Meditation for Stress Management and More
What is Stress?
The word stress is commonly perceived as inherently negative. It is generally understood to be the sense of emotional or physical tension stemming from a frustrating or otherwise agitating experience or thought. At its core, however, the definition of stress is neutral: stress is merely how our body-mind reacts when faced with change; it is not an external circumstance but our own response—physical, mental, or emotional—to a challenge, demand, or anything else that requires us to adjust or adapt.
Short-term stress, or acute stress, can be positive and useful. Known as the fight-flight-freeze response, it is a primal stress response, a remnant of our survival instincts, that was crucial for our ancestors when confronted with a predator or any other imminent peril and thus essential for the self-preservation of our species. Under fight-flight-freeze, the body undergoes distinctive physiological changes. It reacts by releasing hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline, which cause the brain to be more alert, the muscles to tense, the heart rate to increase, and blood pressure to rise. Anti-aging hormone production also decreases, and the immune system as a whole is weakened. The fight-flight-freeze response is a defense mechanism in which the body-mind plummets to functioning on the basis of constricted awareness, diverting all its energy and resources to the sole purpose of escaping physical danger and surviving life-threatening situations.
An innate cognitive bias, referred to as the negativity bias, coincides with and triggers the fight-flight-freeze response. The negativity bias is the mind’s tendency to notice and remember negative experiences more than positive ones, feel the former more intensely, and adversely interpret situations, albeit potentially innocent ones, as the primary first line of response. This too has evolved over millions of years in the interest of survival, as focusing on threats, rather than rewards, was more important to our ancestors for staying alive, and therefore, as Dr. Chopra explains, “(t)hose who survived to pass on their genes paid a lot of attention to danger. Their legacy is a brain that is primed to focus on negative experiences and has a tendency to get stuck in conditioned patterns of thinking, returning again and again to thoughts of anxiety, depression, and limitation”. The retention of negativity in the mind, in turn, may instigate a habitual stress response in the body.
Stress can be beneficial not only in survival situations; minor stress, or eustress, can stimulate and motivate us to succeed and achieve, for instance, when starting a new job or publicly delivering a speech. Eustress challenges but does not overwhelm.
We do get overwhelmed by chronic stress—when stress lasts for a long time and is unsuccessfully managed. With chronic stress, the body-mind remains alert and reacts in the same fight-flight-freeze manner often, although there is no actual danger; it activates this constrictive response amidst everyday encounters and experiences—traffic jams, work overload, feuds with loved ones, financial strain, as well as fears, concerns, and doubts (that, due to the negativity bias, tend to consume the mind).
Chronic stress is the modern-day epidemic. Such prolonged, unmanaged stress plants the seeds of illness in our body-mind. It may lead to various mental and physical health problems, and if there is an underlying condition, chronic stress may further exacerbate it. It is now well established that chronic stress contributes to various ailments, including high blood pressure, heart disease, cancer, autoimmune disorders, diabetes, obesity, digestive disorders, inflammation, depression, anxiety, addictions, and accelerated aging.
Meditation – The Antidote to Stress
One of the best methods for stress management is meditation. Meditation is a journey inward, a journey from activity to silence. We all spend most of our waking lives in activity, experiencing the outer world through our five senses. Our minds are constantly engaged in an endless internal dialogue, where one thought associatively leads to the next, taking us into the past or future. Meditation gives us a precious opportunity to be aware of the present moment and turn to the other direction, away from the external noise that overshadows our mind. In meditation, we delve into quieter and quieter levels and, ultimately, even for a fraction of a moment, reconnect with the silence that has always been there, lying dormant, within us.
During that process, we release accumulated stress – physical, mental, and emotional. By moving our awareness inward, and with regular practice, the body and mind settle into a deep level of rest and reach a meditative state, referred to as restful alertness or restful awareness, in which the body attain deep rest, while the mind is restfully aware and yet fully alert. As the leader in the field of mind-body medicine Dr. Deepak Chopra explains, restful alertness is a state “where you are more awake, not less, as the result of feeling calm.” It is through this deep, restful state that the body-mind heals itself. As meditation releases accumulated stress, it detoxifies and purifies the body and mind.
The release of stress during meditation also reverses the effects of the fight-flight-freeze response and the negativity bias discussed earlier. Numerous scientific studies have documented the positive physiological changes that occur during and as a result of meditation; these include decreased heart rate and hypertension; lowered cholesterol levels; reduced production of stress hormones and sweating; more efficient oxygen usage by the body; increased production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA; improved immune function; and decreased inflammation.
Similarly, an expanding body of research has established that regular meditation practice also produces mental benefits, such as decreased anxiety, depression, PTSD, and insomnia. During meditation, the brain is prompted to release neurotransmitters, including dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins, that are all linked to various aspects of happiness (dopamine plays a vital role in the brain’s ability to experience pleasure and maintain concentration; serotonin causes a sense of calm and relaxation, whereas lower levels thereof have been linked to migraines, anxiety, bipolar disorder, apathy, fatigue, and insomnia; oxytocin, the levels of which rise during sexual arousal and breastfeeding, is a pleasure hormone that creates a feeling of calm, contentment, and safety, while reducing fear and anxiety; and lastly, endorphins, which create the exhilaration colloquially named “the runner’s high”, contribute to a diminished sense of pain and reduced side effects of stress). These neurotransmitters are being released in meditation concurrently—a simultaneous occurrence that cannot be induced by any single drug. Research has also found that meditation reduces perceived pain, potentially lessening or entirely eliminating the need for medication.
As stress dissipates and the brain’s negativity bias is countered, the regular meditator begins to cultivate inner calm, as well as “foster positive experiences and intentions and enjoy the peace of present moment awareness” (Dr. Deepak Chopra).
The renowned teacher and author Eckhart Tolle once tweeted:
"Stress is caused by being ‘here’ but wanting to be ‘there’"
Tolle’s eloquent words illuminate how meditation, which is essentially the awareness of the present moment, is intrinsically the antidote to stress.
A Final Word: The Meditative State
The notable philosopher and psychologist William James so reflected:
"The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another."
Emphasizing that the source of stress is not the actual events in our lives but rather how we perceive and relate to them, James wisely reminds us that we have a choice: to make a conscious decision to think constructive and enabling thoughts instead of constrictive and detrimental ones.
This is precisely what meditation teaches us to do: observe and choose our thoughts. It trains us to act and think with witnessing awareness—that is, to observe the situation and consciously respond rather than habitually react, even amidst the primeval instincts and biases engraved in our body-mind structure.
Meditation is a gift. It is a powerful tool to go inward, cultivate stillness and present moment awareness, and refine our experience in and of the world. Yet it is we—individuals and organizations alike—who ultimately hold that vital key to the path of wellness; if we dare not slip it into the keyhole and unlock the door, the key will forever be useless.
Contact Monsoon Maya, your Chopra-certified instructor, to learn more about upcoming classes and events.
The above is an excerpt from Maya Bitton’s article “Legal Wellness: Meditation for Stress Management and More” as published in Valley Lawyer Magazine, June 2022 Issue