If you’ve ever meditated before, odds are you’ve noticed the calming effects of this practice. Maybe mindfulness meditation has helped you to reduce the stress you’re feeling in that moment. Perhaps it’s helped you to lead a less stressful life in general. But if you’re like me, you probably can’t help but wonder: How is this possible? How on earth does something as simple as meditation create such a change in my life?
Before going into how meditation helps us manage stress, let’s first recap what stress is and what it does to the body. Stress is a survival mechanism from our caveman days. When we see a perceived threat or, these days, an unmet need or task to complete we feel stress and go into “fight or fly mode”. As a result, the hormones cortisol and adrenaline are released into our bodies, causing our hearts to beat faster, our blood pressure and blood sugar to rise, our immune system to be suppressed, our breathing to quicken and less blood supply to be delivered to our digestive tract. If stress is only temporary, then these things don’t pose a problem; in fact, they can boost our performance, focus and capabilities, helping us conquer whatever it is that’s causing us stress.
The problem is when stress becomes a chronic, ongoing state of the body and mind. This continuous release of cortisol and adrenaline can then, in turn, lead to serious health issues including high blood pressure, heart disease, migraines or diabetes, to name a few.
When we pause and take the time to meditate, we are making an active decision to make a shift from a noisy, over-stimulated, and over-charged state of mind to a calmer, quieter one. In order to do so, we focus on our breathing; taking in deep breaths and observing them. We pay attention to what thoughts are emerging in our minds without getting caught up in them. Instead, we let them drift by, detaching the hooks that used to latch onto our mind for days. We notice the feeling of our feet on the ground, the temperature of the air, the smell of the room.
In focusing on the moment in this way, we send signals to our brain that say “We are safe. We are ready to be calm.” After receiving these signals, our brains gradually begin to calm itself, thereby sending signals to the rest of our body to release and relax. Our heart rate goes down, our breathing slows and becomes deeper. As a result, the different side effects of stress dissipate, and our bodies resume their normal functions in a calm state of being, improving our overall health and wellness.
Meditation is like going to the gym. The first time you go, you may only be able to run for a few minutes at a time on the treadmill. However, the more you practice and train regularly, the stronger and more resilient you’ll be. In time, you’ll be able to run for longer periods of time and not feel like keeling over after. Meditation works the same way. The more regularly you practice it, the better you’ll get at maintaining positive emotions and thoughts, especially when bad things suddenly happen.
We might not always realize it, but most of us lead pretty hectic lives. Call it a blessing or curse, most of us are pretty good at pushing ourselves well beyond our abilities, constantly putting our needs and wants aside to meet unrealistic standards set by others or, more often, ourselves. We continue putting ourselves second and then end up hitting a wall, depleted of all emotions, energy and motivation. What’s worse is that our culture rewards and encourages this behavior (i.e. sleep when you’re dead, FOMO, exhaustion and business as a status symbol). Though constantly pushing ourselves to this point wreaks havoc on our emotional and physical state.
Meditating on a consistent basis is a way to pump the brakes, force yourself to pause and tap back into that internal set of values that guide your day to day decisions. Meditation in itself is an act of self-care and promotes further consideration of your needs, well-being and boundaries. Instead of feeling like our schedule and time is out of our control, being sucked up by commitments, obligations and work, meditation acts as a tool that helps us regain a sense of that control. This, overtime, helps to stabilize our mood and general state of mind every day.
One thing we need to constantly remind ourselves is that meditation is not like a painkiller which will solve all of our woes and pain in an instant. We must be patient and consistent. Meditation is the practice of viewing different aspects of life from different perspectives. The more we practice, the more we’re able to carry that calm and objective vantage point with us well beyond the end of our meditations. At any moment, regardless of what emotion we’re feeling, we’re able to view the emotions and physical sensations with wisdom and serenity. That’s why it’s essential that we practice consistently in order to maintain this skill.
As you go deeper into your practice, you will always learn something new. You will build yourself up anew, step by step. Only through continuous practice can these learnings and revelations become further ingrained in your way of thinking and living.
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve faced in learning to meditate?
What has been the greatest benefit to consistently meditating?