Understanding stress and how meditation reduces it

They say, when you’re stressed, meditate. There is a whole body of research to show that meditation helps reduce stress. But how does it do this? We break it down here, explaining how the different techniques of meditation affect our minds and the stress-response in our bodies.

stress and meditation

What is stress?

When we say we’re stressed, most of us mean that feeling of agitation, fear or worry under pressure. But in fact stress isn’t a subjective feeling – it is a biological process that includes a range of events in the body that occur when an organism perceives a threat to its wellbeing. 

Dr Gabor Mate breaks it down clearly in his book When the Body says No, describing that there are 3 components to stress:

1/ the Stimulus – something in the environment 

2/ Perception of the stressor as a threat by our nervous system

3/ the Stress Response – the physical and behaviourial response

We can be stressed and not know it. Our minds and bodies can perceive threats before we consciously become aware of it or when we’re just desensitised to it. Then we’ll find that our body sends signals that we find unexpected – exhaustion, insomnia, pain. Somehow our body-mind will have perceived a threat to its wellbeing even though we’re not aware of it.

An example is being in a relationship where we can tell ourselves it’s fine, but there is underlying discontent which taking its toll as we experience low energy or depression.

We can also think we’re stressed when in fact we aren’t – our bodies are relaxed. Sometimes we say we’re stressed when in fact it can be a healthy dose of thinking through a number of things at a time.

Stress isn't a subjective feeling...it is a biological process

We can be stressed and now know it...We can also think we're stressed when we're actually not.

Acute stress can be healthy, felt in event-appropriate measures. If we sense we’re about to be attacked, our bodies react by getting us into flight or fight mode. This helps us survive.

It is chronic, persistent stress, where our body gets continuous signals over long periods of time to be on high alert, that wears our systems down and leads to illness. Prolonged, lingering stress keep the nervous system on guard, harms our immune system, creates havoc with our adrenal and digestive systems. 

The effects are obvious. 70%-90% of doctors visits in the US are about stress related illnesses – such as heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, tension headaches, even asthma, diabetes and depression.

And what causes such stress today? Janos Selye, who has researched stress extensively, concludes that today, our most important stressors are emotional. Specifically, one review of stress literature concluded that uncertainty, conflict and loss of control are the most stressful stimuli.

The most important stressors for humans today are emotional; arising from uncertainty, loss of control and conflict

Meditation changes what we find stressful

All of the techniques and principles of different meditation traditions help to give us a sense of perspective and develop a healthy relationship with our minds. They change how we look at the world and ourselves, and therefore they can change what we consider a threat to our wellbeing.

Let’s use an example of something that most of us would find stressful and break down how meditation helps.

Meditation puts thoughts in their place

If we regularly practice mindfulness meditation for example, we develop the ability to look at our thoughts from a distance, without identifying with them or being consumed by them. Most of the threats we perceive today are inventions of our thoughts.

In this example, when we practice meditation regularly, we will start to notice all the thoughts arising as a result of the review. As we do so, we keep in mind that thoughts are thoughts – they are not facts. We can put each thought in their place – for instance, the review means that if I want to keep this job I will need to do better. Thoughts about being worthless, maybe losing the job..they are not facts. It’s one review, and it needed to push me in a different direction. Because we notice what’s going on in our minds, we don’t get consumed by them and we don’t identify with them. 

Thoughts are not facts. When we recognise this, some of the thoughts that are most stressful, stop being so.

Meditation stops catastrophising

We stop from jumping to end-of the-world scenarios in the event of this review. We may not lose our job. This is just catastrophising, and most of our stress comes from these thoughts. We spend a large amount of time mentally wandering around in horrific futures that haven’t happened yet. When we stay present to the moment, our thoughts don’t spiral off into disaster scenarios.

When we are tuned into the moment instead of losing ourselves in what might happen, we act with more efficiency and calm. When our mind is free from spiralling thoughts, it can slowly figure out how we’re going to change our performance if we want to. 

Meditation stops rumination

We are prone to get stuck in the past, thinking about what went wrong. The thoughts won’t let up, and we feel the shame and distress again and again. People have moved on but in our minds we’re still there.

Because meditation asks us to stay present, it stops these ruminating thoughts in their tracks. Over time these thoughts become less sticky. We recognise “here we are, thinking about that again” and we can choose to let it go and get on doing what we need to do in the moment. When those thoughts go, they no longer cause stress.

This is one of the ways mindfulness meditation helps reduce depression, one of the features of which is going over unhelpful thoughts repeatedly.

Meditation regulates our stress response to the threat

When we regularly practice meditation, it changes our brains and our bodies so that states we feel can overtime become permanent personality traits. For instance, many meditation breathing techniques slow our breath rate and activate the relaxation response in our bodies – so we feel calmer after meditating. If we keep practicing, over time we evolve to becoming a more calm person generally. When we’re calmer, even when something causes stress, the effect is milder and we bounce back quicker. The stress response is event-appropriate.

Meditation relaxes our baseline so we get less wound up

To go back to our example of annual review, if our baseline state is more calm, even though we will perceive this as a stressor, our minds and bodies won’t over-react. There may be some worrying thoughts, sadness for not having done better, some tension, some agitation, but there won’t be a heightened sense of panic.

Brain scans have shown that long-term meditators feel less pain. The same stimulus can cause our bodies to react differently depending on how we perceive it.

Meditation increases resilience so we bounce back quicker

Not only is our stress response milder when we regularly practice meditation, but we bounce back from the stressor, quicker. We process it, and move on. Meditation makes us more resilient so stressful events don’t cause our bodies and minds to linger in the past, bringing us to the present again. 

A large part of this process is practicing noticing and holding emotions that arise during stress. We learn to notice the thoughts, feelings and sensations and give space to them compassionately. This helps to release the tensions and feelings, if not immediately then over time. The stress can move through and out of us.

In this case the next day we might still not feel amazing, but we will have shown ourselves understanding instead of beating ourselves up, so that we have more resources place to move forward.

There are of course more and less serious stressors, but meditation changes the way we look at the world so even when big things go wrong, we keep a sense of perspective, we process it, and we move forward at a pace that works for us. Loss, accident, whatever life brings – a regular meditation practice bolsters our mental and physical resources so that we can navigate through life’s challenges feeling less stressed than we would otherwise.

Stress-reducing meditation techniques

As with all exercise, the more frequently you continue to do it the more benefits you will feel. Here we share some simple meditation techniques to help navigate stress in your life.

1. Catch your thoughts

Making a habit of curiously watching our thoughts, without judgement, is a core part of mindfulness meditation. Next time you feel yourself getting overly stressed, just take a moment and see what thoughts are there bringing this stress. It might just be that they are thoughts about catastrophic consequences that haven’t happened yet, or thoughts that you don’t know are even true (e.g . she doesn’t like me). If that’s the case just come back to the present by focussing on the body or your immediate experience in the present time. Thoughts are not facts.

2. Check in with your body

Doing a brief body scan every day for 3-5 minutes will help you know what’s really going on for you. The body has all the tells, and it knows stress better than you do. You might feel just fine with life but if you notice your body always giving uncomfortable signals, something is causing the stress. We can feel our emotions in our bodies. Whether as part of a daily check in or when you are actually feeling stressed, coming to notice and give space to whatever is going on in the body will help to release some of the tension. And it might give you some insight as to what to do about your life and environment.

3. Breathe deeply 

When you’re in a stressful environment, it’s helpful to take time out and just do some deep abdominal breathing. This sends signals to your brain to relax. When you’re calmer and have more perspective, you will be in a better state to choose how to respond to the environment appropriately.

Photo credits (from the top): Kat Smith, Eberhard Grossgasteiger, Riccardo

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