Learn how meditation helps fighting stress

Have you ever notice how calm and centered are the persons who practice meditation? What happens in their minds? Recent scientific discoveries show that meditation practice changes brain activity and structure. By changing the mental state, meditation provides many health benefits. On hectic days, meditation can be a wonderful tool against stress.

The buzz of modern life
Modern life can be stressful. There is no time to stop. People do not eat, rest, sleep, or relax properly. There is no time to waste. We bring work home, as mobiles and e-mails made us reachable all the time. Besides, we are flooded with information 24/7. Different types of media bring us never-ending news. The outcome of living la vida loca is a stressful population on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Burnout rates have been increasing everywhere since the past decade. We are emotionally exhausted and see our performance drop drastically day after day. Even teenagers and children show signs of stress.

How is stress triggered?
In the brain, the stress mechanism starts with a negative stimulus. The cerebellar tonsil responds to the stimulus triggering the alarm. The thalamus, the main broadcaster station for sensorial information sends a message to the brainstem. The brainstem releases norepinephrine that spreads throughout the brain. The sympathetic nervous system (SNS) sends signals to the main organs and muscle groups to prepare the body for action. The hypothalamus, which regulates primal instincts, signalize to the pituitary gland activate stress hormones. Finally, the pituitary gland sends signals to the adrenal glands to release epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

This complex process takes only one of two seconds. The adrenaline increases the heart beat and dilates de pupils, so we can move faster and see well. The norepinephrine deviates blood to large muscle groups and dilates the bronchioles for greater gas exchange, making us ready to fight or flee. The cortisol paralyzes the immunological system to reduce inflammation from possible wounds. It also induces the brainstem to stimulate the cerebellar tonsil again, repeating the cycle over and over again. The process intensifies emotions and makes the entire brain ready for action. At the same time, the activity of the prefrontal cortex is inhibited. The prefrontal cortex is responsible for setting objectives, plans, and commanding actions. Now it is clear why we cannot think straight under stress.

Stress: a villain or hero?
The stress mechanism was vital for the survival of our ancestors when hunting, fighting enemy tribes or running from predators. In the past, negative experiences had a greater impact on survival, and it was natural for the brain to be more affected by bad news.

In spite of the changes in our environment over time, our brain still shows the same response to stress and the same neural structures. When human lifespan was around 40 years, the benefits of stress in the short term overcame its long-term damages. However, in long-living humans, the constant stress can bring many health problems. Here are some examples:

  • Gastro-intestinal: ulcer, colitis, irritable bowel syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation
  • Immunological: frequent colds, slow cicatrization, and vulnerability to infections
  • Cardiovascular: arterial stiffening and heart attacks
  • Endocrinal: diabetes type 2, pre-menstrual syndrome, erectile dysfunction, and libido decrease
  • Emotional: anxiety, depression, burnout, and bad humor

In spite of all that, a little bit of stress can still be beneficial sometimes, the problem arises from the overstimulation of the stress mechanism.

Brain training
The good news is that the brain has neuroplasticity, i.e., it changes with use similarly to the way the body changes with exercise. Therefore, it is possible to change the cyclic self-destructive process we inherited from our ancestors.

Meditation is a tool to achieve this goal. A little daily practice can bring enormous changes through the gradual construction of new neural structures. Positive feelings can neutralize the adverse effects of stress and make meditators more resilient to stress.

However, the transformation cannot occur overnight. It takes at least 20 min a day for a couple of months for long-lasting effects in the brain. In spite of that, persons who start meditating claim to feel somehow different and relaxed after the first session.

Meditation techniques
There are several meditation techniques. In Zen practice, for example, the meditation is called Zazen, which means ‘just sitting’. The person simply sits in the lotus, semi-lotus, or Burmese position (cross-legged with both feet resting flat on the ground), with a straight spine, and half-closed eyes. The right hand should rest on the left with palms up and both thumbs touching each other at the height of the lower abdomen. Then, the person just breathes through the nose and pay attention to breathing.

During meditation thoughts keep coming and that is natural. The human mind is restless. The person should not get attached to any thought, just notice them and let them go. One way to stabilize the mind is by counting inhalation and exhalation.

Brain changes induced by meditation
The meditation practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) deviating the attention from stressful issues. It calms the mind and changes neural activity. The meditation works as an antidote to negative emotions.

Several scientists studied the effect of meditation on the human brain. They found out that not only neural connections change under regular practice, but the brain itself undergoes changes. Mediation increases the gray matter in the insula, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. The insula recognizes the internal state of the body, including instinctive sensations. The hippocampus forms new memories and identifies threats. The prefrontal cortex, as mentioned before, establishes objectives and plans.

Meditation reduces the cortical weariness resulting from aging in the prefrontal region of the brain. It improves psychological functions associated with this area, such as the capacity of paying attention, memory, and learning.

The practice reinforces the activation of frontal regions on the left size of the brain improving humor. It also decreases the production of the cortisol hormone, which triggers the stress mechanism.

Additional meditation benefits
Meditation enhances the immunological system, reduces clinical problems, such as cardiovascular diseases, asthma, high blood pressure, diabetes type 2, premenstrual tension, and chronic pain.

It helps to deal with emotional problems such as insomnia, anxiety disorders, phobias, and eating disorders. It also helps developing concentration, stabilizes emotions, and makes persons more centered and less affected by negative emotions.

A private retreat
Different types of meditation could fit different types of individuals. Here I only described a very simple one. People can also alter their minds through other kinds of meditation or yoga practice. The secret is to stop the world turmoil for a while. Regardless the choice, only a regular long-term practice can show long-term beneficial results.

Suggestions for further reading
Hanson, R., 2009. Buddha’s brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love, and wisdom. New Harbinger Publications.
Lazar, S.W., Kerr, C.E., Wasserman, R.H., Gray, J.R., Greve, D.N., Treadway, M.T., McGarvey, M., Quinn, B.T., Dusek, J.A., Benson, H. and Rauch, S.L., 2005. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. Neuroreport

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