Stress. It’s all in your head. Have you ever heard this phrase? Well, its partially true. The stress response begins in the brain and activates the body through an interconnected network called the Hypothalamus-Pituitary-Adrenal axis. It can feel like a runaway horse, creating chaos in your mind, reducing productivity, and increasing anxious thoughts.
Meditation is a means to grab the reigns on runaway thoughts and stressful events and center yourself. Meditation is a tool that works to - among other things - control your stress response.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a personal practice of settling the mind used to gain clarity, awareness, and a state of emotional calm. This can be done through various physical and mental techniques such as breathing practices, focusing on a particular object, observing thoughts, repeating phrases, and more.
The point of meditation is to refocus the brain and shift perspective. It can be a powerful tool to manage stress and overcome invasive thoughts and tensions.
How does meditation work?
There are several ways meditation works to benefit the mind and body.
1. Changing brain waves
Research has shown that meditation techniques can change brain waves by increasing theta and alpha waves associated with feelings of calm, improved learning, and overall mental well-being (7,8).
2. Improving vagus nerve tone
The vagus nerve is the longest cranial nerve running from the brain to the abdomen. It is the main component of the parasympathetic nervous system that controls the calming (rest, digest, heal) side of the nervous system. Deep breathing techniques activate the vagus nerve to bring about a calming sensation to the body (9).
3. Impacting gene expression
Recent research has shown that meditation practices may positively change gene expression in ways that can benefit inflammation, metabolism and overall health (10).
4. Better circulation
During periods of chronic stress, it is common to find yourself holding your breath for periods of time or taking short, shallow breaths. This leads to a small but significant decrease in oxygen delivery to the brain that can further exacerbate a stress response. Meditation practices that focus on deep, controlled breathing help improve circulation, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to the brain resulting in a calming response.
Benefits of meditation
Due to its mind-body benefits, meditation is practiced by increasing percentages of the world population as a form of stress relief. As you work to deepen your understanding of your body’s stress response, meditation could be just the tool you need to live in a state of calm and awareness.
Some of the benefits of consistent meditation practice include:
- Lessened anxiety, depression or PTSD symptoms
- Better sleep
- Increased self-awareness and patience
- Improved resting heart rate and blood pressure
- Improved concentration and problem solving
Three meditations to try today
Just like everyone has a different pillow preference for the perfect night’s sleep, there isn’t one right way to meditate and you will have to play around with what is most comfortable for you. Here are three simple meditation practices to try today:
- Guided Meditation: In this type of meditation, you will listen to someone guide you through imagery or thoughts to shape your calming experience. You may find practitioners locally who lead meditation groups, or you may need to turn to tech (“there’s an app for that!”). This can be a great way to start your meditation practice as you figure out what works for you. Some apps we like include Open, OtherShip, Headspace, and Calm. Check one out today!
- Progressive Relaxation/Body Scan Meditation: Completing a body scan means focusing your mind on each small part of your body from head to toe. As you move through your body, you will tighten and release that body part. This brings awareness and relaxation to your body, while also focusing your breathing. Try this practice before bed to help you wind down.
- Mantra Meditation: Pick a word or sound that is calming to you. While seated in your relaxing space, repeat that word either out loud or in your head. Sometimes sitting with our breath can be challenging, but adding a word to focus on may help distract from the environment and allow you to truly meditate.
Make meditation work for you
Now that you know how to meditate, it’s time to take on the task of incorporating it into your daily routine. Here are some tips to use to start that routine today:
- Set a reminder: Use your Google, Outlook or Apple calendar to your advantage and set a reminder or calendar appointment for meditation just as you would a work meeting or doctor’s appointment. Your meditation practice is just as (or more!) important as the other tasks on your to-do list, so schedule it in and follow through.
- Pick a consistent place for meditation: Meditation requires a calming environment, which will look different for each person. Practice meditation in different rooms in your home and in different positions, and think about what is the most impactful for you. Once you have your spot, stick to it as your body will more easily engage in meditation when acclimated to a comfortable place.
- Shut off Distractions: Once your phone reminder goes off, put it on airplane mode or turn it off while you meditate. This will free your mind to truly focus on your meditation. That text from your friend or TikTok notification will be waiting for you when you are all done.
- Keep Trying: Meditation takes practice. You will get distracted at times. Acknowledge this and jump right back in.
- Cillessen L, Johannsen M, Speckens AEM, Zachariae R. Mindfulness-based interventions for psychological and physical health outcomes in cancer patients and survivors: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Psychooncology. 2019 Dec;28(12):2257-2269. doi: 10.1002/pon.5214. Epub 2019 Sep 11. PMID: 31464026; PMCID: PMC6916350.
- Cleveland Clinic (2022). Meditation. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17906-meditation
- Goldberg SB, Tucker RP, Greene PA, Davidson RJ, Wampold BE, Kearney DJ, Simpson TL. Mindfulness-based interventions for psychiatric disorders: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Clin Psychol Rev. 2018 Feb;59:52-60. doi: 10.1016/j.cpr.2017.10.011. Epub 2017 Nov 8. PMID: 29126747; PMCID: PMC5741505.
- Mayo Clinic (2022) . Meditation: A Simple Fast Way to Reduce Stress. https://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858
- Bhasin MK, Dusek JA, Chang BH, Joseph MG, Denninger JW, Fricchione GL, et al. Relaxation response induces temporal transcriptome changes in energy metabolism, insulin secretion and inflammatory pathways. PLoS One (2013) 8(5):e62817. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817
- Kaliman P, Alvarez-Lopez MJ, Cosín-Tomás M, Rosenkranz MA, Lutz A, Davidson RJ. Rapid changes in histone deacetylases and inflammatory gene expression in expert meditators. Psychoneuroendocrinology (2014) 40:96–107. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2013.11.004
- Darrin J. Lee, Edwin Kulubya, Philippe Goldi, et al. Review of the Neural Oscillations Underlying Meditation. Front. Neurosci., 26 March 2018 Sec. Neuroprosthetics https://doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2018.00178
- Helena Tomljenović, Dražen Begić, Zora Maštrović. Changes in trait brainwave power and coherence, state and trait anxiety after three-month transcendental meditation (TM) practice. Psychiatr Danub. 2016 Mar;28(1):63-72. PMID: 26938824.
- Roderik J. S. Gerritsen, Guido P. H. Band. Breath of Life: The Respiratory Vagal Stimulation Model of Contemplative Activity. Front Hum Neurosci. 2018; 12: 397.
- Sabrina Venditti, Loredana Verdone, Anna Reale, et al. Molecules of Silence: Effects of Meditation on Gene Expression and Epigenetics. Front Psychol. 2020; 11: 1767. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2020.01767