Stressed? Would you like to find out how to relieve stress with meditation?
The Definition of Stress
Over the last 10 years millions and millions of words have been written and published about stress : about the definition and meaning of stress, about the symptoms of stress, the causes of stress and about stress management. So I think most of us by now have a fairly good idea of what stress is, even if we are still not quite clear about how we can reduce stress. Having worked with patients suffering from stress for more than 20 years now, I certainly have a good idea what is stress. If you need to refresh your memory, here is a good definition of stress :
Stress is the body’s reaction to any change that requires a physical or mental adjustment or response. Stress can have an external or internal cause : any event or occurrence that a person considers a threat to and that he/she may find difficult to handle with his or her current coping strategies or resources. Stress often initiates the “fight or flight” response – a complex reaction of neurologic and endocrinologic responses to a perceived threat.
The Fight/flight Reaction
The « flight/flight » reaction is a great response in a life-threatening situation when it is followed by physical and mental action to preserve life and a period of rest to reflect and recharge one’s batteries . But if the « fight/flight » response is constantly triggered by a perceived threat, whether real or imaginary, without a physical response or a period of rest and recuperation, one’s physical/mental health can be damaged temporarily and if continued, permanently.
The problem is that most people think the « flight/fight » reaction is automatic, and that they have no control over their reaction to it.
This is simply not true. Even if the fight/flight reaction is triggered automatically, we can choose how we respond to it : with or without physical and/or mental distress.
Natural Stress Relief
One very efficient way to naturally reduce stress is mindfulness meditation. It is one of the best meditation techniques for stress. All you have to do is to sit comfortably, although mindfulness meditation can also involve walking/writing/listening to music, focus on your breathing and then concentrate your mind on the present without getting distracted by concerns about the past or future.
Mindfulness helps us to become more acutely aware of the ways we respond to stress. We may become aware that we often overreact to a perceived threat, or even that we perceive a threat where isn’t one. We might become aware that we allow anxieties and groundless fears to crowd our minds and how we sometimes interpret a neutral situation as a hostile one.
How Mindfulness Meditation provides Stress Relief
Mindful meditation involves training ourselves to alter how we respond to experiences (especially challenging ones) so that we react (both internally and externally) in a way that is conducive to well-being and health.
Once we become aware of these unhealthy and unhelpful habits, we are in a better position to do something about them. We realise that we have a choice, that we can choose to react differently. By practising mindful meditation on a daily basis, we learn to notice our stress-inducing thoughts, acknowledge them and then let them go.
People who practise mindfulness meditation regularly report feeling less stressed and more emotionally balanced. According to neuroscientists, the brains of people who meditate regularly change physically. We are also beginning to understand why meditation is effective for managing stress. Using brain imaging techniques, scientists have observed changes in the way the brains of people who meditate respond to threats.
A study performed at Stanford found that an 8-week mindfulness course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala (where the fight/flight reaction is triggered) and increased activity in areas of the pre-frontal cortex that help regulate and control emotions, thus reducing stress. During a similar study, researchers from Harvard University discovered corresponding changes in the physical structure of the brain; there was a lower density of neurons in the amygdala and greater density of neurons in areas involved in emotional control – evidence that meditation served as a realistic and sustainable stress management technique.
When researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, they found 47 trials that met their criteria for well-designed studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindfulness meditation can help ease psychological stress and anxiety.
Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Centre for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”
“If you have unproductive worries,” says Dr. Hoge, you can train yourself to experience those thoughts completely differently. You might think ‘I’m late, I might lose my job if I don’t get there on time, and it will be a disaster!’ Mindfulness teaches you to recognize, ‘Oh, there’s that thought again. I’ve been here before. But it’s just that—a thought, and not a part of my core self.”
Dr. Ronald Siegel, an assistant clinical professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, wrote a useful book about Mindfulness called « The Mindfulness Solution: Everyday Practices for Everyday Problems » . You can read the first chapter here: Mindfulness Solution Chapter 1. He also made a few excellent recordings that you can use to combat stress with mindfulness meditation. They are free and available here : Mindfulness-solution.com/DownloadMeditations.html
Putting Meditation for Stress Relief into action
If meditation is going to help us cope with stress, we have to put it into action. Matthieu Ricard said meditation is a skill that requires resolve, sincerity, and patience far more that it does intellectual panache. Meditation should be followed up with action, that is, by being applied in everyday life. Of what use is a “great session” of meditation if it doesn’t translate into improvement of our whole being, which can then place itself at the service of others? Once the seeds of patience, inner strength, serenity, love, and compassion have come to maturity, it is to others that we must offer their fruit,” and I think this is very true. Even a small amount of meditation, if practised regularly, can make a difference to your stress levels, so it is definitely worth incorporating into your daily program – and not only you will benefit, but so will the people around you.
How to start meditating? During our « Meditation with Horses» workshops, we introduce our guests to mindfulness meditation, with the help of our resident meditation experts, our horses. If you can not make it to one of our workshops, then I think the best way to start meditating is to choose a way of meditating that suits you and then listen to a guided recording/video. There are loads on Youtube, just search for something along these lines : « Guided Stress Relief Meditation »
Having said all this, it is useful to remember that a certain amount of stress is essential to our well-being and best performance. We definitely perform better under a certain amount of pressure, often exceeding our expectations of what we are capable of achieving. It is only when we have more stress than we can handle and have insufficient time to accommodate change, stress can be damaging to our physical and mental health.
There is an excellent Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction course available online that lasts 8 weeks in total, it is completely free and of very good quality with contributions from Jon Kabat-Zinn (Wherever You Go, There You Are), Pema Chodron (When Things Fall Apart), Tara Brach (Radical Acceptance), Sylvia Boorstein (Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There), Sharon Salzberg (A Heart As Wide as the World), Robert Sapolsky (Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers), Marshall Rosenberg (Non-Violent Communication), and Jack Kornfield (A Path with Heart) – I highly recommend it, it is available here: palousemindfulness.com/selfguidedMBSR.html
The Mental Health Foundation. (2010). The Mindfulness Report. Retrieved from:, Livingmindfully.co.uk/downloads/Mindfulness_Report.pdf
Benson, H., Beary, J., & Carol, M. (1974). The relaxation response. Psychiatry. 19, 37. 37-45.6.
Goldin, P. & Gross, J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion. 10, 1. 83-91.
Hölzel, B., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. & Lazar, S. (2011) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuro-imaging. 191. 36-43.
Mackenzie, C., Poulin, P. & Seidman-Carlson, R. (2006). A brief mindfulness based stress reduction intervention for nurses and nurse aides. Applied Nursing Research. 19, 2. 105-10.