Life can be stressful, and stress can have serious repercussions on our health. At one time or another, many of us will have experienced that sense of being overwhelmed, as if everything were too much.
Sometimes, simply taking time to pause and rest the mind can be enough to feel better in the moment, so before going any further, here’s a quick exercise to help distance yourself from stressful thoughts right away.
Numerous studies have shown that meditation is an effective stress-management tool, ultimately reprogramming the brain to the extent that meditators end up with more capacity to manage stress (when meditation is a consistent, daily practice).
In training the mind to be more open and less reactive, we are better able to cope when life’s stressors — in career, family, relationship, college, finances, even traffic — start accumulating. But before diving into how meditation combats stress, we first need to understand what stress does to the body.
DISCLAIMER: General meditation practice and apps like Headspace are not a replacement for or a form of therapy, nor are they intended to cure, treat, or diagnose medical conditions. Meditation can, however, be a component of an overall treatment plan, when monitored by a healthcare professional.
Stress isn't just in the mind.
Physiologically speaking, stress triggers the autonomic nervous system, leading to a spike in the release of epinephrine and cortisol — the “stress hormones.” Too much epinephrine can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes); too much cortisol can affect our health in numerous ways— increasing blood sugar levels, suppressing the immune system, and constricting blood vessels.
When these hormones are released into the bloodstream, the liver produces more glucose, which is what provides the energy to activate our fight-or-flight mechanism. Consequently, we are hardwired to spring into reaction mode each time this happens, causing an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels, all of which disrupts our immune system, energy levels, and sleep. Too much epinephrine can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes); too much cortisol can increase blood sugar levels and and constrict blood vessels.
Everyone’s experience of stress is, of course, different. The extent of our stress largely depends on the demands placed on us and the responsibility we shoulder, and each of us should be familiar with how stress affects us, whether it’s tension in the muscles, tightness in the chest, headaches, fatigue, insomnia, nausea, or dizziness to name a few of the symptoms.
We meditate to counter the “stress response” with the “relaxation response,” leading to a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption. It also creates a more gradual change in the brain, which is where meditation really works its magic.
Located deep within the brain’s limbic system are two almond-sized nuclei called the amygdala — essentially tiny processing chips that govern our senses, memories, decisions, and moods. When it comes to how we react to life and express ourselves, this is where it all happens. The amygdala is our emotional thermostat.
As with all thermostats, the amygdala is susceptible to certain forces — in this case: stress, fear, and anxiety — so it ranges from a chill setting (calm, rational, level-headed) to overheated (stressed, irrational, reactive), maxing itself out based on threat.
In evolutionary terms, the amygdala was a great asset when assessing the danger of, say, approaching bears. And in the modern age, it has increasingly been conditioned to respond to social stressors in much the same way. So a bunch of paperwork or a pressing deadline could be, as far as the amygdala might be concerned, as threatening as a grizzly.
This would be a disproportionate and irrational response, but the more stressed we get, the more our fight-or-flight response is activated. So we’re unwittingly training the amygdala to overreact until it can no longer regulate itself and return to its baseline.
What’s more, the drip, drip, drip effect of stress actually reshapes the structure and neural pathways of our brain — a process called neuroplasticity. In other words, the brain gets reprogrammed by the experiences it is continually subjected to. And that’s where meditation comes in.
Studies involving MRI scans show that the amygdala shrinks in response to meditation practice. As the amygdala reduces in size, the prefrontal cortex — the area of the brain governing our awareness — becomes thicker. So, through meditation, we are increasing our capacity to manage stress and be more aware. View it as self-regulation of the amygdala, helping it return to its baseline state; in other words, a more rational reaction to stress and fear. And so the more we meditate, the more we build this mental resilience.
There are, of course, other options available when it comes to stress-management, and many of these other tools — such as physical exercise, breathing techniques, and hypnosis — can help us in the moment. But when it comes to seeing a long-term reduction in stress, and when we meditate consistently on a daily basis for at least eight weeks, the science demonstrates that meditation is an effective intervention capable of altering the physical anatomy of the brain, with as little input as 10 minutes a day.
Rather than being caught up in our stress, meditation teaches us to become the observers of certain mental patterns and, therefore, become less physically affected by them.
Experiencing stress usually creates a story in the mind, and if we get caught up in such stories — saying things, to ourselves or others, like “I’m stressed!” — then we essentially keep ourselves in the stress, ensuring that we’ll feel that way for the rest of the day.
When we meditate, we are taking the time to be curious about what we’re thinking and feeling, as though we are looking at stress through a new lens. In this deliberate reframing of our experience, we can dramatically alter how we view and relate to stress.
How we perceive stress can either exacerbate or minimize our physical responses, and so meditation affords us the opportunity to step back and zoom out, noticing how the mind feeds stress-inducing thoughts and storylines.
Meditation isn’t about eliminating stress; it’s about managing it. A lot of that boils down to how we perceive stress. By altering our mindset, we can lessen the implications on our mental and physical health.
Stress often gets a bad rap, which is perhaps undeserved. Think where we would be, for example, if we didn’t have the distress signal that makes us flee from danger. Or if we didn’t feel pressed to finish a project or homework on time. Some people even thrive in high-pressure careers, feeling completely in control in the fast lane and totally stressed out when things slow down. So the degrees of stress can vary widely person to person. Nevertheless, good experiences in our best interest will still bring stress. There’s no avoiding it.
Our appraisal of pressured situations can actually affect the level of distress we associate with a certain event. But, looking at this through the lens of mindfulness, it is possible to soften the way we perceive stress and relate to it in a more accepting way.
The next time you experience a stress response in a “good” situation, try to catch yourself from applying negative labels. Instead, try to think about it as something powerful and energizing, preparing you to meet life’s challenges.
Stress is a heightened emotion; anxiety is a diagnosed condition.
Stress often kicks in due to a situation we can see and comprehend; we tend to know what we are dealing with and what is stressing us out.
Anxiety, on the other hand, is a visceral feeling that can linger, and it is not always clear why it’s happening.
Deadlines, long hours, increased workload, job security, or strained relations with a boss are commonly cited causes of stress that hurt our performance. What’s the effect of all that?
Work has become a leading source of stress, to the extent that a third of employees in the U.S. are reported to be stressed out. And, according to the Chartered Institute for Personnel and Development (CIPD), chronic stress is one of the biggest causes of sickness in the workplace.
Research has shown that stressed employees are less engaged, have reduced productivity, and have higher health care costs.) From depression to heart disease, the consequences of stress-related illnesses cost U.S. businesses up to $190 billion a year.)
More employers are investing in science-backed mindfulness training, understanding the benefits in terms of productivity as well as morale, realizing that meditation helps employees regulate emotions, changes the brain’s physiology, and improves stress biomarkers.
Scientific studies are increasingly demonstrating the benefits of meditation and mindfulness training. In a study from Harvard in 2016, meditation was shown to have a longer lasting effect on reducing stress than a vacation. After 10 months of meditating, vacationers’ stress levels returned to what they were while meditators continued to experience reduced stress levels.
A 2018 study — in which participants used the Headspace app — found that eight weeks of meditation in the workplace resulted in a 46% decrease in distress and a 31% reduction in negative feelings. “Brief mindfulness training has a beneficial impact on several aspects of psychosocial well-being,” it concluded.
The mind we have in our private lives is the mind we take into the workplace and vice versa. Through meditation, we get to enjoy a healthier mind by developing awareness of the stress we feel without getting immersed in it or letting it drive our behavior.
When it comes to managing stress through meditation, the Headspace app has a dedicated 30-day course that comes with exercises designed to address all manner of stressors.
The Stress course specifically uses a visualization technique. The helpful thing about such an exercise is that it engages the mind, occupies the mind, and — at the same time — sets up a framework for the mind to unwind and move toward a place of calm.
Instead of getting bogged down in your stress or trying to run away from it, you’ll learn to maintain a solid position of awareness, allowing things to come and go with a newfound sense of ease.
After completing the 30-day course, you should emerge with a better understanding of the dynamics of stress and a different perspective of how you relate to the thoughts and feelings that arise.
In the 2018 study that relied on the Headspace app, meditation was shown to reduce stress by 14% over just a 10-day period.
For more immediate relief of stress, there are different single meditations in the Headspace library that can help you in the moment, tailored for those times when you are feeling burned out, overwhelmed, or flustered.
Ultimately, the teachings of all exercises in the app point to the same lesson: we can’t change or control everything that is around us or happens to us, but we can change the way we relate to those things.