Meditation, cortisol and stress

One of the great successes of meditation research is the evidence that both medicalised mindfulness and belief-based methods such as shamatha and tonglen reduce the physiological effects of stress, such as high cortisol and elevated blood pressure levels.

Both scientific and belief based meditation reduce stress levels

There are several symptoms connected with abnormally high stress levels. These include pain, tiredness, headaches and dizziness, elevated levels of blood pressure, muscle tension and related problems such as jaw clenching and a wide range of issues linked to the stomach and digestive systems. Stress is quite a complicated concept, with many triggers related to emotional,  psychological or physiological states. Circumstances in our day-to-day lives such as overwork,  relationship problems and financial worries can create conditions where higher stress levels are much more likely. Ironically, stress can be self-perpetuating, where for example, worries over one problem can lead to poor health, triggering further long-term stress and anxiety.

Meditation’s potential to reduce stress’s physiological and psychological symptoms, such as high blood pressure, has been known about for more than 50 years.  So it’s not a surprise to find scientific studies demonstrating that regular meditation correlates with lower levels of damaging chemicals created by stress reactions, like cortisol.  Because of its relationship with stress, cortisol is called the ‘stress hormone’, and it plays a vital role in the human stress response.  Although cortisol has some critical functions, such as regulating blood sugar levels and metabolic states, too much in the blood can be a serious health problem.  Among the symptoms of high cortisol levels include weight gain, thinning skin and a tendency to bruise easily, problems concentrating and high blood pressure.  Although all of the symptoms can be severe, elevated blood pressure levels for prolonged periods is particularly dangerous.

Details of several scientific experiments linking meditation to lower levels of cortisol have been published in recent decades.  Convincing data illustrates both medicalised mindfulness and Buddhist meditation methods can lower cortisol levels in the blood; however, reliable comparative data are scarce. The point is that most of these studies show that following meditation, serum cortisol levels are significantly lower.  As you might expect, meditation also mediates blood pressure and breathing, but we still don’t know how these relationships work. Does meditation lower all of these physiological signs of stress, or just one leading to a knock-on effect, or does the cause lie elsewhere?

There are several exciting experiments in published journals, Kees Blase and Adeline van Waning explored heart rate variability, cortisol and attention focus during shamatha quiescence meditation in 2019. They found that six weeks of practice in methods including tonglen and loving-kindness reduced stress and increased attention focus. The experiment was written up in the Applied Psychophysiology and Biofeedback journal. The take-away message is that regular meditation is correlated with lower levels of stress; the bonus is that all positive brain functions impeded by stress will experience a boost as well.

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Can meditation get rid of my stress?

Can meditation reduce feelings of stress and anxiety? It depends if you are looking for a short term treatment or a permanent solution.

Who best undersdtands your stress?

This is quite a common question asked of meditation teachers; it reveals that we have uncertainty about our ability to improve our own mental health. Stress is a complex and often bewildering area of psychology. Even today, definitions of stress, underlying cognitive mechanisms and the effects of stress are still not fully understood. So I will begin this short discussion by making a few general points. The traditional view from psychology is that stress is neutral (not necessarily negative), meaning that it is nonspecific and universal (we can all suffer from it).  But each of us might react to stress in different ways. Psychology defines stress as the result of demands on the mind, body or emotions. How each of us deals with the causes of stress (stressors) is related to a wide range of factors based on our own personality, life experience and social conditions. In worst-case scenarios, stress can lead to severe physical and psychological problems. Stress can be located in four categories: i) major catastrophes, ii) significant life events, iii) micro stressors or daily challenges and iv)  background stress. While we don’t react to different categories of stress in the same way, major stress causes are more likely to have serious health consequences. And minor or ambient stress is a less common cause of severe health problems. A final clarification before we start to talk about stress and meditation; our perception of stressors plays a key role in how we cope with life. In general, the less in control we feel about things that happen to us, the more likely we are to be harmed by stress. Traditional meditation places the meditator at the centre of their activity; it gives back responsibility (control) for actions and consequences to the meditator.

Based on these definitions, we can consider the role of meditation in stress management in two ways; the treatment and the cure. Meditation and mindfulness provide some support for reducing the effects of stress. However, the evidence is mixed. Scientific studies that consider the potential of meditation to cure the causes of stress are few and far between; psychology tends to consider symptoms of stress rather than root causes. Conversely, traditional forms of meditation typically create cognitive reorganisations that alter our perspective on life. Rather than merely changing the way we react to stress, these methods allow us to reconsider our relationships with society more generally; leading (potentially) to permanent solutions. Leaving aside major catastrophic events over which we have little control, how we live and think about our lives is linked to how much stress we experience.  Changing how we think and how we feel is a complex and long term project, some people don’t want to challenge underlying causes of stress, they just want to be free of the health problems that stress brings. I’ve been in this position myself; it’s one of the reasons why I started to meditate. But once we gain more control over our mental health, looking for cures rather than treatments becomes natural. Finding a quick fix through medicalised forms of meditation is sometimes necessary, but a permanent or quasi-permanent cessation of health problems linked to stress requires a comprehensive understanding of the human condition.

It is an oversimplification to say that medicalised forms of meditation offer only treatment and not cure. But any health intervention that doesn’t consider the root causes of a problem is unlikely to deliver a long term solution. However, the reductionist model of human consciousness favoured by the psychological sciences is dualistic, its worldview (ontology) separates humans from their environment. By contrast, traditional meditation tends to follow a nondual holistic worldview that sees human mental states in relation to other phenomena. These opposed insights reflect a fundamental difference and one which psychology is only just beginning to consider. Traditional meditation methods aren’t for everybody, but their potential may be vital to understanding the mind and mental health. Therefore if you are thinking about using meditation to help you cope with stress, you might want to consider if you are looking for a cure or a treatment at the outset.

How can meditation improve mental health?

Can meditation really help with Alzheimer’s dementia, depression, anxiety and stress? If so, how?

Should you meditate to improve mental health

This is the big question in meditation research, the short answer is yes, but it depends. It’s important to point out that meditation also protects you against mental illness in several different ways. But before you start your online search for a meditation cushion and some incense, there are a few qualifications you need to be aware of.

Firstly what do we mean by mental health? From a psychological point of view, mental health is a broad term that encompasses almost every functional and structural mental disorder that a human can experience. If you take a look at the current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), you’ll find over 150 conditions listed (I’ve included the main sub-headings and examples in a table below). Most scientific meditation and mindfulness research is linked to one particular condition or group of conditions. Therefore if you are looking for a meditation method to help treat a diagnosed disorder, you must take advice from an expert health care practitioner in that field. The idea that any one meditation or mindfulness method can be used to treat a range of mental health problems has no basis in evidence or anecdote. However, just as a walk in the open air or a visit to the seaside might make people feel happier, meditation can offer general support to many different people.

Lifelong happiness

We now have to consider a second qualification; there are profound differences between spiritual and medicalised (modern) forms of meditation. This is not surprising because traditional meditation seeks to offer a permanent, holistic cure to the more general issues we face in our lives. In contrast, medicalised meditation, at least those methods that have been scientifically validated, focus on treating a particular problem, not finding a solution. Without wishing to oversimplify, we see traditional meditation linked to improved overall mental stability, increased happiness, and subsequent benefits. Medicalised meditation has been developed to address quite specific psychological and physiological issues. Before you start any course of meditation or mindfulness it’s always good to share your goals with your teacher; they should be able to explain technically how the meditation works and what it is likely to do for you.

Resilience is the mental resource to cope with life’s problems; when we have good resilience we are much less likely to develop chronic or acute mental illness. This is probably the area where meditation is most useful, improving mental health and protecting us from illness. There is evidence that even a few weeks of meditation can help, but in all probability, only a lifelong meditation habit can deliver lifelong protection. For example, we know that meditation can create new brain structure in older adults with early stage dementia. So if you begin meditating in your 30s or 40s, you start to build the brain functions and structures to create resilience now and for the future.

Traditionally we associate meditation with happiness and joy. If you find the right teacher and the right method, regular meditation should be a pleasure that will offer a wide range of benefits for your life. Leading you to greater happiness and (probably) improving the quality of life of the people around you.

If you need advice on any particular meditation methods, drop me an email, and I’ll try to point you towards relevant resources.

The current categorisation of mental health disorders

CategoriesExamples
Neurodevelopmental disordersCommunication disorders, stuttering, autism spectrum disorder and Aspergers. Motor disorders, including tic disorders such as Tourette syndrome.
Schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disordersIncludes delusional disorder and catatonia.
Bipolar disordersBipolar I, bipolar II and anxious distress.
Depressive disordersPersistent depressive disorder.
Anxiety disorders  Agoraphobia, panic disorder, social anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorders.
Trauma- and stressor-related disorders  Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), acute stress disorders.
Dissociative disordersDepersonalisation and dissociative identity disorder.
Somatic symptom and related disorders  Chronic pain (inked to certain psychological conditions).
Feeding and eating disordersBinge eating, bulimia nervosa and anorexia nervosa.
Elimination disorders 
Sleep–wake disordersInsomnia, narcolepsy, hypersomnolence, sleep apnea and sleep-related hypoventilation.
Sexual dysfunctionsSexual desire and arousal disorders.
Gender dysphoria 
Disruptive, impulse-control, and conduct disordersPyromania, kleptomania, antisocial personality disorder.
Substance-related and addictive disordersGambling (addiction) disorder and tobacco use disorder.
Neurocognitive disorders  Dementia, major neurocognitive disorder and mild neurocognitive disorder.
Personality disorders 
Paraphilic disordersPedophilic disorder.

Meditating in a time of crisis: survive or thrive?

What are the benefits of long-term meditation?

Meditation in a time of stress
Meditating in a time of stress

As a meditator and a meditation scientist, I have been frequently asked in recent days, what is the best meditation to do right now? This can be a hard question, there are hundreds of different meditation practices. I also need to consider ‘fitness for purpose’, that means balancing the goals and abilities of the meditator with an appropriate method. People generally approach me with two objectives, either boosting their health or working directly with disturbing emotions such as fear and anxiety. Whilst meditation can offer some short term benefits in both cases, stable improvements to mental and physical health are long term projects.

The rush to translate meditation into a modern cure-all, integrated into a materialistic lifestyle has often ignored relevant neuroscience. Radical changes to our mental health are rarely resolved by short term brain training. However, transient changes may be crucial in offering the meditator some stability in challenging moments. I know this to be true for both myself and many of my students. But to take my own case, although short-term meditation allowed me to survive. It was long-term practice that changed my life for the better. The reasons for this can be understood by looking at the science of meditation. In essence, the longer we practise meditation the more profound the changes to brain function and structure are likely to be. While some meditation scientists will tell you that even short periods of meditation lead to ‘brain changes’, they generally fail to mention that reorganisation in the brain’s connections happens all the time. And that these alterations can be positive, negative or neutral in terms of the quality of our life. So up to a point, it is long term practice that holds the potential for sustained benefits.

“Regular nondual compassion meditation transformed my life, it has had the same effect on many others I know personally. Although I started meditation simply to gain some mental stability, the long term results have led to unimaginable changes. “

Stephen Gene Morris

person holding head facing body of water

Using meditation as a short term ‘pick me up’ is a positive thing to do. Your mind (brain) is your own, you are free to use the systems which are right for you. Getting through today is a really important goal. But if you use meditation just to survive, you risk missing the big picture. Long term meditation tends to reveal the underlying problems that cause stress, anxiety and poor health. I still follow the maxim that the only bad meditation is the one you don’t do. But rather like eating fresh fruit and vegetables, if meditation is good for you, you might want to do it regularly.

The essence of meditation, it’s ultimate purpose as far as I’m concerned, is to reduce suffering and lead to greater happiness. Each person has to decide how they want to use brain training. In a time of crisis, survival is a worthy goal, but challenges are part of the human condition. Long term meditation practise enables us to thrive by altering the neural networks that lead to problematic thinking and bad mental habits. Enduring changes help us to thrive even in crisis, reducing suffering no matter what challenges life throws at us.

 

Notes

1Whilst there are many different methods available, my own research supports the use of nondual compassion as an antidote for fear. With regards to boosting health generally, most reliable meditation methods, if undertaken regularly, should contribute small improvements to our health in the short term.

 

How to cope with Coronavirus, fear, you and meditation

Sustained fear and anxiety is the enemy. Use meditation to cope with Coronavirus

Fear, meditation and Coronavirus
Fear is the enemy, how to cope with Coronavirus

From time to time, we are faced with challenges and threats. These can become significant problems to deal with if we get them out of proportion. However, when the danger is global, like climate change or the Covid-19, virus it’s hard to maintain an even keel. Everywhere you look, you will find references to the danger from Coronavirus, even here in Britain where there are (at the time of writing) a relatively small number of cases. The first point to make is that when we are frightened, we make bad decisions, our perspectives become distorted. I don’t suggest that blind optimism is the answer to fear, just pretending that bad things don’t happen. But thousands of years of human experience have shown that brain training systems such as meditation offer great practical help in times of crisis.

pexels-photo-225017.jpeg

My experience as a meditation teacher and scientist converge when it comes to fear. The evidence from cognitive psychology and neuroscience is that sustained periods of fear or stress harm the brain and the body. When we worry or experience stress, our body produces chemicals such as cortisol that help us deal with a short term crisis. When fear or anxiety is prolonged, the effect of these chemicals becomes harmful. There is a considerable body of evidence that supports this basic idea. So when we enter a period of ‘global panic’, how can we establish an appropriate response?

I (and many of the people I taught) came to meditation because of problems with fear and stress. Over the years, I have experienced and seen how compassion-based meditation balances our perception of self and other (intrinsic and extrinsic neural networks)—allowing us to respond to real-life problems in a balanced and sustainable way. Threats to our health are always going to be present; they become more significant as we get older. But building compassion for ourselves and others is one of the most reliable methods for keeping things in perspective. Compassion meditation isn’t merely wishing away stress, it’s a tool to reconfigure our way of understanding the world. So that fear is kept proportionate to risk.

“The most useful health practice I have experienced over my lifetime is the compassionate view. That when I encounter any situation likely to provoke fear, I make the silent wish that no being may suffer; me, you, everybody. It has protected me from anxiety and stress for decades.”

Stephen Gene Morris

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia

#Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of #dementia. If you suffer from moderate or high levels of anxiety act today!

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia
Could anxiety in your middle years make you more vulnerable to dementia

Anxiety in middle age linked to higher risks of dementia

It is no surprise that anxiety at any age is not good for you, anyone that has experienced strong feelings of anxiousness knows how unpleasant they can be. But the recent revelations that there is a proven link between anxiety in middle aged and late onset dementia is shocking news. Details of research published at the BMJ Open website describe how over an interval of a decade, midlife anxiety is linked to increased risk of dementia.

“The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia”

Stephen Gene Morris

smiling man holding woman s left shoulder
Choose happiness, why not?

There are three issues that jump out of the report for me. Firstly that medium and strong forms of anxiety are dangerous, they should carry government health warnings. If you suffer from anxiety don’t let this report worry you further, take it as a sign that it’s time to do something. Secondly I don’t like the ten year interval between the reported anxiety and a diagnosis of dementia. It suggests that day to day living doesn’t return brain function and structure to ‘normal’ after strong bouts of anxiety, we don’t automatically recover from the wear and tear. But on a more positive note the study describes anxiety as a ‘modifiable risk factor’. That means you can probably do something about it!

Anxiety is not the only lifestyle or behavioral factor associated with dementia but the science shows it does matter.  So if you suffer from anxiety what can you do? Firstly take action to roll back the behaviours that lead to medium and strong forms anxiety. As someone who has suffered with this condition I know that is easier said than done, but at least acknowledge that you need to do something. Meditation was the intervention that worked for me, compassionate meditation! It might seems strange I know, but by generating compassion I gradually dissolved almost all of the strong anxiety I had. The main point is to protect yourself from increased risks of developing late stage dementia. Your solution doesn’t have to be linked to meditation, but if you only do one thing today plan to reduce your levels of anxiety.

 

Stephen Gene Morris is a meditation teacher and trained scientist, he has taught meditation to hundreds of students of all ages. If you’d like to attend a class or take part in an online session get in touch.

 

Notes