Updated November 2020

Stress. Everyone deals with it 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 (MGH). “It was important for our survival as the human species. If there was 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 chronically activating the fight-or-flight response can contribute to a host of conditions, such as hypertension, respiratory conditions like asthma, and inflammatory bowel disease,” Dr. Mehta explains. Patients managing chronic illnesses, such as blood clots, are especially at risk for being stressed and anxious. They’re 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 MGH 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.”

Mindfulness, meditation, and your brain

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. Meditation is more of a guided practice that a person takes time out of their day to do. 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 can 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 show reduced amygdala activity when confronted with stressors. If something stressful occurs, your amygdala activity goes up because you’re very stressed, but the amygdala activity returns to its former relaxed state more quickly in those attending mindfulness training.”

“One of the studies in our lab has shown that reductions in gray 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.

“One of the main things related to mindfulness training is improvement of 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 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 hormones like 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 situations such as long lines, traffic, or public speaking.

Chronic stress develops when the body stays in the fight-or-flight state and the central nervous system doesn’t return to its normal levels. Meditation and mindfulness help to combat stress 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’s activated. We know that people can control how they experience certain symptoms—like fatigue and pain—through eliciting the relaxation response. The chronic stress response can also lead to the progression of diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, or vascular disease, but the relaxation response can help combat this progression.”

Working meditation into your Life

Could you use some stress reduction in your life? Give meditation and mindfulness a try. While there’s 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 people either find a mediation group to take part in, or use a smartphone app to get started. “I think having guidance is important, just like any skillful practice,” he said. Like Dr. Mehta, Dr. Greenberg encourages persistence and consistency. “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.”

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.