"Peace comes from within. Do not seek it without." — the Buddha
Stress hurts. A lot.
Stress also happens to be a normal part of our everyday life that we simply cannot escape. Telling it to go away simply does not work.
Anxiety, fatigue, and headaches. These common symptoms are often related to stress, especially when we compound its influence – daily, weekly, and monthly. Or, maybe even over years.
But what a lot of people do not know is that stress can be one of the underlying or magnifying causes of some pretty serious diseases. For example, stress can play a role in gastrointestinal problems, asthma, Alzheimer's disease, heart disease, depression, and, yes ... even cancer.
Conversely, managing stress can lead to preventing or delaying the onset of many of these diseases and conditions.
The Physiology of Stress
What does stress do to us at a physiological level? Essentially it plays havoc with the biochemicals that help our nervous, immune, and hormonal systems communicate.
For example, we have all heard about the "fight-or-flight" response. We see it in the eyes of a stray cat the moment it spots a particularly mean-looking dog. We see a response from the same source – albeit, with the opposite emotion – in the eyes of the dog.
The sight of impending danger (or an appetizing prey) activates the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system, releasing the hormones adrenaline and norepinephrine, and messaging the brain to get ready to flee – or stand and fight.
This type of stress is normal and much needed to protect us in times of danger. It dramatically channelizes energy at levels that could sometimes appear almost superhuman.
Here is the problem. Once it's done, the sympathetic nervous system is supposed to turn off and hand over guard to its "rest-and-restore" counterpart, the parasympathetic nervous system. In a body exposed to constant stress, it doesn't.
Our lives have become increasingly complex. Uncertainties and fear dominate our days causing us to be in a chronic state of fight-or-flight. Our bodies do not get an opportunity to normalize, leading to a hyper-physiological state that leads to all kinds of health issues.
Conditions Caused by Stress
So, how does stress cause health conditions and disease? Here are some examples:
- Alzheimer's Disease: Heightened cortisol levels – induced by stress – make it 2-3 fold more likely for a person to develop Alzheimer's disease.
- Cancer: The growth of cancers is connected to neurochemical, immunological, and hormonal function – all of which are influenced by stress. Additionally, stress can cause inflammation, which is one of the ten hallmarks of cancer.
- Cardiovascular Disease: Acute stress triggered by physical or emotional trauma can result in sudden cardiac events such as heart attacks. Chronic stress has a long-term effect on cardiovascular disease by contributing to inflammation and obesity.
- Diabetes: Stress is known to raise blood sugar levels – diabetes patients need to manage stress as part of their disease management routine. Also, diabetes is linked to obesity, which in turn, is connected to stress.
- Obesity: Scientists have shown that visceral obesity can represent a non-optimal physiological adaptation to stress. Stress causes obesity, and vice-versa.
Meditation and Stress
Clearly, eliminating stress should be a top priority in our lives, right? But for most of us, our pile of stress mounts faster than our ability to eliminate it – causing us to surrender. However, there are ways to intervene – meditation is one of them.
Meditation teaches us to change our intrinsic view of stress. Knowing that we cannot quite get rid of it, meditation gives us the tools that help us control its intensity and its downstream consequences on our health.
There are many ways to implement meditation in our lives. An example is the "relaxation response" technique that is a daily 10-20 minute exercise routine where you keep repeating and focus on the same word (e.g., "Om"). Doing this can elevate our mood, reduce blood pressure, and change our perception of stress. This method has been accepted as an adjunct therapy for patients dealing with diseases ranging from cancer to AIDS.
Are the benefits of meditation provable? Well, studying the benefits of meditation is not a simple task, because it is hard to develop an experimental design that measures such an experiential concept open to individual interpretation. However, a meta-analysis study from Johns Hopkins picked out 47 out of 19,000 meditation studies that met their scientific study criteria. These studies showed that meditation can actually help ease anxiety, depression, and pain.
When Do I Start?
Are you ready to make meditation a part of your life? Or do you simply not have the time? If so, remember Saint Francis de Sales quote, "Half an hour's meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed." The time to start is now.
To help you along the way, I have created a friend for you – a beautiful meditation and yoga timer for iOS, Samsara. It is a simple, focused, and minimalist – the perfect companion to stand by you in your daily journey to find inner peace.