No one likes stress. Everyone wants to be rid of it, and while many try, few actually succeed at eliminating stress from their lives. Stress can be the cause of chronic illnesses like hypertension and cardiovascular disease, and now scientists have discovered that stress has a significant impact on brain function as well.
The pre-frontal cortex is the region of our brain responsible for behaviour, emotions, desire, cognition, and self-control. It is also the area most highly affected by stress. Researchers from prestigious universities across North America agree that stress is causing the size of the pre-frontal cortex to shrink. Yale University scientists found that stress causes a loss of synaptic connections in our brain cells which directly reduces the amount of gray matter found in the pre-frontal cortex. There is no denying it – stress is shrinking our brain.
People are becoming conditioned to accept stress as a normal part of life. Conditions like depression, addiction, and behavioural disorders all spawn from high stress, which could be avoided with the right techniques. Sara Lazar, a Harvard University researcher, created an experiment to determine the effects of meditation on stress. Participants in the study practiced eight weeks of mindful meditation for 27 minutes per day. The results showed measurable structural differences in the brains of those who meditated compared to those who had not.
Twenty-seven minutes of mindful meditation each day proved to have a significant positive effect on stress reduction. Brain scans of research participants showed that meditation increased gray matter density in the hippocampus and pre-frontal cortex, areas of the brain that are responsible for learning and memory. In addition, the brain scans showed a noticeable decrease in gray matter in the amygdala, the region that is more affected by stress and anxiety.
Exercise also offers positive benefits for combating brain shrinkage due to stress. Participating daily in some sort of an exercise routine strengthens white matter in the brain, the nerve fibres that are responsible for establishing connections between cells.
Yale University Stress Center has conducted extensive inquiries into the effects of stress on brain activity and size. Researchers at the center have found that brain shrinkage tends to be more the result of cumulative exposure to extreme stress rather that one specific incident. Unexpected trauma like divorce, loss of a loved one, loss of a job or of a home, seems to have the most effect on the region of the brain that controls emotional awareness, whereas long-term chronic stress has more of an impact on our ability to regulate pleasure and reward, which often leads to addictive behaviours. Chronic stress that occurs day-in and day-out erodes the brain gradually and makes it difficult to cope with any sort of major trauma outside of daily stressors.
Along with meditation and exercise, a good way to avoid the serious detrimental consequences of stress is to build strong social and emotional relationships. Having an outlet to share feelings of helplessness, sadness, or anxiety can release the pressure that stress often brings.
Meditation can seem daunting at first. It’s important to recognize that reaching a higher state of consciousness is not necessary to feel relaxed and enjoy the benefits of meditation. Meditation is about training the brain to focus on one particular thing and to let go of what is outside of its control. For beginners, meditation can be as easy as just focusing on naturally breathing in and out. When the mind wanders, simply refocus on breathing. With practice, the mind will wander less often. There is no consideration of random thoughts, just the focus on the breath and pushing the thoughts away.
Those who are more advanced in the study of meditation may study the patterns and frequency of the random thoughts, not to pass judgement but just to gain awareness of how the thoughts occur. Having a greater understanding of how negative and positive thoughts arise in the mind leads to greater inner balance. Buddhist philosophy doesn’t attach any goals to meditation other than simply being present. Liberating the mind from the external events and the internal emotions that it cannot control has the effect of releasing negative stress and anxiety.
Meditation for Beginners
- Sit or lie comfortably – some people designate themselves a meditation chair.
- Close your eyes.
- Breathe naturally, do not try to control your breathing.
- Focus on the way your body reacts to natural breathing – the movement of your chest and the feeling in your lungs.
- If your mind wanders, simply bring yourself back to your breath.
- Begin with 2-3 minutes and gradually increase as you find your focus improves.