Updated January 2020

Stress. It’s something that everyone deals with in their lives, but too much of it can be very unhealthy. It can lead to heart disease, insomnia, high blood pressure, and more.

“The stress response, in and of itself, is not a bad thing,” explained Dr. Darshan Mehta, Medical Director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital. “It was important for our survival as the human species. If there was an imminent danger in front of us, we were able to muster up resources in a short amount of time. This became known as the fight or flight response.”

“Over the past 40 years, we’ve learned that when the stress response is chronically activated, the consequences are contributing factors to a whole host of conditions, such as hypertension, respiratory conditions like asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease,” he stipulated. Patients managing chronic illnesses, such as blood clots, are especially at risk for being stressed and anxious. They are often balancing the responsibilities of their jobs and families, while also trying to manage their disease.

So how do people manage stress? For many, meditation and mindfulness are the answer.

“There have been a lot of studies done on mindfulness and stress,” remarked Jonathan Greenberg, PhD, a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Lazar Lab at the Department of Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School. The lab where Dr. Greenberg works studies the impact of yoga and meditation on brain structure and function, as well as cognitive performance. “One of the most well-documented effects of mindfulness meditation is that it reduces stress. The most well-known and widely used form of mindfulness intervention is called ‘mindfulness-based stress reduction.’”

Meditation and Mindfulness Magic

Meditation and mindfulness have been found to be very beneficial for those who practice. Mindfulness is when participants “live in the moment” and are aware of how they’re feeling emotionally and physically and what they’re thinking. It’s a way of living, whereas meditation involves practitioners taking time out of their day to practice.

Both methods can affect how the body responds to stressful situations and can even change how the brain develops.

“Mindfulness is typically associated with all of the biological aspects of stress reduction, such as a slower breathing rate and lower blood pressure,” explained Dr. Greenberg. “It also corresponds with brain changes that we see. The amygdala (which is involved with emotional processing, fear, threat, and anxiety) is one example. When we’re afraid, the amygdala is overactivated. Individuals undergoing mindfulness training have been shown to have reduced amygdala activity when confronted with stressors. They have also been shown to return more quickly to baseline. If something stressful occurs, your amygdala activity goes up because you’re very stressed, but the amygdala activity returns to its former relaxed state quicker in those attending mindfulness training.”

“One of the studies in our lab has shown that reductions in grey matter density in the amygdala following mindfulness training correlate with reductions in stress. That means that the more people reduced their stress, the smaller their amygdala became,” Dr. Greenberg continued, explaining the effects that mindfulness and meditation can have on the brain.

“One of the main things related to mindfulness training is improvement in emotional regulation, meaning that you’re better able to regulate your emotions. Because you practice noticing what you feel and what you think, you’re better able to nip the emotion in the bud. So once the stress begins, you realize it really quickly and are able to regulate it and prevent it from escalating into a full-blown stressful reaction.”

“Fight or Flight” vs. “The Relaxation Response”

Stress is an evolutionary mechanism that developed to help keep people safe. When the brain perceives a “threat,” the central nervous system triggers the body’s “fight or flight” response. The hypothalamus then releases adrenaline and cortisol  to prepare the body to either fight the threat or run away from it. This response is helpful when people are facing life-threatening situations, but many people experience this response in reaction to everyday, harmless “threats,” such as long lines, traffic, or public speaking.

Chronic stress develops when the body stays in this state of “fight or flight” and the central nervous system doesn’t return to its normal levels. Meditation and mindfulness help to combat this by triggering the relaxation response.

“The relaxation response was a term that Dr. Herbert Benson coined. He was one of the thought leaders in the field,” Dr. Mehta explained. “It’s this counter-stress physiology that can mitigate the negative effects of the stress response, when it is chronically activated.”

The relaxation response affects the body on an epigenetic level and a physical level. “As a clinician, I like to think of three dimensions that the relaxation response would affect,” said Dr. Mehta, exploring the ways that the relaxation response can help patients coping with chronic illness. “One, it affects the manifestation of symptoms, such as fatigue,
sleep disturbances, and pain. We know that people can control how they experience these symptoms through eliciting the relaxation response. The second is disease progression. For example, we know that the chronic stress response can lead to the progression of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or vascular disease. The relaxation response can help combat this progression. The third dimension is through managing the condition.”

Patients experiencing stress are less likely to manage their own health and can experience trouble with self-care tasks, such as taking their medication properly, getting enough exercise, and eating a healthy diet. Using the relaxation response to combat stress can help patients better cope with their health problems.

Working Meditation into Your Life

Could you use some stress reduction in your life?

Give meditation and mindfulness a try. While there is no right “dose” of meditation, Dr. Mehta recommends that people try to practice 10-20 minutes of meditation daily. “It’s like brushing your teeth – it should be an activity of daily living,” he explained.

He also recommends that bpeople find a group to participate in. “I think having guidance is important, just like any skillful practice,” he said. “Be persistent,” encouraged Dr. Greenberg, offering advice similar to Dr. Mehta’s. “Try to link it to something that you routinely do every day. It also helps to attend classes, or do it in a group session to help you keep it
active in your mind.” There are also meditation apps on smartphones available for download.

Mindfulness classes and meditation groups are available in cities across North America. More and more, clinicians are adopting it as a secondary form of treatment to complement medical therapies. Check with your local hospital or your primary care provider for recommendations.