Meditation Part I: Biology of Stress

r-MEDITATION-MADE-SIMPLE-large570I don’t know about you but I’m so relieved that spring has finally come to my neck of the woods. The short days and long nights, not to mention the cold and snow, have left me feeling stressed and depleted. So glad to be seeing so much more sunlight. But that brings with it the urging to go out and do…and do…and do… If you’re like me, as enjoyable as some of those things are, that pace is very stressful. I love all things medical and biological so knowing just what’s going on in my body helps me to be aware and keep things in perspective.

Today’s world is fast paced and full of stress, not exactly what our bodies were designed for. So if we are living in an environment that can lead to chronic stress and fatigue, how do we fight back? Since knowledge is power so one of the first things to do is better understand how your body reacts to stress.

Ask yourself, “Am I relaxed?” Ask this question during random times of the day. Think back to the last time you were cooking or washing dishes, were you relaxed or still brooding over the comment your boss made today? Did the kids send you over the edge this afternoon and are you still thinking about how angry you are as you prepare for bed?

These chronic levels of stress prevent the body from relaxing. The body is designed to function regularly in a state of relaxation, known as the parasympathetic nervous system. This “rest and digest” system is activated when we are in a state of calm, it always our body to heal and digest foods. Our bodies are designed to spend most of its time in this state. The sympathetic nervous system is “the other” system which is activated during times of stress. It reduces the energy spent on digesting food and increases the blood flow to the extremities in preparation for fight or fight. The cardiovascular system is engaged, increasing heart rate, and rate of breathing. The endocrine system is activated releasing adrenaline, noradrenaline, and gluocorticoids in to the body. These systems do not work together, they function in an either or capacity. That being said, if you are not relaxed your body is activating the stress response.

In the short run, activation of the sympathetic nervous system is not damaging to the health of the body. However, over a long period of time these elevated levels of stress can cause damage. Here is an abbreviated list of the health effects that can result from chronic stress: heart disease, kidney failure, fatigue, cell damage, increased lung infections, gastrointestinal problems, decreased immune system, insomnia, and enlarged adrenal glands. Additionally, being genetically predisposed to a disease can lead to increased chances of developing the disease because of a reduced immune system and slower cell regeneration.

With all of these health risks associated with elevated levels of stress, it has become a necessity for people today to make conscious efforts to reduce their stress levels. There are many avenues in which one can reduce stress, but a favorite of mine is meditation. Not only has the practice been around for hundreds of years, but it can be utilized anywhere anytime. You can take five minutes to meditate while sitting at your desk, waiting in the elevator, lunch breaks, or any other time you feel the need arise. Practicing the techniques used in meditation will allow a person to improve their abilities and eventually slip into a meditative state quickly thus effectively utilizing every minute.

With time, meditation can result in overall improvement of health, relaxation, improved sleep, and better gastrointestinal health. Learning to meditation is simple, and can be tailored to fit your needs and preferences. Through practice you will learn what aspects work best for you, and what elements you prefer to include in your regular routine.

Next week: Meditation Part II: Breathing