Do you find you are constantly stressing in your work and personal life about that next deadline or project to meet/finish?… always promising “once I’ve got that out done or reached that goal then I’ll be happy and at peace”?
While healthy levels of stress can help to boost us towards achieving our goals, too much can be toxic, making us ill and unhappy. Mindfulness meditation is learning to shift our consciousness out of a stressful “survival” mode of being in order to gain inner harmony. As the wisdom saying goes:” First find peace and the rest will fall into place”
It is a well established fact that stress is at the root of many evils. It is correlated to a number of health conditions including high blood pressure, heart disease; possibly even cancer, as well as mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. Stress is also a contributory factor to obesity and premature aging.
In the UK a large swathe of the population is negatively impacted by stress; 1 in 5 people suffer from high levels of work related stress and high numbers of work days are lost per person per year.
When we are suffering from stress our bodies become flooded with adrenalin and cortisol which, in excessive doses, are toxic and detrimental to health. Meditation is a key tool that can combat and even reverse the ill effects of excessive stress. The UK’s National Health Service endorses the scientific evidence for meditation and mindfulness as an antidote to stress and now recommends these practices to patients.
Here in the UAE, the minister for Happiness Ohood Bint Khalfan, has implemented “happiness” training programmes incorporating the principles of mindfulness for the benefit of the UAE workforce. You can read about it here Gulf News August 2017
How does sitting in a state of mindful meditation reduce stress?
In 1972, Harvard professor Herbert Benson’s research showed that meditation triggers a mechanism called the “relaxation response”. This entails a loosening of the connection to the amygdale; the fear centre of the brain. Normally, the neural connection to the amygdale is strong, so, whenever we experience a frightening or upsetting sensation the “flight-or-fight” response is triggered making us feel we are under attack. The stress hormones -adrenalin and cortisol- are then released into our systems. These hormones -which serve a useful purpose when we are genuinely under attack – are toxic in large doses.
The reality is that much of our fear is borne out of regrets about past events and anxieties about the future, but as the brain cannot distinguish between real or imagined fears we tend to be stuck in survival mode and so we are intensifying the connection to our fear centre. Whenever our stress levels get ramped up to the max, cortisol floods our systems negatively impacting our health and mood.
Benson found that not only does the connection to our fear centre become neutralised in meditation, but also, the homeostatic status of the body changes; heart and breathing rates slow down, blood pressure and muscle tension are all reduced and the alpha waves in the brain are increased. Benson’s studies proved scientifically that meditation significantly reduces stress levels and lowers blood pressure.
Once the relaxation response is triggered in meditation, the effects can remain with us throughout the day, making us feel calmer and more poised, enabling us to face challenges with greater clarity and equanimity. These lingering effects of meditation have been demonstrated by scanning the brain before and after a 20 minute meditation and finding reduced levels of agitation to brain activity immediately after the session and again when the brain is scanned a few hours later.
Some of the many benefits for meditation and mindfulness on health and wellbeing
The physiological benefits of meditation gleaned from the findings of more than 1000 studies include lowering of blood pressure, decreased heart rate, deeper slower breathing, a reduction in cholesterol levels and the ability to recover from stress more quickly. The research data from all of those studies can be found here –. THE PHYSICAL AND PSYCHOLOGICAL EFFECTS OF MEDITATION: A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY RESEARCH By Michael Murphy, Steven Donovan, and Eugene Taylor)
If meditating for only 20 minutes a day makes us calmer then meditating twice a day is even better. Studies show that regular meditation twice daily for 20 minutes has been shown to improve the quality of our sleep. It stands to reason that if we are calmer in our everyday wakeful state it follows that we will experience better quality sleep at night. And during particularly troubled times, meditation is a great tool to help up switch off from thoughts that might normally keep us awake.
Rejuvenates the mind and body
There is a growing body of evidence that meditation makes us look and feel younger. Chronic stress affects us on the cellular level; meditation had been shown to counter the negative impact on our cells of excessive levels of cortisol. Skin elasticity has been shown to improve after only a few months of regular practice.
Studies from neuroscience show that mindfulness meditation slows down and may even reverse the effects of aging on the brain- as reviewed in my previous article http://yogalife-online.com/meditation-keeps-us-younger-longer/
Furthermore, when we are stressed, our sleep and eating patterns become erratic and disturbed causing us to look worn out and aged.
Helps with weight loss
Too much stress can also cause weight gain. When high levels of cortisol are flowing through our system all the time, the body’s response is to protect the vital organs by generating layers of fat around them. Thus by lowering our stress levels in mindful and meditative practices we can avoid this unnecessary weight gain.
Meditation has also proved beneficial in addressing addictions as it teaches how to observe mental activity objectively. By meditating on our cravings, we start to recognize that they are simply the combination of thoughts and sensations and can be deconstructed and then observed with detachment. As we observe a craving arising in our awareness we may notice how it arises and then ebbs away again. The key to overcoming cravings is to become aware of the spaces between them that offer the fleeting opportunity to resist. Each time we succeed in resisting our triggers, we are rewiring our brain and liberating ourselves from our negative programming and freeing ourselves from the causal chain that led to the addiction.
Increased intelligence and creativity
Over time, as the connection to the amygdale is weakened in meditation practice, the connection to the pre frontal cortex – the area of the brain associated with concentration and awareness- is strengthened. The more regularly meditation is practiced, the thicker the pre frontal cortex becomes. An array of exciting benefits of meditation includes improved cognitive functioning; improved concentration, improved memory and creativity. Research by neuroscientists from Harvard and UCLA shows that long term meditation practice can permanently rewire the brain for the better. In an experiment at Massachusetts general hospital led by Harvard neuroscientist, Sara Lazar, scans of the brains of a group of people new to meditation taken before and after an eight week meditation programme showed that whole new neural pathways had been generated in the areas of the brain associated with executive decision making, learning, memory and perspective. This happens because Meditation teaches how to focus. New pathways develop as a result of focussing awareness on single objects, our breath, a mantra, a sound. A disciplined approach is required to focus attention and disengage from mind chatter.
Additionally, meditation increases creativity and the ability to assimilate and process information by bringing the right and left sides of the brain into alignment.
Improves your mood and sense of well being
There is a large body of evidence for the effects of meditation on boosting mood and wellbeing. For example, in Lazar’s eight week study, participants reported feeling much calmer which was corroborated by MRI scans that showed a reduction in the size of the amygdale. An enlargened amygdale correlates to high levels of stress.
Increases compassion and a sense of universal love
In the short term, meditation reduces stress, anger and improves our health, mood and general wellbeing. In the long term, it increases our capacity for empathy, rationality and compassion for self and others. Many people who started meditation practice purely for the purposes of better health and wellbeing often find themselves drawn towards the realm of the spiritual. AIDS patients in the late 90s, who had turned to meditation as a means to attuning to the spiritual dimensions of themselves, were reported by doctors and carers to have died feeling spiritually whole and in a state of compassionate self-acceptance.
Practicing meditation long term can induce a state of unitive consciousness; the awareness that we are not separate from each other. This brings the feeling of closeness and greater compassion for other living beings. Interestingly, this state of unity is found at the most fundamental level of reality and is corroborated by findings in the field of physics. When matter is broken down to its component parts, a unified field at the very base of matter is found to connect all atoms, electron, quarks and particles-the tiniest pieces of matter in existence are connected – nothing is separate. This is further confirmed by experiments show that two particles which are separated from one another continue to mirror each other’s behaviour at vast distances. This phenomenon is known as quantum entanglement and was dubbed “spooky action at a distance” by Einstein.
Thus as we eliminate stress from our lives and master the art of living mindfully , we may find our goals shift towards spiritual growth.With regular long term meditation practice, we may become more aware of a higher love, of the sacredness of life and of the interconnectedness of all the beings and things of the universe.
Anne-Marie is a meditation teacher with an accredited teaching diploma from the British School of Meditation in the UK. She has a specialist interest in and wide knowledge of eastern and western philosophical and mystical traditions. As a passionate practitioner and advocate of meditation, she believes the benefits of meditation and mindfulness should be shouted from the rooftops! To this end she co-founded a not-for-profit meditation group in Dubai in 2015, offering group practice and talks on the science and benefits of meditation and other spiritual practices.
A resident of Dubai for almost 20 years, Anne-Marie is originally from Scotland.