Meditation: Stress is a killer but we can stop it. Here’s how…

The latest figures from the Health and Safety Executive – the Government agency responsible for keeping us safe at work – show that in 2009/10:

An estimated 1.2 million people said they were suffering from an illness caused or made worse by their work. Of these, 500,000 were new illnesses occurring in-year.

Stress has become the most common cause of long-term sickness absence for both manual and non-manual employees, according to the CIPD/Simplyhealth Absence Management survey.
-CIPD Survey October 2011

According to self reports, consistently stress is the second most commonly reported work related illness
– Labour Force Survey.

In 2009/10, 435,000 experienced stress caused or aggravated by their work
-Labour Force Survey

In our modern day lives though it may not be documented as such, the biggest cause of premature death is stress.  Stress in itself is not a killer however, it is responsible for inducing a number of chronic illnesses in the human body which we are now only just coming to understand.  Put in simple terms, when we experience stress at high levels, the organs in our body responsible for looking after our long-term survival can become damaged. In our daily lives, we encounter many internal and external stressors, and if we fail to discharge our response to stress through physical activity (such as the well-known “fight” of our ancestors, or more enjoyable activites today), we may become chronically stressed.

A sustained high level of cortisol destroys healthy muscles, bones, and cells, suppresses the immune system, impairs digestion, and weakens endocrine function. While the stress response is extremely useful as a survival mechanism, it is equally detrimental if invoked when not needed for survival, or chronically invoked. Therefore, it is vitally important that we activate the sympathetic nervous system (the branch of the nervous system responsible for kicking the body into fight or flight mode), only when there is real danger, or a need for physical activity, when we can discharge its effects through appropriate action. The destructive effects of chronic stress put people at greater risk of chronic disease and premature death.

Ok. Stress is bad so what do we do about it?

Although asana practice is a great way of relieving stress in the short term, our most powerful form of defence for stress is in retraining the way our body and mind react to stressful situations.  This means changing our behaviour patters and research has proven that meditation holds the key to breaking cycles of negativity. Through our thoughts and our actions, we are continually recording patterns on ourselves. Patanjali shows us that we have the choice of reinforcing old patterns and, thus, repeating the same behaviours, or creating new patterns and changing our behaviour. By choosing to focus the mind, we can end the distractions that cause the mind to be agitated. An agitated state of mind calls up unconscious tendencies associated with the stress response, while a focused mind evokes patterns associated with the parasympathetic nervous system, rest and regeneration response.

Each time we consciously focus the mind, ending a disturbance, we are reprogramming ourselves. Patanjali calls this process nirodah parinama. When we do this continually, a new pattern emerges, the old pattern recedes, and we experience the calm flow of transformation. Because transformation is a journey inward, the old pattern being replaced is called the vyutthana (externalisation) samskara.

One of the big subjects I’ll be blogging about.

Getting started with meditation

A brilliant book to get started with meditation is Matthew Johnstone’s beautifully illustrated “Quiet the Mind” available from Amazon and most book stores.

In the meantime, here’s a little exercise to get you started, find a comfy corner on your bed, light a candle, sit cross legged with your back supported and link your fingers together, pressing the ends of your thumbs into each other and listen/watch this video.  It’s beautiful. Thank you Cosmic Spirit!

The proof that meditation works

A study from Wisconsin University backs up this theory. Richard J. Davidson, PhD, Director of the Laboratory for Affective Neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin, and other researchers conducted a randomised controlled study to determine the effects of an eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation on the brain. Brain electrical activity was measured in a group of 25 participants before the eight-week training, at the end of the training, and four months later. A control group of 16 non-meditators was also tested. The study reported significant increases after eight weeks in left-sided frontal activation in the brains of the meditators, as compared with the control group. The left side of the frontal cortex is associated with positive feelings such as joy, happiness, compassion, and lower levels of anxiety. After 16 weeks, the shift in brain activity remained.

There was also a significant reduction in self-reported experience of anxiety among the meditators after the eight- week training, and this state of reduced anxiety persisted four months later. There was no change in anxiety level for the control group. These results (increased positive feelings and decreased negative feelings) would likely correlate with less frequent activation of the sympathetic nervous system’s stress response. This study is a good example of how the process of repetition in meditation practice can create meaningful change.