Stress Management, Meditation, Mindfulness Introduction

Stress damages your life. It can lead to anxiety, depression, and substance abuse. It can increase your risk of disease and can even damage your DNA. Learning to reduce your stress is one of the important coping skills.

Table of Contents

  1. What is Stress?
  2. Stress Symptoms
  3. Stress Management
  4. Mindfulness
  5. Meditation
  6. Proven Benefits of Meditation

What Is Stress?

Stress is what you feel when the demands on you exceed your ability to meet them. External stress (stressors) are the factors that create those demands. Internal stress (tension) is your body’s response to those demands. Internal stress and tension are different names for the same thing. They are often shortened to just - stress. “I feel stressed.”

Levels of Stress

  • Mild stress is when you can meet the demands on you with some effort. Mild stress motivates you to be more productive and creative. It can inspire you.
  • Distress is when the demands exceed your ability to meet them.
  • Chronic stress is the grinding stress that wears you down over the long-term.
  • Serenity is when you feel you can easily meet the demands of life.

A healthy life is a balance between serenity and mild stress. Too much stress is damaging. But too little stress, and you won’t be motivated to create or accomplish.

Low-grade chronic stress often has the biggest consequences. It's the stress that you push to the back of your mind and try to ignore. For example, relationship stress, work or financial stress can all take a toll on your body and mind.

Causes of Stress

External Causes of Stress

  • Work, travel
  • Disagreements, disappointments
  • Financial stress
  • Family and relationships
  • Verbal, emotional, physical, sexual abuse
  • Trauma, injuries, surgery, illness, loss

Internal Causes of Stress

  • Poor self-care, lack of sleep, poor nutrition
  • Rushing from one task to the next
  • Not being in the moment
  • Worries and fears
  • Dwelling on the past
  • Trying to control things you can’t control
  • Perfectionism

Perfectionism and Stress

When you are a perfectionist, you’re hard on yourself. You beat yourself up with every mistake. “I’m a failure. How could I be so stupid. I am flawed.” If you carry on like that, you may start to think, “I am so broken that I can’t be happy. I don’t deserve to be happy.”

Over the long-term, the demands you put on yourself will exceed your ability to meet them. You will feel worn down, anxious and exhausted. Perfectionism may have worked for you at one point. You may have been admired for your attention to detail. But eventually it works against you.

The alternative is to be kind to yourself. Perfectionism is a learned trait. You can unlearn it and relearn a healthier balance. You don’t have to be perfect. You can make mistakes and not beat yourself up, if you challenge your unhealthy beliefs and replace them with healthier thinking.

Stress Symptoms

When you are under stress, your body goes into fight or flight mode and releases adrenaline. Your primitive brain behaves as if you are under physical threat and gets you ready to fight or run. Adrenaline leads to all the stress symptoms.

Physical Symptoms of Stress

  • Tense muscles, tremors, aches and pains
  • Clenched jaw, grinding teeth, TMJ
  • Headaches, neck pain, back pain
  • High blood pressure, chest pain, racing heart, skipped beats
  • Abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation
  • Insomnia
  • Frequent colds, cold sores
  • Low energy, feeling run down

Emotional Symptoms of Stress

  • Difficulty relaxing or quieting your mind
  • Anxiety, worry, feeling overwhelmed
  • Irritability, frustration
  • Low sense of enjoyment
  • Reduced sexual desire
  • Emotional burnout, anxiety, depression

Mental Symptoms of Stress

  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Forgetfulness, disorganized
  • Trouble learning new information
  • Difficulty making decisions, poor judgment
  • Focusing on the negatives and ignoring the positives

Stress Management

There are two kinds of stress. External stress is what happens around you, and internal stress is what you feel. Internal stress is your response to external stress. The two are connected by how you think. Negative thinking turns external stress into internal stress.

If you worry about things you can’t control, if you dwell on disappointments, or hold on to resentments, you will increase your internal stress. If you can experience the same disappointments and uncertainty, and not get caught up in negative thinking, you will be more resilient to stress.

The goal of stress management is to reduce your internal stress by changing how you respond to external stress. The goal of stress management is not to manage your external stress. External stress is mostly unavoidable. If there is anything you can do about your external stress, you’ll see it more clearly and deal with it more effectively when you are relaxed. Knowing how to reduce your internal stress is the key.

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is relaxed awareness. It is the state of being aware and in the moment, instead of wasting energy dwelling on the past or worrying about the future. Mindfulness is a model of how to live life. If you are aware but tense, you are hypervigilant, which makes you inefficient. If you are relaxed but unaware, you are unproductive. Relaxed and aware is the sweet spot, where you can accomplish things, but you are relaxed enough to enjoy life.

This is the ultimate goal of stress management and meditation, to help you become more relaxed, aware, and in the moment. 

How to Meditate

This is a common-sense approach that explains how to meditate step-by-step in plain language.

Meditation, Mindfulness and Mind-Body Relaxation

Stress management is a collection of methods that includes meditation, mindfulness, and relaxation. Although not the same, they have many similarities. For the sake of inclusiveness, it is sometimes easier to refer to them by the single term “mind-body relaxation.”

Proven Benefits of Meditation and Stress Relief

How Stress Damages the Body

Tension causes premature aging of DNA. In one of the most remarkable studies on stress, researchers at the University of California at San Francisco showed that mothers who are under high stress have more damage to their DNA than mothers under low stress. The study compared mothers with chronically ill children to mothers with healthy children.

How did the researchers know that the DNA was prematurely older? The lifespan of a cell is determined by a special strand of DNA called a “telomere” that caps each end of a chromosome. Each time a cell divides, part of the telomere is used up, which makes a telomere act like a molecular countdown clock. When the telomere gets below a certain length, the chromosome becomes unstable and the cell dies. The study showed that the mothers with chronically ill children had significantly shorter telomeres, or older DNA, than their age-matched counterparts.[1]

This explains the diverse effects of stress. If the cells that line your blood vessels age prematurely, you may end up with heart disease. If the cells of your immune system age prematurely, you will be more susceptible to everything from pneumonia to cancer. If the collagen cells that support your face age prematurely, your skin will lose its elasticity and wrinkle. Stress affects your entire body because it ages every cell in your body.

Proven Benefits of Meditation

Meditation helps the body help itself. Every organ and system in the body is affected by stress. It directly or indirectly contributes to most diseases. In this section you will learn about the remarkable connection between tension and disease, and how meditation can help treat and prevent disease.

Meditation reduces the risk of heart disease by 30 percent and reduces deaths due to heart disease by 23 percent. Heart disease is the number one cause of death in the developed world. Mind-body relaxation techniques significantly reduce the risk of high blood pressure, heart attacks, and the risk of fatal heart attacks according to a study in the British Medical Journal.[2] The results were confirmed in a study in the American Journal of Cardiology, which also showed that relaxation increases life expectancy.[3]

Meditation reverses hardening of the arteries. Not only does meditation reduce the risk of heart disease, it actually reverses hardening of the arteries according to a study published in the American Heart Association Journal, Stroke.[4]

Meditation reduces the risk of a depression recurrence by 50 percent. Approximately 10-30 percent of people will suffer at least one episode of depression in their life. Once a person has had an episode of depression, they have a 50 percent chance of having another episode. Mind-body relaxation techniques in conjunction with medication reduce the risk of recurrence of depression significantly more than medication alone.[5]

Meditation is effective in treating and preventing substance abuse. Approximately 10 percent of people suffer from drug and alcohol addiction, which makes addiction more common than diabetes. Numerous studies have shown that mind-body relaxation methods provide long-term improvements in self-esteem and psychological health, and significantly reduces the risk of substance abuse.[6]

Meditation helps treat anxiety and panic attacks. A study at the University of Massachusetts showed that patients who suffered from generalized anxiety or panic disorder felt significantly better after learning mind-body relaxation. The participants found meditation so helpful that they continued to use it for the long-term.[7]

Meditation can strengthen your immune system. One study showed that after just eight weeks of learning how to meditate, participants had a stronger immune system.[8]

Pain Relief and Meditation

Chronic pain is a major cause of depression and addiction. There are two components to pain: physical and psychological pain. The psychological component of pain is the fear or anticipation of more pain. In many cases, the psychological component of pain causes more discomfort than the actual physical pain.[9]

Mind-body relaxation has been medically proven to relieve pain by reducing both the physical and psychological components of pain.[10]

Meditation can supplement conventional medicine for pain relief. A large-scale study reviewed the results of twenty-eight pain studies and concluded that mind-body relaxation methods are an effective supplement to conventional medicine for the treatment of pain due to headaches, chronic low-back pain, and even some cancer pain symptoms.[11]

Meditation Relieves Chronic Pain

One-half of a group of 180 chronic pain patients received a ten-week course in mind-body relaxation in addition to regular pain medication. The results were dramatic. Almost immediately, the relaxation group started to need less pain medication. After fifteen months, they had significantly less pain. Not only did they suffer less pain, but because they had less pain they also suffered less from anxiety and depression than the non-relaxation group.[12]

Meditation Relieves Low Back Pain

Meditation reduces the pain and disability of chronic low-back pain. One study looked at 36 patients with chronic low-back pain. They were randomly divided into two groups. One group received intensive physical therapy, while the other received no physical therapy but an eight-week course in meditation. Both groups were followed for six months.

At the end of the six months, the meditation group had improved just as much as the physical therapy group. Their mobility and lack of pain were similar, even though the meditation group received no physical therapy.[13]

Meditation Relieves Fibromyalgia

Fibromyalgia is a chronic illness that is characterized by pain, fatigue, and sleep disturbance. It sometimes occurs together with chronic fatigue syndrome. Fibromyalgia has traditionally been difficult to treat because the symptoms set up a cycle, where pain causes sleep disturbance and poor sleep causes pain.

One study looked at 77 fibromyalgia patients and treated them with a ten-week course in meditation. Amazingly, 51 percent of the patients experienced moderate to marked improvement in their symptoms. That is virtually unheard of in most treatments of fibromyalgia.[14]

References

  1. Epel, E. S., Blackburn, E. H., Lin, J., Dhabhar, F. S., et al., Accelerated telomere shortening in response to life stress. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2004. 101(49): p. 17312-5. 534658.
  2. Patel, C., Marmot, M. G., Terry, D. J., Carruthers, M., et al., Trial of relaxation in reducing coronary risk: four year follow up. Br Med J (Clin Res Ed), 1985. 290(6475): p. 1103-6. 1418743.
  3. Schneider, R. H., Alexander, C. N., Staggers, F., Rainforth, M., et al., Long-term effects of stress reduction on mortality in persons > or = 55 years of age with systemic hypertension. Am J Cardiol, 2005. 95(9): p. 1060-4. 1482831.
  4. Castillo-Richmond, A., Schneider, R. H., Alexander, C. N., Cook, R., et al., Effects of stress reduction on carotid atherosclerosis in hypertensive African Americans. Stroke, 2000. 31(3): p. 568-73.
  5. Ma, S. H., & Teasdale, J. D., Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: replication and exploration of differential relapse prevention effects. J Consult Clin Psychol, 2004. 72(1): p. 31-40.
  6. Gelderloos, P., Walton, K. G., Orme-Johnson, D. W., & Alexander, C. N., Effectiveness of the Transcendental Meditation program in preventing and treating substance misuse: a review. Int J Addict, 1991. 26(3): p. 293-325.
  7. Kabat-Zinn, J., Massion, A. O., Kristeller, J., Peterson, L. G., et al., Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders. Am J Psychiatry, 1992. 149(7): p. 936-43.
  8. Davidson, R. J., Kabat-Zinn, J., Schumacher, J., Rosenkranz, M., et al., Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med, 2003. 65(4): p. 564-70.
  9. Berns, G. S., Chappelow, J., Cekic, M., Zink, C. F., et al., Neurobiological substrates of dread. Science, 2006. 312(5774): p. 754-8. 1820741.
  10. Harte, J. L., Eifert, G. H., & Smith, R., The effects of running and meditation on beta-endorphin, corticotropin-releasing hormone and cortisol in plasma, and on mood. Biol Psychol, 1995. 40(3): p. 251-65.
  11. Astin, J. A., Shapiro, S. L., Eisenberg, D. M., & Forys, K. L., Mind-body medicine: state of the science, implications for practice. J Am Board Fam Pract, 2003. 16(2): p. 131-47.
  12. Kabat-Zinn, J., Lipworth, L., & Burney, R., The clinical use of mindfulness meditation for the self-regulation of chronic pain. J Behav Med, 1985. 8(2): p. 163-90.
  13. Mehling, W. E., Hamel, K. A., Acree, M., Byl, N., et al., Randomized, controlled trial of breath therapy for patients with chronic low-back pain. Altern Ther Health Med, 2005. 11(4): p. 44-52.
  14. Kaplan, K. H., Goldenberg, D. L., & Galvin-Nadeau, M., The impact of a meditation-based stress reduction program on fibromyalgia. Gen Hosp Psychiatry, 1993. 15(5): p. 284-9.

 

Last Modified: September 10, 2018