If you’re an educator then you are very familiar with stress. Stress can create havoc on the body, mental and emotional states. Our bodies has a natural reaction to stress, which is healthy and normal, but in our 21st century lifestyle the everyday loud noises (airplanes, cars, trains, etc), the buzzing and chimes from our smartphones, our long to-do lists, the barrage of “breaking” news, sitting in traffic for hours, and the need to constantly respond to every email or issue that arises. These pressures to be “on” all day is exhausting and leads to our bodies reacting to what is perceived to be stress when it’s just an everyday “normal” pace of life. We are expected to do more, be more productive, and be plugged online, because we literally walk around with a powerful communication tool in our hands all day long. This is not to say that I agree that we need to “plugged in” all the time, and it might be worth one day to explore how technology can impact our mindfulness practices, but for many of us the reality is that we live stressful, fast pace lives. In this post I want to delve into a discussion about how our bodies naturally react to stress, how the constant reaction to stress impacts our bodies, emotions, and mental state, and finally consider what mediation and mindfulness practices can do to minimize our reaction to stress.
What’s the body’s natural response to stress?
We’ve all heard of the flight or fight response, which is also known as the acute stress response. Walter Bradford Cannon, was the first to describe this reaction in which the sympathetic nervous system is activated to prepare humans and animals to fight or flight. This physiological response to stress, which is really useful when you’re in a truly dangerous situation and you need to quickly react to the stressor. When our bodies respond to stress our bodies release adrenaline and norepinephrine from the medulla of the adrenal glands, which causes a chain reaction that leads to increased heart rate, increased breathing, constricted blood vessels, and the tightening of muscles. In addition, your brain becomes super alert to the environment. These physical responses are really important when you’re about to run away very quick to escape the stressful situation or if you’re going to put up a fight. However, due to the daily stresses in our lives our bodies are constantly activating our flight or fight responses, which our bodies were not created to handle the constant release of adrenaline and norepinephrine into our bodies. Many of us are walking around with acute response to stress constantly and this is having a devastating impact on our bodies, brains, and emotional states.
What’s the impact of chronic stress to the body and mind?
The American Institute of Stress (I know...there’s an Institute of Stress, who knew?!?) has an extensive list of common signs and symptoms of stress, which includes frequent headaches, grinding teeth, stomach pain, heart palpitations, increased anger, mood swings, insomnia, forgetfulness, and so much more. For example, the musculoskeletal system is impacted by stress because our muscles tense up guarding against injury and pain, and once the danger passes our muscles begin to release. However, with chronic stress the muscles never have an opportunity to relax and can lead to headaches, migraines, shoulder and neck pain. Chronic stress can also lead to problems in the respiratory system causing panic attacks and even asthma attacks, where the airway between the nose and lungs constrict. The heart can even be impacted by prolonged periods of stress by increasing the heart rate and blood pressure, which can lead to a higher risk of hypertension, heart attack and stroke. Repeated instances of acute stress can cause inflammation in the circulatory system and even increase cholesterol levels. Constant stress can even lead to Type 2 diabetes, because when cortisol and epinephrine are released in our bodies the liver produces more glucose; however, if the body creates too much glucose and can’t use it all then it can lead to diabetes. This is especially true for those who are more prone to diabetes due to family medical history and/or obesity. Stress can also lead to overeating or undereating and even an increased consumption of caffeine and alcohol all leading to acid reflux. You may notice more nervous energy in your stomach (“butterflies”), which can lead to nausea and if the stomach pain is really sever you may be developing an ulcer. Stress has even been linked to the suppression of the immune system making us more susceptible to getting viruses. Finally, stress can increase the likeliness of mental health issues, such as depression and anxiety, which can lead to isolation, decreased work productivity and strains in relationships.
Wow! I’m getting stressed just writing about this. Anyway, all of these symptoms are caused by the nervous system constantly firing off the fight or flight responses, which throws our body completely out of balance and overwhelmed. It is not a surprise that Americans are taking prescription drugs for many of the symptoms I listed above, but are finding little or no relief from chronic medical issues when the underlying problem may be stress related and the prescription drugs are not addressing the true problem. Stress is normal and in healthy doses can be helpful because it can kick us into gear when we realize report cards are due soon and we still have to finish grading a project. However, when stress interferes in our daily lives is when it can become dangerous and causes wear and tear of our body and even make existing problems worse.
Can mindfulness and meditation help reduce stress?
The evidence from research indicates that meditation can help reduce stress (Goyal, Singh, Sibinga, Gould, Rowland-Seymour, et al., 2014). On the other hand, there is also evidence that indicates that meditation may not be as beneficial for everyone with chronic stress, especially those who scored low in dispositional mindfulness (or those who didn’t have positive attitudes towards mindfulness), as compared to more traditional clinical practice, such as cognitive behavioural therapy and relaxation training (Laurent, Laurent, Nelson, Wright & Sanchez, 2014). Nevertheless, mediation and mindfulness practices have been successful for some and some therapists are including meditation practice in their tools to support clients with stress, especially chronic stress.
Though the results from research on the impact of meditation on stress are mixed, it is easy to see that meditation for some provides them the space to discern actual stress from perceived stress. Meditation can provide clarity to our lives by just being still in our demanding daily lives. But, I must warn you that meditating once in a stressful situation doesn’t bring peace and calm to your mind and body, but the cumulative effect of practicing meditation can train the brain to react differently to stress. Instead of the typical stress responses to daily stress, the brain can react in a more productive and focused manner. It is important to highlight that meditation is a practice and that the benefits of meditation may take some time, but with a dedicated practice and gaining more experience the benefits may become more apparent in individuals’ lives. So, don’t expect a miracle the first time you meditate, but do start practicing. The development of a practice that is personal, meaningful, and consistent is key in order to see the changes in ourselves and the world around us.
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Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E. M. S, Gould, N. F., Rowland-Seymour, A., Sharma, R., Berger, Z., Sleicher, D., Maron, D. D., Shihab, H. M., Ranasinghe, P. D., Linn, S., Saha, S., Bass, E. B., & Haythornthwaite, J. A. (2014). Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: A systematic review and meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Medicine, 174(3), 357–368. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
Laurent, H., Laurent, S., Nelson, B., Wright, D., & De Araujo Sanchez, M. A. (2014). Dispositional mindfulness moderates the effect of a brief mindfulness induction on physiological stress responses. Mindfulness, 6, 1192-1200 . doi: 10.1007/s12671-014-0377-0.