Meditation for Stress

Meditation for Stress
This series of meditations is designed to help you get more perspective on stress, so you can enjoy a clearer, calmer mind.

Mindfulness meditation activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, helping with stress management.

Feeling stressed?

Do you feel under pressure from problems with work, a relationship or your personal finances? When mental and emotional pressures build up, doctors call this feeling stress.

Stress can be harmful. It distracts you from getting on with enjoying your life. It gets in the way of your attempts to sort out the problems causing it. And if you let it get the better of you, it can even make you physically ill. So dealing with your stress is important.

Are you finding coping with stress difficult? If so, read on, and we'll explain exactly what it is and how becoming mindful through meditation can help you manage stress.

You’re not alone

In a 2012 survey, 20% of Americans said they were experiencing extreme levels of stress. And while 64% said that it is “extremely important or very important to manage stress”, only 37% felt they were actually doing an excellent or very good job at managing theirs.1

So why do we get stressed?

Stress is primarily designed to help us get out of physical danger. When we feel threatened, a part of our brain called the amygdala sets off an alarm bell which triggers the “fight or flight” response of our nervous system, making us ready to respond. Our blood is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, as well as our respiration. This allows us to transport oxygen to our muscles quickly so we can “act fast”.

While this heightened state once helped us with the physical threat of, say, a sabre-toothed tiger, it does little to help us with today's worries, such as when we’ve forgotten to hit “save” on a word document. But the response is still the same.

Is your work getting to you?

“Work-related stress caused workers in Great Britain to lose 10.4 million working days in 2011/12”

...says a Government report.2

Why is it so damaging?

Stress stops the normal functioning of our body. The body assumes there’s a physical threat at hand, so it channels energy into getting out of immediate danger. To do this, it shuts down non-essential systems which are taking up energy. Our digestive processes, immune system, growth and reproductive processes are inhibited (no time for eating or sex when we’re being chased!)

A bit of stress in short doses is useful in improving our memory and enhancing performance. However, too much, too regularly, is extremely damaging to our mental and physical well-being. It can lead to stomach ulcers, heart problems, illnesses, lowered libido... the list goes on.

Unable to ‘switch off’?

A survey of over 2,000 Brits found that 80% think “life’s moving too fast and that the number of things we have to do and worry about these days is a major cause of stress, unhappiness and illness”. Over 50% said they had “difficulty relaxing or switching off”, and that they couldn’t stop thinking about “things they’ve got to do”.3

How can mindfulness help with stress management?

Simply put, meditation for stress soothes our nervous system. While stress activates the “fight or flight” part of our nervous system, mindfulness meditation activates the “rest and digest” part of our nervous system, helping with stress management. Our heart rate slows, our respiration slows and our blood pressure drops. This is often called the “relaxation response”.4 While chronic activation of the fight or flight response can be extremely damaging to the body, the relaxation response is restorative, so meditation benefits our wellbeing.

It changes the brain

People who practise mindfulness meditation regularly report feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced. According to neuroscientists, as you continue to meditate, your brain physically changes, even though you’re not aware of it re-shaping itself. They’re also beginning to understand why meditation is effective for managing stress. Using brain imaging techniques, they’ve observed changes in the threat system of the brain. The response kicks-off in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for triggering fear. People who suffer from chronic anxiety have a more reactive amygdala, and this leaves them feeling threatened much of the time.

...evidence that meditation served as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique.

A study performed at Stanford found that an 8-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala and increased activity in areas of the prefrontal cortex that help regulate emotions, subsequently reducing stress.5 Similarly, researchers from Harvard University discovered corresponding changes in the physical structure of the brain with a similar meditation course; there was a lower density of neurons in the amygdala and greater density of neurons in areas involved in emotional control - evidence that meditation served as a realistic and maintainable stress management technique.6

A study of stress at work

Nursing is a famously stressful occupation, so it’s a good one to test the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation in treating stress. A 2006 North American study of nurses and nurse aides concluded:

“The results of this study support the feasibility and potential effectiveness of a brief mindfulness training program for reducing symptoms of burnout, enhancing relaxation, and improving life satisfaction for nurses and nurse aides.” 7

Millions of people are using mindfulness meditation to cope with stress, and experience a little more balance and peace of mind. You can, too, if you treat your head right with Headspace.

  1. American Psychological Association. (2012). The Impact of Stress. Retrieved from:
  2. Health and Safety Executive. (2012). Stress and Psychological Disorders. Retrieved from:
  3. The Mental Health Foundation. (2010). The Mindfulness Report. Retrieved from:
  4. Benson, H., Beary, J., & Carol, M. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry. 19, 37. 37-45.6.
  1. Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 83-91.
  2. Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. & Lazar, S. (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuroimaging. 191. 36-43.
  3. Mackenzie, C., Poulin, P. & Seidman-Carlson, R. (2006). A brief mindfulnessbased stress reduction intervention for nurses and nurse aides. Applied Nursing Research. 19, 2. 105-10.