Stress is an unavoidable part of life. In fact, the true definition of the term is that it’s simply the body’s reactions to life’s experiences.
This doesn’t mean that it’s pleasant, however. Stress can keep you from relaxing, getting enough sleep, and enjoying life in general. Furthermore, prolonged or chronic stress can actually be detrimental to your physical health as well as your emotional health.
Contrary to what you might think, what can help with stress is not figuring out how to make it disappear. Instead, it’s about learning how to handle stress — how to navigate its rough waters and come out on the other side intact. Meditation is a fantastic tool for this.
It halts the “fight or flight” response.
The fight or flight or stress response is a survival mechanism that humans acquired thousands of years ago in order to make it out of stressful, life-threatening situations alive. It affects the autonomic nervous system, which is in control of a number of involuntary physical functions like your heartbeat, breathing, and blood pressure.
When the stress response is elicited2, a “cascade of stress hormones … produce well-orchestrated physiological changes,” like elevated blood pressure, quickened breathing, and sweating. Short-term, these changes might not seem significant. However, when they occur again and again in response to life’s stressors, long-term detrimental effects can occur — both physically and mentally.
Meditation slows down fight or flight — or even prevents it altogether. In meditation, you stop, focus, and recenter your thinking, constantly bringing your attention back to the breath when it wanders. This keeps your mind from “snowballing” into worst-case scenarios, seriously impacting your emotional health.
It elicits a relaxation response.
One of the ways meditation combats the fight or flight response is by igniting the relaxation response. This is the opposite involuntary reaction that occurs within the autonomic nervous system. This response calms down physical functions like breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. By eliciting this response, those struggling with stress will have fewer negative physical and mental effects long-term. The relaxation response has been called the “common, functional attribute of transcendental meditation3″.
It helps you drop the idea of “perfection.”
You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to swim.Jon Kabat Zinn
Another way that meditation reduces stress is by promoting acceptance — radical acceptance.
Mindfulness meditation is the ideal form of meditation for radical acceptance. That’s because mindfulness is, at its core, acceptance of reality. It is witnessing, observing, and noticing the world around you and — without trying to change it. With mindfulness, you are simply taking stock and accepting life as it is. You’ll be amazed at how this simple act can essentially “deflate” the stress in your life.