With tons to do and not enough time to spare, people are resorting to the most reliable tool there is for managing stress—meditation. Meditation, yoga, and deep breathing techniques are more widespread today than ever with more than 35 million Americans practicing some form of meditation today. This number (14.2%) is a steep rise from just 4.1% in 2012. But they are not mere statistics. They are stories in and of themselves of more and more people seeking relief from the ubiquitous problem of stress. Does meditation work well in beating daily stress and high pressure situations that potentially cripple mental health of workers?
How Does Meditation Help Reduce Stress?
Studies suggest a regular practice of meditation can moderate our physiological response to stress, lower oxidative stress (increasing difference between immunity boosting antioxidants and rogue radicals), reduce blood glucose levels (which also reduces the risk of micro vascular complications), and help reduce biochemical markers of stress: cortisol, corticotrophin, blood lactate, ACTH, and plasma MDA.
The biggest contribution of a practice like meditation is in reducing the pattern of worrying. The slightest uncertainty or fear of losing something we covet can trigger worry, or the ‘fight-or flight’ response that we call stress. Regular practice of meditation brings the mind to the present moment, increases self-awareness, and enables it to let go of the worries. With self-awareness, you are better able to see the futility of worrying.
Today there are hosts of studies that show the incredible benefits of meditative practices on human brain health, creativity, attention, stress alleviation, and endocrine functions, but back in 1968, Dr. Herbert Benson carried out a pivotal study at Harvard Medical School on the benefits of meditation for relaxation. According to him, meditation was powerful enough to improve what Benson called ‘relaxation response,’ an individual’s ability to have the body and mind release neurochemicals that slow down one’s muscles and organs and increase flow of blood to the brain.
Benson’s research showed that given a comfortable posture, a peaceful and quiet environment, a tool of focus such as the breath or any other object, and a non-judgmental state of mind, a meditation practitioner could experience
- Eased heart rate
- Slower breathing rate
- 20% decrease in oxygen consumption
- Decrease in blood lactate levels that increase with stress
- Improvement in signs of relaxations such as skin’s resistance to electric current improved four times and improvement in alpha brain waves.
Meditation and Oxidative Stress
Research shows meditation practices reduce oxidative stress—the imbalance between free radicals and antioxidants in the body—by as much as 20%. High oxidative stress is linked to premature aging of skin, diabetes, neuropathy, neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, damage to essential protein molecules, and cardiovascular conditions. Too much oxidative stress can affect structures in the brain cells, too. Practicing meditation techniques like Sudarshan Kriya reportedly increase levels of antioxidant enzymes (glutathione, catalase, and superoxide dismutase) that fight the rogue free radicals.
Meditation, Stress, and Insomnia
Stress is invariably linked with sleep disorders like insomnia, and lack of sleep can trigger further stress. Meditation helps break this cycle of tiredness and fatigue by giving the body and mind high quality rest.
It is possible to stay in bed for eight hours and still wake up feeling tired and unrested if you are undergoing severe stress at work or in life in general. Meditation fills this gap by giving you deep rest from worrying, anxious, or remorseful thoughts or even lack of sleep. Researchers say the rest your body receives from a 20-minute meditation is as good as six hours of uninterrupted sleep.