that from 2008 to 2018, anxiety grew most rapidly amongst young adults. What is going on?
There are many different theories as to why stress and anxiety are becoming ever more common amongst our human population. From constant social media exposure to the rapidly changing lifestyle of this Information Age, it seems humans have not evolved quite as quickly as the times. With a greater sense of uncertainty and ever-present stimulation at our fingertips, it is understandable that so many of us are feeling overwhelmed, ungrounded and somewhat lost.
Given the importance of wellbeing on both a personal and collective level, we might naturally find ourselves asking:
What are we to do about this looming stress and anxiety that so many of us experience?
While there are numerous approaches to addressing these issues ( ranging from various forms of therapy, all the way to massage, and nutritional approaches), perhaps one of the most valuable tools is one that requires nothing but our presence and our willingness is that of mindfulness and meditation.
Meditation on the Nervous System
While this topic in itself is vast and fairly technical, i have take some liberties at the risk of oversimplification, to help non technical ones amongst you to understand how meditation might support us in alleviating stress and anxiety. We first need to understand what these two conditions look like on a physiological level. Stress, for starters, is a natural response to any (real or perceived) threat in our environment. It is the body's way of protecting itself and of stepping into high gear when we face some type of existential threat.
Yet while our ancestors may have been more likely to encounter threats that were a matter of life or death (think wild animals or the harshest of elements), we modern humans encounter considerably more perceived threats. Perceived threats are things that cannot truly harm us but trigger a stress response as if they could.
For instance, a stress-inducing perceived threat might be an email from a colleague, or missed bus or unexpected traffic. We realize we are going to be twenty minutes late for a morning meeting and the body secretes a cocktail of hormones in an effort to protect us. The sympathetic nervous system kicks in, secreting the hormones like epinephrine (adrenalin) and cortisol. Breathing rate increases, the heart beats faster, and blood glucose levels increase. Anxiety, too, might kick in as we start to visualize what our boss will say, if this will impact our chance of promotion, and any other fearful scenarios the mind might conjure up.
The paradox here is that amidst traffic or while waiting for the next bus, there is little that these physiological changes can do for us. We are not in imminent danger and so our ‘fight-flight-freeze’ response does not support us. In fact, it does more harm than good when it becomes chronic. Studies are finding that chronic stress can, for example, contribute to high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, and sleep issues.
So where does meditation come into this? Research over recent decades has come to better understand what the ancient practices of mindfulness and meditation do for us on a physiological level. In essence, they work to reverse the stress response, stimulating the antidote to the sympathetic nervous system: the parasympathetic nervous system.
The other half of our autonomic nervous system, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for feelings of ease, relaxation, and wellbeing. It is often referred to as the ‘rest and digest’ system. When we meditate:
· Our attention shifts away from the stressor (i.e. the traffic jam or the missed bus)
· The vagus nerve (a central component of the parasympathetic nervous system) receives a signal that there is no need for the fight-flight-freeze response
· Blood pressure, heart rate, and alertness decrease
· Calmness, relaxation, rest, and digestion resume
We might call this the ‘relaxation response,’ a term coined by Dr. Herbert Benson. This response runs counter to what occurs when we are stressed. As meditation can evoke this response, it stands to reason that meditation is an effective tool for mitigating the heavy weight of stress and anxiety.
The Brain on Meditation
Not only does meditation have a positive and restorative impact on the body’s stress response, it is also now known that meditation positively impacts the brain – and in numerous ways. Some of what has been discovered about how this ancient technique impacts our primary control center is as follows:
· Meditation can thicken the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, parts of the brain linked to attention control.
· Meditation can promote cortical plasticity in parts of the brain that are connected with cognitive and emotional processing as well as wellbeing.
· Participating in mindfulness based programs is associated with increases in gray matter concentration in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, emotional regulation, and perspective taking.
· Decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala has also been observed in participants of mindfulness based interventions, a region of the brain connected to fear, anxiety, and stress.
Interesting research is also being conducted to explore the power that meditation holds to rewire our brain. That is, to establish new neural networks that would shift the way we perceive ourselves and the world around us.
How would this impact stress and anxiety? Well, we need to consider that stress and anxiety is not just something that comes from the world around us. Equally important to our experience of these conditions is the habitual thought patterns we hold - or the inner terrain. For instance, if we hold an underlying belief that says life is fundamentally a competition, our thoughts will reflect this. These thoughts would fuel our stress response, making it more difficult for us to achieve ease and wellbeing.
Through meditation, we can accomplish two major things:
First, we can enhance our awareness of the nature of our thoughts (such as in mindfulness meditation). As we become aware of the thought patterns we hold, it becomes possible to detach from them – to create space between us and the thoughts themselves. This grants us perspective and the opportunity to welcome something new.
Second, meditation can help us to nurture positive experiences, culture our energy and vitality, empower positive beliefs and cultivate positive virtues. A carefully crafted meditation (self or guided) can for instance, can help us to invite new ways of thinking, feeling and acting into our consciousness - profoundly shifting our experience of being alive. Meditation can be a truly transformative experience for our overall wellbeing at many levels.
Art as Well as Science
Now, it is important to note that the benefits of meditation are not strictly qualitative. In other words, they are not bound to the realm of science. Long before scientific technology had reached where it is today, ancient traditions knew of the benefits of these practices. After all, mindfulness and meditation stem from those ancient traditions themselves. It is only recently (relatively speaking) that the lens of science has become so highly valued and sought after.
Meditation is, in fact, an art of unfolding and nurturing the best version of ourselves and our life. It helps us to expand our sense of self-awareness, shining a light on how our unique mind works. It helps us move past and transcend our past experiences, our conditioning, our assumptions, our biases, our needs, our desires, our fears, and more - bringing us closer to want brings us true peace, joy and fulfilment. With this expanded self-awareness, we start being anchored in the here and now and engaged in life with full self expression, one moment at a time.
As we delve into the deeper wisdom traditions associated with meditation, we start to shed our burdens and fears, our anxiety and our stress begins to dissipate. We might still get nervous or stressed out at times, but our resilience to these things strengthens. And that my friends is real progress!
How to Effectively Reduce Stress with Meditation
So, where do we begin if we are experiencing high levels of stress or anxiety? Central to all types of meditation is the ability to center our attention often on our breath – to ease our attachment to the past and future and to find ourselves right where we are: in the present moment. This is where we must start if we wish to reduce the activity of the sympathetic nervous system and ease into the relaxation and wellbeing of the parasympathetic side of things.
We can do this with the help of guided meditation or through simple breathing breaks practiced consistently, as many times in a given day as is needed. To practice:
1. Step aside from the demands of the day, finding a quiet place to sit comfortably for five minutes or more. Set a timer for your desired length of time.
2. Close your eyes, lengthen your spine, and begin to breathe. Let the breath be the anchor for your awareness.
3. The mind will wander as it does for all of us. Refrain from judging or condemning this mind of yours. Instead, simply note each mental movement (perhaps with the word ‘wandering’) and then come back to the breath.
4. You can further support the stimulation of your nervous system by softening the belly and breathing all the way into it if you can (a practice known as diaphragmatic breathing). Or, stay with the natural ebb and flow of your breath, minding it like the rolling waves.
5. Stay with this practice until your timer goes off. Ease back into the world when you are finished.
The key to reducing stress and anxiety through the use of meditation is consistency. Often, we think that we must be able to practice for 20, 30, or 40 minutes routinely. In truth, however, the best practice is the one that we can commit to daily. Ten minutes of meditation practiced daily is better than one hour practiced only when we ‘feel like it’. This is a theme we hope we have addressed comprehensively in making the ayam app available for everyone.
There will be times in the coming days, months, and years that the stress response supports and protects us eg: if you ever need to outrun an elephant while on safari! It is, after all, an important and miraculous mechanism of the human body. However, when the sympathetic nervous system is only detracting from our wellbeing, it is helpful to remember that relaxation and wellbeing are equally accessible and innate to us. Breath by breath, we can start to ease the racing mind, coming back to the only thing that we need; coming back to the present moment.