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Meditation for stress

At one time or another, many of us will have experienced a sense of being overwhelmed, as if everything were too much. That’s because life can be stressful. And, while stress can have serious repercussions on our health, sometimes, simply taking time to pause and rest the mind can be enough to feel better in the moment.

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 fact, meditation has been scientifically proven to help alleviate stress after just eight weeks of regular practice.

That’s because in training the mind to be more open and less reactive, we’re better able to cope when life’s stressors — in work, family, relationships, school, finances, even traffic — start accumulating. Rather than being caught up in our stress, meditation teaches us to become the observers of certain mental patterns, and, therefore, become less affected by them.

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How can meditation help us feel less stressed?

Key takeaways:

  • We can’t eliminate stress, but through meditation we can learn to reframe how we view stress to relate to it in a more accepting way

  • In the 2018 study that relied on the Headspace app, meditation was shown to reduce stress by 14% over just a 10-day period

  • Try 18 meditations for stress

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What causes stress?

Stress often kicks in due to a situation we can see and comprehend — we tend to know what we’re dealing with and what’s 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. While the terms are often used interchangeably, they are very different states.

To understand why we feel stressed, it’s helpful to understand the role of the amygdala, essentially 2 almond-sized processing chips in the brain that govern our senses, decisions, and moods.

The amygdala works like our emotional thermostat and regulates our reaction to certain forces like stress and fear. Based on the level of threat it senses, it either remains on a cool and calm setting, cranks up like it’s supposed to in reaction to normal stressors, or it may overheat when we feel overstimulated, making us irrational and reactive.

In evolutionary terms, the amygdala has always been a great asset for alerting us to life-and-death situations — like an approaching wild animal — and triggering our fight or flight response. But in modern times, it has been conditioned to react in a similar way to day-to-day causes of stress, so an approaching deadline can start to feel just as threatening as a hungry wolf.

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.

The good news is that our minds can be trained to manage stress better. Studies using MRI scans have shown a regular meditation practice can shrink the amygdala, which helps us respond rather than react to stressful situations. So, think of meditation as a tool for self-regulation of the amygdala, helping it return to its baseline state — a more rational reaction to stress and fear. And so the more we meditate, the more we build this mental resilience that can increase our capacity to manage stress and be more aware.

Managing stress with meditation

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 we experience a stress response in a “good” situation, try to avoid applying negative labels. Instead, try to think about it as something powerful and energizing, preparing us to meet life’s challenges.

Now, during stressful times, it can feel counterintuitive to sit still and do nothing — meditating can feel like the last thing we want to do. But when we feel like the pressure’s on and we can’t think straight or we have too much going on, pressing pause is the best way to unwind the mind.

The point of meditation in these circumstances is to provide more spaciousness of mind. And in that space, we become aware of our stress. We don't resist it or try to push it away. We simply sit and let all thoughts and feelings rise to the surface and, when they do, we let them go by returning our attention to the breath. With practice, this becomes easier over time, and we learn to rely on the breath as a release valve for stress.

When it comes to managing stress through meditation, the Headspace app has a dedicated 30-day course for subscribers 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 stress or trying to run away from it, we’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, we should emerge with a better understanding of the dynamics of stress and a different perspective of how we 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.

There are, of course, other options available when it comes to stress-management, and many of these other tools — such as physical exercise and breathing techniques — 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 8 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.

Let go of stress with this free mini-meditation

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Watch Mini-Meditation: Let Go of Stress - 1 min

3 coping strategies for how to relieve stress

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.

  1. Change the story.

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.

  1. Apply a new lens.

When we meditate, we’re 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.

  1. Zoom out.

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.

Stress in the workplace

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 shows 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 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 8 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.

Try 18 meditations for stress

Looking for meditations that help in managing stress? The Headspace app has a Reframe stress and relax collection that offers subscribers several courses and single meditations for immediate and long-term stress reduction, including:

  • Letting Go of Stress course. Learn to reframe negative emotions and let them go.

  • Restlessness course. Learn to work with a restless mind more skillfully.

  • Transforming Anger course. Connect with anger and use it to train your mind.

  • Navigating Change course. Train your mind to be more comfortable with change.

  • How We Forgive Ourselves guidance. Being present helps us leave regret in the past.

  • Feeling Overwhelmed meditation. Give yourself room to breathe.

  • Burned Out meditation. Step away from worried thoughts.

  • Panicking meditation. Anchor your mind and body in the present.

  • Losing Your Temper meditation. Let go of whatever’s causing you to feel frustrated.

  • Flustered meditation. Bring an unsettled mind back to the subject at hand.

  • In Pain meditation. Change your relationship to physical pain.

  • Stress Release workout. Step away from stress and into the moment.

  • Unwind meditation. Lead your mind to a natural place of rest.

  • Restore meditation. Let go of any tension or busyness in the mind.

  • Frustrated meditation. Let go of tension and find a little peace of mind.

  • Stressed meditation. Recognize what’s occupying your mind and let it go.

  • Taking a Break meditation. Press pause in the middle of your workday.

  • Reset meditation. Find some focus and relaxation during a busy day.

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.

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.

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