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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Is nondual meditation good for your health?

Despite the health potential of nondual meditation, this is the area of contemplative science that we know the least about.

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The inseparability of self and other; nondual

What is nondual meditation?

Although explanations of nondual meditation are often complex, the broad concept is accessible to all of us because we think in the dual and nondual all the time. The human brain has structures that emphasise both the relationship and separation of people and concepts.  So, for example, when you decide to recycle your bottles, you may be thinking about just yourself, or your family, the community or perhaps even the whole world. The focus only on yourself is an example of dualistic thought, but to consider the needs of others and the environment is nondual thinking.  Humans fluctuate between the dual and nondual all of the time; we all carry the potential for greater or lesser nondual thinking. Some forms of meditation can teach us to recognise nondual thoughts and use nonduality systematically. We call the ability to recognise the difference between our dual and nondual thoughts nondual awareness (NDA). Although many meditators claim to have NDA, it is relatively rare and can be simple to spot in a meditation teacher when you know what to look for. With training, NDA gives way to the nondual view (NDV), a more permanent condition where nondual cognitive processes become established as mental states.

Is nonduality good for health?

NDA and the NDV are under-researched in the West, but extensive work has been done in Buddhist spiritual traditions to study, document and explain nondual cognitive processes. However, science indicates abnormal levels of dualistic thinking are likely to be linked to many health problems. Put simply, if your only concern is for yourself and your short term needs, this can give rise to several physical and mental health problems. It will impact how you relate to people and society more generally. We associate NDA with a balanced outlook on life, where the wellbeing of self and others are equally important. Some anecdotal evidence supports the theory that nondual meditators live longer, happier lives.

How does it work?

From a scientific perspective, we know that there are brain networks that regulate our interaction with others. It seems highly likely that we humans have developed to care both for ourselves and those around us. Society would not function without significant levels of cooperation between individuals. The phenomenon of super-rich individuals uncaring for the needs of those around them is, in terms of human evolution, a relatively recent phenomenon. Attending to those brain networks that allow us to care for ourselves and others may represent the ‘natural state’ of being human, and one where we can be happiest and healthiest.

How to find out more

This explanation is only the briefest introduction and hasn’t dealt with key concepts such as integrating the dual and nondual and the correlations between brain networks. Modern psychological research barely recognises NDA and although all Buddhist meditation is either implicitly or explicitly nondual, we have few scientific studies on which to consider these states. Many spiritual texts (perhaps thousands), particularly in the Mahayana, Dzogchen and Mahamudra schools of Buddhism, offer explanations about NDA. But most traditional roads to NDA begin with compassion training.  

Dementia help and advice podcast: how close are we to a cure?

Dementia help and advice podcast. A potential cure for dementia

A cure for dementia?
Claims from Australia that we might be closing in on a cure for dementia

I was tipped off about an Australian documentary that featured a potential cure for different forms of dementia. As unlikely as it seemed I thought I would take a look. The short item was on a regular Sunday night show screened on the Nine Network called 60 Minutes.

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Dementia prevention podcast: how to reduce the risks

There are a number of factors linked to increased risks of declining brain health and even dementia. Get the latest information free by subscribing to; Dementia Help and Advice (DHA)

Dementia prevention podcast: how to reduce the risks
Dementia podcast: how to reduce the risks

Dementia prevention podcast: how to reduce the risks

The first Dementia Help and Advice (DHA) podcast is out now, it explains some of the leading factors linked with brain health, many correlated with increased/decreased risks of developing dementia.  Cognitive decline begins before 30 and signs are normally evident by the age of 45, lifestyle and environmental factors are regarded as having an influential role to play in maintaining a healthy brain.

 

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