Feeling Stressed? Meditate On It
Advanced yoga and meditation teacher Jo Fellows shares a simple practice that can help us to help ourselves.
April marks stress awareness month. Stress is one of the biggest diseases of our era. Even before the pandemic, 15.4 million workdays were lost in the UK due to stress, and this accounted for 44% of all work-related ill-health cases*.
A landmark, 20-year study conducted by the University of London concluded that “unmanaged reactions to stress were a more dangerous risk factor for cancer and heart disease than either cigarette smoking or high cholesterol foods.”
When we are stressed, we go into the sympathetic nervous system mode – fight or flight mode. The sympathetic nervous system directs the body’s rapid involuntary response to dangerous or stressful situations.
When we are stressed, our mind is full of active thoughts, the body becomes full of hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol that boost our alertness and heart rate, sending extra blood to the muscles – which is useful if we need to run away from a sabre-toothed tiger!
Why Is On-going Stress Bad For Us?
Being in the sympathetic nervous system for long periods of time is seriously damaging to our health and wellbeing.
Chronic stress, characterised by the persistent presence of sources of frustration or anxiety every day, such as dealing with a pandemic, war, an unpleasant job situation, chronic illness etc results in a long-term stimulation of the fight-or-flight response.
This leads to a disease within the body and which can be associated with a variety of physiological consequences and illnesses, including high blood glucose levels, which can lead to type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure which can lead to cardiovascular disease.
What Can We Do To Help Ourselves?
As a yoga teacher, many of my students tell me that they have felt overwhelmed by recent events and are seeking simple answers that can help them to help themselves, and many are turning to meditation.
So How Does Meditation Help?
Spending even a few minutes each day meditating can restore your calm and inner peace and evidence from many trials and reports show conclusively that meditation improves general wellbeing and happiness.
According to research, people who practiced meditation were 48% less likely to have a heart attack or stroke. Participants who practiced meditation also lowered their blood pressure and reported less anger and stress**.
Meditation has been found to lead to a decrease in the likelihood of depression-related symptoms. A 2013 study in Belgium schools found that meditation can not only lead to a decrease in symptoms associated with depression but may also protect against its future development.
According to NHS figures, one third of people in the UK suffer from insomnia at some point in their lives, resulting in difficulties coping with everyday life. Meditation helps to calm the mind, blocking out negative thoughts and refocusing. If you wake in the middle of the night, meditation can also help you drift back off to natural sleep.
Dr Craig Hassed found that advanced meditators report feeling less pain than non-meditators as they are better able to reduce the unpleasantness of the pain stimulation than others. Rather than blocking the experience, it seems they can avoid engaging in thought processes that make it more painful.
Stress can cause our thoughts to race, jumping from thought to thought and worrying about a problem before it has even happened. By meditating, our thinking becomes clearer, and we are better able to cope.
Stress releases the hormone cortisol into our systems to protect our vital organs, which can lead to increased cravings of fat and carbohydrates and fat deposits around the middle section of the body. By reducing stress through meditation, we can help reduce weight.
Studies show that long-term meditators experience markedly smaller reductions in grey matter volume than those who do not meditate, thus helping slow age-related loss of brain tissue.
Meditation Can Help Us Look Younger For Longer
Stress shows on our faces, causing premature ageing through frown lines and wrinkles. Meditation causes the muscles in the face to relax, reducing the impact of facial muscle contraction. And when we are happier, we smile more, lifting our spirits, making us look younger too!
Cancer Research UK recommends meditation as a useful form of complementary therapy, as it helps people with cancer cope with pain, difficulty sleeping, tiredness, feeling sick and high blood pressure.
How To Meditate
So, what is meditation? Put simply it’s one-pointed focus.
It doesn’t mean sitting for hours in a cross-legged position trying to think of nothing. Our brains are designed to think, so we can’t ever stop that. It’s about being aware. Being aware that the mind is wandering off and bringing it back to a one point of focus.
Giving ourselves a single point of focus – whether that’s the breath, a mantra (repeating a word or phrase) or a guided meditation, this single point of focus helps us to come into the parasympathetic nervous system mode, the rest and digest mode, that is so good for our wellbeing.
The simplest way of meditating that works for most of us, is to simply focus our awareness on the breath. Simply put, we notice the cool air on the nostrils as we breathe in and the warm air as we breathe out. We could then perhaps follow the breath down to the lower belly and notice it’s path. Or even count the length of each inhale and each exhale – it’s whatever works for you to keep that one-pointed focus. Each time the mind wanders, we simply bring it back to the breath.
Meditation helps us to relax. Our thoughts become clearer. It gives space to our fear, anger and worries and therefore helps us to re-connect to life.
So, why not start meditating for a better future today. Every time we sit to meditate, we are actively supporting and promoting our own health and well-being in heart, mind, and body.