If you have never meditated before, you might be wondering why you should start. To understand the full benefits of meditation, we need to discuss stress. The sad truth is that stress is killing us, literally. We are working longer and harder than ever before to make ends meet, and the stress of trying to get ahead is having disastrous consequences on our health. Let’s explore this further by first uncovering the biology of stress.
It might be hard to believe based on what you have heard in the past, but stress actually does have a biological purpose. People have told you your entire life that stress is evil and should be destroyed at all costs. This is only partially true. The truth is that stress does indeed have a purpose. It evolved as a way for animals to escape predators in the wild, and hopefully live until tomorrow.
Let’s imagine you are an antelope on the savanna, and you are just minding your own business, eating the grass, doing whatever it is that antelope do with their free time. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a lion lunges out of the grass and is heading straight for you. There is only one thing to do: run like hell! That is where the stress response comes in.
When the stress response kicks in, the body goes through some changes to help you survive. To start with, the kidney secretes chemicals known as adrenaline and cortisol. These two chemicals create a rapid change in the body that increase the chances of survival.
One of these changes is an increase in breathing rate. This increases the level of oxygen in the blood to operate vital organs and cells. In addition, the heart speeds up to pump blood faster, pushing more blood and carrying the oxygen to the cells. These changes create an animal that is ready to do one of two things: run away or stand and fight, either of which is a life or death situation. When the event is over, the body enters a relief phase and slowly returns back to normal conditions. The same biological response occurs in the human body under stressful conditions, whether it is getting attacked by a mugger with a gun, or just riding a scary roller coaster. While certain stressful situations should be avoided if possible (such as the mugger), these events are not responsible for the health problems associated with stress. Those problems come from chronic stress.
Chronic stress is the type of stress that occurs from day-to-day stressful situations, such as working too much, or dealing with angry customers all day. These activities do not unleash the full stress response. Rather, they only trigger a smaller version of it, without the relief phase at the end. Instead of being let out all at once, the stress chemicals slowly build up in the body, causing the stress effects over a long period of time. For many people, this can be weeks, months, or even years.
Such long term stress causes damage to the body. For example, because of the effect of stress on the heart, chronic stress can increase the risk of cardiovascular disease. During the stress response, the blood pressure also increases, and chronic stress will do the same. In addition, cortisol is an immunosupressant, meaning it decreases the effectiveness of the immune system. Because of this, chronic stress makes the immune system less effective, making us more likely to get sick and take longer to recover from illness. Also, because many people have a tendency to tense up when they are under stress, chronic stress can lead to muscle and joint pains. Even the brain is affected by stress, because cortisol damages brain cells in the hippocampus, which is the region of the brain responsible for long-term memory. Thus, long-term exposure to cortisol can lead to memory problems.
Needless to say, stress should be relieved on a regular basis, ideally every day. Regular stress relief is believed to reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease, lower your blood pressure, improve your immune system, and help you sleep better, among many other health benefits. Frequent stress relief can also improve your emotional well-being by relieving tension and worry from your life. Finally, by relaxing and being happier, you become a more enjoyable person, improving your social life as well. All of these health benefits can be achieved through relaxation techniques such as meditation.
This article is intended to be a basic yet thorough introduction to meditation. This certainly does not cover everything there is to know about meditation, but it will get you started and help you decide if meditation is something you would like to pursue further.