3 scientific reasons why mindfulness reduces stress
The epidemic of stress disorders we are currently facing in Australia is only increasing. See my post here for more details on the body’s stress response and how meditation induces the relaxation response. In my recent post on mindfulness for kids (see here), I also promised to explain the science of mindfulness and why mindfulness reduces stress.
Here are three (relatively) simple scientific explanations for how mindfulness and meditation help to reduce stress in our brains and our bodies.
1. Deep breathing triggers the relaxation response
High school biology taught us that we all have a sympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our fight or flight response. It involves the release of stress hormones in the body which produce sweat, increased heart rate, increased blood pressure, faster breathing and stickier blood to help us survive in an emergency. We also have a parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for our rest, relaxation and digestion response. When we breathe deeply, making sure that the out-breath is longer than the in-breath, our vagus nerve (which runs from the brain down into the diaphragm) tells our brain to slow down the sympathetic nervous system and turn up the parasympathetic nervous system. As a result, our heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure come down, blood circulation increases again and we feel calmer and more relaxed.
2. Meditation can shrink the brain’s stress centre
Research from the University of Massachusetts now shows that if we meditate every day for at least 8 weeks, the brain actually changes to help us stress less. The amygdala, which is the part of the brain involved in the body’s stress response, shrinks. At the same time, the left pre-frontal cortex becomes thicker. This is the part of the brain that controls awareness, concentration and decision making. It is as though our growing awareness centre tells the brain’s shrinking stress centre to ‘Shush please!’, causing us to stress less severely and less often. Meanwhile our attention and concentration grow stronger and our thoughtful responses increase.
3. Meditation can change the way we experience pain
The other interesting thing is that, in people who meditate, the awareness centre of the brain (the pre-frontal cortex) becomes more distant from the area of the brain that tells us that pain is bad and we should avoid it (the anterior cingulate cortex). This means that people who meditate are less likely to automatically avoid unpleasant or challenging emotions and are in fact more likely to intentionally approach them. The amazing thing about this is that these people are not blocking out their pain, the way drugs do, but they are relating to it differently by not getting carried away by negative thoughts about the pain. This leads to greater emotional resilience. You may have heard meditators say: Meditating is not about changing your life but changing the way you relate to your life. Well, that is the science behind it.
So what does this all mean for us in our daily lives?
Far from the hippy, hug-a-tree rap it has received in the past, meditation is fast becoming an essential element of living in today’s world. Mindful breathing for even 10 minutes a day can actually change your brain to help you live a happier, more relaxed and more fulfilled existence. Most cultures through the ages have known this to be true and have woven meditative practices into their daily rites and rituals. And now, for those sceptics who need more, we have the science to prove it.