Stress is so common today its considered normal. Most adults in urban environments operate under constant stress. It seems to give us the energy needed to get through our busy lives. But chronic stress is killing us. Chronic stress causes or contributes to the growth of disease in profound and systemic ways.
Occasional stress is natural and healthy response. It can inspire us to complete a project or protect ourselves in dangerous situations. But continual stress takes a heavy toll on the body. Meditation has been clinically proven to be an effective and lasting solution for managing stress. Here are a few reasons why meditation is so helpful.
1. Balancing the Nervous System
Stress is a direct product of the autonomic nervous system. The autonomic nervous system regulates the functioning of our unconscious physiological processes, such as digestion, fertility, immunity, heart rate, circulation, and metabolism.
When we experience stressful situations or thoughts, the stimulating aspect of the autonomic nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), turns on. The SNS speeds up pulse and breath rate. It suppresses the bodily processes that are not essential for our immediate survival, such as digestion, immunity, and higher brain functioning, so that energy can be diverted to our muscles and reactive brain functions.
This is a necessary, useful, and temporary reaction when we are actually in danger. In a healthy autonomic nervous system, once the threat passes the para-sympathetic nervous system (PSNS) activates to bring us back to balance. The PSNS redistributes energy to the digestion, reproductive, and immune systems. It calms the entire body and slows heart rate and respiration.
But when we are chronically stressed, the SNS is always on. When constantly activated it wears out the body and suppresses important bodily functions in ways that threaten our health.
Meditation calms the SNS and activates the PSNS. A regular meditation practice can create new patterns and interrupt habitual stressful cycles so the nervous system can find balance again.
2. Coping Skills
Meditation helps us develop the skills and awareness to handle difficult situations with more grace. That doesnt mean that we no longer experience stressful situations, but our ability to cope with them is improved. Then we are less likely to respond to challenging situations in ways that perpetuate the stress cycle.
Two people can be in the exact same situation and have completely different reactions, depending on their base level of stress and the refinement of their attention and awareness. Meditation helps us more effectively handle everything life throws our way.
3. Learning to Breathe Deeply
Deep breath is one of the keys to health. Deep breathing oxygenates the blood and clears toxins and old energy. It also pacifies the SNS and activates the PSNS. Many meditation techniques include breathing exercises to help quiet the mind. This makes it easier to breathe deeper when we are faced with stressful situations.
4. Mental Focus
Meditation increases our clarity and mental focus. This makes us more aware and attentive in every situation. If you are able to clearly focus in every moment, you are less likely to make careless mistakes or do other things that would cause more stress. This increased focus helps us enjoy positive moments more fully, and find solutions in challenging or dangerous situations.
5. End Mental Looping
One of the many ways we create stress in our bodies is by falling into repetitive mental loops. These loops can take many forms, from the items on our to-do list to the ways that we have failed as a partner. These loops strike up the SNS, even if we are not in a dangerous external situation.
Meditation teaches us to observe the mind. The awareness that meditation cultivates lets us see the patterns and stories controlling our thoughts and perceptions. This awareness allows us to pause in the middle of the loops and see how our minds are running the show. When we are able to see what is happening inside us, we can make a different choice instead of staying stuck in the same old patterns.
6. The Power of Choice
When we are stressed, we are operating in what has been called fight, flight, or freeze mode. The reactive brain takes over, and all we focus on is immediate needs. If we are experiencing chronic stress, this can lead to many choices that are unhealthy for us in the long run. We might eat something that gratifies an immediate need for pleasure, or get into a fight with someone we love when we are in that reactive state.
Meditation gives us the ability to discern when an impulse will serve us in the long run, or is simply a fear-based reaction. We can both tend our immediate needs and take actions that will support our long-term wellbeing.
7. A Moment of Peace
When we are really overwhelmed, it can seem like we are drowning with no way out. But instead of running from ourselves, meditation teaches us how to find a quiet center. Even a single taste of peace can start to unwind us from the inside out.
Stress is one of the most dangerous side effects of modern life. Chronic stress wears on the nervous system and negatively affects our health. But simple meditation practices can calm the nervous system and clear the mind, allowing us to release stress and find more peace in our lives.