Let’s talk about stress. We all have it and in many cases stress is making our lives unmanageable. Stress brings on tension, headaches, weight gain, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure, increases heart rate and can make life feel miserable on a daily basis. With our world today it seems unlikely that life situations will soon be changing in much of a way that stress is alleviated so the questions becomes what can YOU do about your stress? Live with it? Or reduce it?
Not all stress is bad for us. “When stress is within your comfort zone, it can help you to stay focused, energetic, and alert. In emergency situations, stress can save your life—giving you extra strength to defend yourself, for example, or spurring you to slam on the brakes to avoid an accident. Stress can also help you rise to meet challenges. Stress is what keeps you on your toes during a presentation at work, sharpens your concentration when you’re attempting the game-winning free throw, or drives you to study for an exam when you’d rather be watching TV. But beyond your comfort zone, stress stops being helpful and can start causing major damage to your mind and body.” http://www.helpguide.org/articles/stress/stress-symptoms-causes-and-effects.htm
Stress is a natural function of the limbic system otherwise known as your lizard brain. Stress is the precursor to “fight or flight” mode and millions of years ago stress was used to insure survival. Feeling threatened meant we may have to launch into “fight or flight” and our bodies are preparing us to do so. When we become stressed our bodies immediately release acid into our stomachs to shut down digestion. Acid is also released into our skin so we don’t taste as good to that Saber Tooth Tiger that’s chasing us. Adrenaline and cortisol are released to provide strength and energy (these same chemicals allow us to lift a car off of a child). So these responses were at one time very adaptive. They allowed us to respond quickly to threatening situations and to survive. The problem is that this system which was once adaptive has become maladaptive and although we are no longer being chased by dinosaurs, our bodies respond to stress the same way regardless of the kind of threat. Additionally we rarely ever actually launch into Fight or Flight so there is no where for those chemicals to go, there is no release. This is way we are wound so tight by the end of the day. Most of our “threats” today are not life-threatening, they are work related, family, emails, finances, traffic, relationships. Still these stressors cause the chemicals in our bodies to build up and we need a release. Many people find release at the gym, yoga, and other healthy ways to burn off the stress chemicals. Others turn to drugs and alcohol and other unhealthy behaviors.
But wouldn’t it be nice if we could find a way to reduce those stress chemicals from accruing in the first place and not have to wait until the end of the day and run 20 miles just to keep from losing our minds? What if I told you that there was a way to not only reduce those chemicals from producing in your brain but you can actually increase the release of your “happy” chemicals like dopamine and serotonin, GABA and endorphins? Well, I am. You can. With meditation.
Thousands of evidence based studies have been done that confirm what spiritual leaders and ancients have known for centuries. Meditation produces immediate effects when it comes to combatting stress. Twenty minutes of silent or guided meditation 2 times a day can create immediate benefits that help us to reduce stress BEFORE these chemicals ever build up. http://eocinstitute.org/meditation/dhea_gaba_cortisol_hgh_melatonin_serotonin_endorphins/
And all it takes is the commitment to making it happen. It doesn’t take experience, or training (although working with someone experienced in meditation can be very helpful), or any special tools. All it takes is your commitment to daily practice. That’s it. Boom- your stressed is reduced.
Now I know what you’re saying…”I don’t have 20 minutes twice a day to meditate”. Ok, well first I would say you probably do, but I’m not going to argue because it raises my stress. So how about 10 minutes twice a day? Or 5 minutes twice a day? The most important thing about meditation is your commitment to making it happen. It is less important what happens during your meditation than it is that you are doing it. DOING it is the most important part. And there are endless ways to get started.
First, decide that you are going to make a commitment to daily meditation practice and set that intention. Find a time that works for you and if all you can find is 5 minutes a day, then start there. Set an alarm ( I used a kitchen timer for the first 6 months) for 5 minutes and sit however you are comfortable. There is no need to sit an any special position. You may develop a “proper” sitting posture over time but it is not necessary to begin. Be comfortable. Next, sit. Be still and bring your attention to your breath coming in and going out. That’s it. Breathe naturally and keep your concentration on your breath. Allow your mind do whatever it does and when you notice your mind has begun making a shopping list or thinking about what to have for dinner simply acknowledge the thought and gently return your attention to your breath. A common misconception about meditation is that our minds are supposed to clear, get quiet and stop. This may be possible after an extended time of daily practice but for most people it is not. Our minds wander constantly and that’s ok, that is just what minds do. Be aware of judgment. We tend to judge ourselves before, during and after meditation. Your mind may tell you all kinds of things like: “ I’m bored”, “I’m uncomfortable”, “I don’t know what Im doing”. It’s ok, do it anyway. Your mind may tell you to stop 3 minutes in, it’s ok, keep going. What you will learn is that it is possible to have thoughts and then let them go. It is possible to be centered and relaxed even when the mind is chattering away. We can observe thoughts and not attach to them or judge them. The average person has between 60,000 and 80,000 thoughts a day. Be easy with yourself and adopt a gentle attitude of curiosity. “ Hmmm …my mind is saying this? Interesting”…then bring attention gently back to the breath. It’s all good.
There is a vast about of information on the web about different meditation practices. There are guided meditations, mindfulness meditations, Buddhist meditations, mystic meditations traditional faith meditations, Mantra meditations, Vipassana, Zen, Vedic, Transcendental, the list goes on. Don’t get too caught up in finding the “right” one. There is no “right” one. There is no right or wrong way to meditate. Begin with what feels right to you. Keep it simple. Lighting a candle and burning some incense may increase your enjoyment and concentration but it is not necessary. I have developed my own practice over a period of about 3 years and I consider it to be one of the most important aspects to my spiritual program and my way of life. Meditation has influenced every part of my life for the better. Sometimes my practice feels on point and sometimes I’m all over the place, but the results I see in my daily life are undeniable.
One final suggestion. Keep your meditation practice sacred. Once you find what works for you don’t share it with the world. It’s yours; treasure it, nurture it and allow it to grow. The benefits of meditation are limitless.