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The 180 Blog Apr 24, 2020

Back to Basics: Why Meditation is a Medically Proven Vaccine For Chronic Stress

By Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Ph.D.  |   @DrSheilaOWalker

The invisible, unremitting, unpredictable and life-threatening characteristics of the coronavirus pandemic, combined with fragmented, conflicting and inconsistent dosing of frightening information have our world, collectively, living through a traumatic experience. This trauma is compounded by the necessity of physical distancing, compromising access to the most potent form of healing we know of – trusted, supportive and loving human relationships. Collectively, we are living the perfect storm of conditions for chronic stress. As such it’s never been more important to have easy, time-tested tools at our disposal to be our own first responders. Welcome to our conversation about the science of meditation.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

 -Viktor Frankl

In the immediate aftermath of disaster and trauma, “Psychological First Aid” is internationally recognized as the intervention of choice. Its’ five core principles include promoting: 1) A sense of safety; 2) Calming; 3) Self-efficacy and collective efficacy (embodied competence and confidence in ourselves, our families, our students and our communities); 4) Human connectedness; and 5) Hope. Meditation, grounded in cutting-edge science and employed as a virtual oxygen mask for thousands of years, helps us integrate all of these principles into our repertoires so that we may not only survive, but learn, grow and thrive.

With roots in Buddhism over 5,000 years ago – old-school meditation has undergone a metamorphosis. What was once an embodied tool to promote peace, enlightenment and human flourishing is today largely secular. Indeed, practices grounded in breathing are emerging as a powerful force in the field of mind-body medicine, with 14.2% of the U.S. adult population and 5.4% of youth age 4-17 reporting having meditated within the previous year. In its’ myriad forms, meditation presents a formidable antidote to chronic stress, and a way to be our own medicine.

To understand the broad protective effects of meditation practices on our brain and body, let’s start with an overview of the stress response.

Whether real or imagined, stress kicks off a system-wide chain reaction of powerful biochemicals, including cortisol, adrenaline and dopamine. While this neurobiological rocket fuel is adaptive if fleeing from a grizzly bear in the forest (acute stress), it’s decidedly maladaptive when anxiety makes us ruminate about the same menacing bear springing itself upon us at some unknown point in time (chronic stress).

Here’s why. What’s real in the mind is real in the body, and when our systems are locked in on the perceived danger of an imaginary bear, our brains and bodies marinate in the same powerful stress cocktail as if we were actually in the forest, running for our lives. If unbuffered by lifestyle choices and positive experiences, over time the cumulative effect of stress biochemistry can spur wide-spread inflammation in the body and brain which impairs mental health, disrupts emotional well-being and increases risk for chronic disease.

Now for the good news. If chronic stress is a bear, it’s one we can wrestle to the ground – and meditation helps! By activating our breath, we gain objectivity in responding to our squirrely sympathetic nervous system’s alarm to “Fight, Flight, or Freeze.” By interrupting the stress response we take a step back, pause, reflect and label, and recognize that while it might feel like there’s a fire, in truth it’s only smoke. By breaking down an overwhelming event into manageable chunks, our FEAR transforms from “Forget-Everything-and-Run” into “Face-Everything-and-Rise.” In this process, we build neurobiological resilience.

 

Nearly 6,000 peer-reviewed research papers support meditation and mindfulness, time-tested disciplines which have overlapping but distinct effects, as powerful tools in stopping and even reversing the system-wide inflammatory effects of chronic stress. Moreover, regular practice can reduce depression and anxiety, elevate happiness, improve cognitive flexibility, and promote both longevity and brain health by dialing back the cellular clock on aging.

 

The Three Main Categories of Meditation Science

Focused attention, open monitoring and automatic self-transcending all neutralize the stress response by downshifting our sympathetic nervous systems. The calming process starts with closing our eyes (visual processing is taxing on the brain!) and flows through our integrated biological system.

  1. Focused Attention meditations, like Vipassana, are top-down “cognitive” approaches. They focus on slowing or better yet STOPPING our wandering “monkey minds,” as thoughts are viewed as disruptors of calm. Effortful inhibition of thought takes work! Accordingly FA’s electrical signature, as measured by electroencephalogram or EEG, shows activity in the left prefrontal cortex (seat of executive function, attention and self-regulation) – similar to a student engaged in performing a challenging task, like a math problem. Our human minds are prone to thought, like waves on the ocean, and FA aims to willfully settle the waves into a glassy, still surface. 
  2. Open Monitoring (OM) meditations, like Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), are also cognitive-based approaches that require a level of inhibitory effort from our brains. Mindfulness practices accept thought as endemic to the human condition, and believe it is the meaning we attach to our thoughts – not the thoughts themselves – that disrupt calm. The focus is on non-judgmental observation of thoughts, moods and emotions as they come and go. The EEG signature parallels that of the onset of dreams, with activation in brain structures involving sustained attention, in particular the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) whose job is to process and deflect incompatible information. In OM, we are watching waves in the ocean going up and down but observing them with passive, detached emotion.
  3. Automatic Self-Transcending practices, like Transcendental Meditation (TM), hypothesize that there is a vertical direction to the mind; that at its’ depths, the mind is always still and accessible. TM has been effective in contexts from school classrooms to support groups of veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The mantra fades to the background, allowing the mind to transcend thoughts, feelings, chronological time and body sense. The Default Mode Network (DMN, active when our brains are focused on our inner – not outer – lives) associated with abstract thinking, insight and self-reflection is activated, and the EEG signature (“alpha coherence”) is consistent with a term scientists call “restful alertness.” This refers to the simultaneous experience of heightened attention and deep rest. While the waves roll across the ocean, coming and going as storms move across the sky, the stillness below is our essential human state and is available to us whenever we need it.

With That, Let’s Get Started…Here’s How!

While you can try self-guided meditation, if you’re just starting out it might be helpful to use an app like Headspace, Calm, or 10% Happier. For TM go to Tm.org and find a class or teacher that works for you.

Tips for Your Mental Environment:

  • Give yourself permission and time to “be” rather than “do”. That’s it! You deserve this!

Tips for Your Physical Environment:

  • Find a quiet space (use ear plugs and eye masks if needed) and sit comfortably.
  • Start early – first thing in the morning reduces the odds that the day gets away from you!
  • Same time, same place. Make it a routine, form a habit, strengthen that neural connection and build resilience.
  • Include a family member or Zoom a friend. Group meditation can promote a sense of human connection, boost oxytocin (the love hormone), and there may be quantum-level benefits too.
  • While it can be a challenge meditating in the late afternoon, it’s often a game changer. Taking time to slow down can stabilize mood, improve cognition and self-regulation (e.g. you’ll be nicer, smarter and less reactive!) going into the “witching hour” of dinner and bedtime. Give yourself this gift if you can!

Meditation and mindfulness have proven particularly effective in educational settings, as they teach “the power of the pause” early in life. The school-age years are known critical periods in development – phases when environmental context can be neurobiologically “stickier,” an ideal setting for fostering habits that persist for life. Specifically, studies reveal improvement in social-emotional skills, mental, physical and behavioral health, symptoms of ADHD, and an integrative pattern of brain network connectivity that supports each child in reaching their full human potential. For both adults and children, this can catalyze a virtuous cycle of positive emotional contagion, fortifying the type of calm and stabilizing emotional climate in which we know children and adolescents learn best.

As students integrate meditation and mindful breathing practices into their daily routines, they gain competence in mood regulation, improve relationship skills, and reinforce one of the most vital survival skills of all: resilience (The Three Rs).

 

On a closing note, meditation is only partly about what happens while we’re sitting quietly, engaged in our practice. Its real superpower is in using our lungs – portable and available around the clock – to gain access to a safe, clear inner place in our minds, throughout the day. This quick refreshing “dip in the ocean” offers an instant biochemical reset. It allows us to wipe the fog off of our lenses, gain perspective on the world around us, and with intention and balance, define our coping strategy and our narrative.

By modeling resilient behavior, we are leveraging epigenetic malleability to program a sense of competence and confidence into our own wiring, and upgrading the circuitry of those we love. Pause, breathe and reflect. Recognize that the medicine was inside of you all along.


Please give yourself time to write about the things that resonated with you. If intrigued, find a quiet place, put your feet up, close your eyes, and breathe in and out…long, slow breaths. Integrate this new meditative superpower into your Daily Recipe. We look forward to being with you next week when our series shifts to the broad theme of operating from our heart space: the healing power of human connection and love. First up…the extraordinary pharmacological qualities of gratitude.

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