We weren’t designed for the modern world. Whenever we feel threatened, our brains prepare our bodies for fight or flight. Cortisol floods the body, our blood pressure climbs, and more blood goes to large muscles, so that we can run away or pick up a stick to defend ourselves.
The problem is that in today’s world, this fight-or-flight response is triggered by angry emails, bad traffic, or tense meetings at work. Fighting and running won’t help. Instead, we need to think logically and creatively so that we can come up with better ways of managing work and getting along with our colleagues. But since our brains bypass higher cognitive functions in fight-or-flight mode, we’re no good at creative and logical thinking in these situations. Instead, we make snap judgments and engage in simplistic black-and-white thinking, and we make things worse.
And the threats don’t go away. We get one demanding email after another, traffic doesn’t improve, and we get one difficult assignment after another. We get stuck in fight-or-flight mode. And that means we don’t get any downtime to recover. The stress and the lack of rest devastates our bodies, making us vulnerable to a terrifying array of stress-related illnesses: high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, addiction, clogged arteries, obesity– and the list goes on.
To cope better, we need to get better at managing our stress response. We need to find ways to realize that we are in fight-or-flight mode, to calm ourselves down, and to become less prone to fall into this mode in the first place. Meditation and mindfulness practice is helpful here.
Tons of research is being done on mindfulness and stress management these days, and the results so far are promising. In many studies, mindfulness-based stress reduction practice (MBSR) increased wellbeing and reduced stress.
How? Mindfulness practice seems to reduce the activity of the amygdala, which means that we become more resistant to stress. More practice has a larger effect, and ongoing practice seems to be needed for lasting results. But while more practice is better, we don’t have to become master meditators. Researchers saw a significant effect after just 30 hours of MBSR, and other studies revealed similar results from other types of mindfulness training.
Some specific examples from well-designed studies:
- Subjects reported significant decreases in daily hassles and psychological distress (here)
- Subjects could cut back on their blood pressure medication after they began relaxation practice (here)
- Subjects with anxiety disorder reported less stress reactivity and their brain scans showed lowered activity in the amygdala (here)
- Subjects showed less activity in the amygdala in response to upsetting pictures (here and here)
- Zen students could endure more pain than controls could, and their brain scans showed less of a stress reaction (here)
- Subjects who had been on a three-month meditation retreat reported less anxiety and increased wellbeing even months after the retreat, and they also performed better on impulse control tests (here)
How does it work? There seems to be a few important factors:
- Meditation teaches us to pay attention. That makes us more likely to notice that we are reacting to something, and it gives us a chance to counter that reaction.
- Meditation provides techniques for calming ourselves down. The most basic one is breath control – taking slow deep breaths in a stressful situation.
- Each meditation session calms us down, returning us to a calmer baseline, further from the trigger point.
People are selling mindfulness these days, so there’s a lot of hype. More research needs to be done: What sort of meditation works best, how much do we need to do, and how large is the effect? Is a meditation teacher required?
And meditation isn’t a miracle cure or a quick fix. In the blood pressure study above, for example, some people could cut back on their blood pressure meditations once they were meditating. But some people’s blood pressure remained high, and nobody was able to stop the meds altogether.
My own practice helps me feel better. I seem to manage stress better in the moment and it has also made me less reactive and better able to recover. But there are plenty of times when my body suddenly tenses up, my heart beats faster, and I feel my hands reaching for that stick.
Hey, at least I notice. It’s progress.
The fine print
I’m not an expert in research methodology, so I am relying on those who are to help me sort it all out. The best overview of the research on mindfulness and meditation that I’ve seen is Daniel Goleman and Richard Davidson’s Altered Traits (2017). Most of the research mentioned above is summarized in that book. Another good source is Brown, Creswell and Ryan’s Handbook of mindfulness: theory, research, and practice.
Great summary of how stress response works from Harvard Health Publishing here. The article discusses the blood pressure study mentioned above.