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.

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