Meditation and Stress
An article by Dr. Chris Jackson, PhD, DOM, and Jenny Moody, AOS, Mind-Body Trans. Psych.
We all experience stressors in our lives as an inherent component of our work-a-day society. Stressors can negatively impact our immune responses through dysregulation of the coordination and communication among the central nervous system (CNS), the endocrine system, and the immune system. When short-term stress activates a sympathetic response, natural killer (NK) cell activity and general immune activity are increased.
However, chronic (long-term) stress reducesimmune function, often leading to chronic inflammation, and negatively affecting metabolic and cognitive function. Chronic stress also increases levels of glucocorticoids (cortisol) via the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. Elevated cortisol may reduce the number of white blood cells (through apoptosis – programmed cell death) and their functionality. Chronic stress-induced cortisol elevation may also reduce the release of cytokines, affecting immune system efficiency. Thus, chronic stress may result in lowered immunity, metabolic syndrome, and a more rapid aging process.
For thousands of years meditation has been part of the human experience. When we focus within we turn down the thousands of thoughts that enter our brains consistently throughout the day. The mind, which interprets the thoughts, then has the ability to quiet down as well. In meditation we are able to look inward and quiet the outside world, and all of its stressors. We may acknowledge the sounds and other distractors, but we are not focused on them. The hum of a noise may actually be used to help one focus on a single tone rather than the swirling thoughts that keep circling back around.
We are attempting to find a place of inner peace and seek to attain a quieting of the mind, tapping us into the calming parasympathetic nervous response known as the relaxation response. The more we are able to go inward in meditation, the better we get at easily bringing ourselves back to the breath and natural rhythm of our being. The external environments can disappear and all that is in the moment is one with the source. Some have experiences of weightlessness and feel like they are floating. Others may be continually releasing resistance through their ease of breath and may tend not to feel their bodies. We can feel the effects of meditation holistically (physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually).
In meditation, one may simply focus on breathing, thinking about breathing at first, and then just breathing. You are in the moment, not thinking about the past or future. Physically taking in air, moving oxygen throughout the body with intention, relaxing your cells and giving them the restful period so that they can find their balance. Other forms of meditation include exercise, which gives one the ability to tune into the physical body and transform energy into a more comforting form. Runners are focused on running. Thoughts may come and go, yet attention is given to avoiding stumbling or falling, while simultaneously being aware of the surroundings.
Some may chant mantras while running or exercising so that they do not allow themselves to become distracted by the external environment. Chanting is a way to quiet the mental body. It helps to focus on a positive affirmation or mantra to calm the mind. This also can be done during a sitting meditation. It is a helpful way to come back to the present moment and cultivate a good feeling to stimulate positive reactions in mind body spirit. Chants have been internally and externally spoken for thousands of years by Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and other spiritual or religious groups for an offering or to bring about a certain intention.
All of these practices help us cope with chronic stress may help us rebuild immunity, avoid metabolic syndrome, and slow the aging process.