We have all heard that stress can be bad for your health but the concept is likely undervalued in Western approaches to health. Stress is an adaptive process that we have to any real or perceived threat. It results in changes to our nervous system, endocrine system, metabolism and immune response as our body works hard to overcome the threat and achieve stability (homeostasis). Regardless of where the stress is coming from and whether it is a true threat or a chronic worry that has become a perceived threat, it activates a physical stress response in the body.
Your hypothalamus at the base of your brain is linked to your pituitary gland and adrenal gland. This is called the HPA Axis. In normal day to day activity, these three systems interact to maintain our homeostasis. When stress is introduced, an increase of cortisol is secreted from the adrenal gland – our primary stress hormone.
Rising cortisol levels (along with adrenalin) trigger a “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic system. Cortisol levels impact glucocorticoids and monoamines that impact our cardiovascular system in this sympathetic response which increases blood pressure and releases glucose into the blood stream.
With repeated or prolonged stress and chronically elevated cortisol, our body is not able to keep things in balance and we become unhealthy. Mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and cardiovascular disease are common negative implications.
Meditation can help! Three recent studies provide support for the impact of meditation on cortisol levels and stress response. The first of these demonstrated the potential for mindful meditation to lower cortisol levels:
- M.A. Rosenkranz, A. Lutz, D.M. Perlman, et al. Reduced stress and inflammatory responsiveness in experienced meditators compared to a matched healthy control group. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 68 (2016), pp. 117-125
The second of these demonstrated that practicing meditation regularly may result in lowered morning plasma cortisol:
- J.D. Creswell, L.E. Pacilio, E.K. Lindsay, K.W. Brown Brief mindfulness meditation training alters psychological and neuroendocrine responses to social evaluative stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 44 (2014), pp. 1-12
The third found that even a brief meditation is effective in reducing cortisol and psychologic stress markers:
- A. Mohan, R. Sharma, R.L. Bijlani Effect of meditation on stress-induced changes in cognitive functionsJ Altern Complement Med, 17 (3) (2011), pp. 207-212
Whether stress is real or perceived, it creates a negative mind: worry about the future, anticipation, reliving the past, rumination etc. Meditation can reduce those negative thoughts as we focus on the present moment experience non-judgmentally.
A man is but the product of his thoughts. What he thinks, he becomes – Gandhi