When our prehistoric ancestors faced terrifying situations like a hungry wooly mammoth, their endocrine system would flood their bodies with the hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This “fight-or-flight” stress response provided a burst of energy so they could respond to the dangerous predator.
While wooly mammoths no longer roam the earth, we’re still bombarded with daily “threats” like job demands, family responsibilities, aging parents, money woes or relationship troubles. These issues can not only trigger our fight-or-flight response but also keep it stuck in this mode over a prolonged period.
The Health Effects of Chronic Stress
Chronic stress creates a tremendous strain on our bodies. In fact, a growing body of research shows that stress contributes to a wide range of health issues, including:
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease, including heart rhythm disorders and coronary artery disease
- Digestive conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux and peptic ulcers
- Lack of sleep
Chronic stress can also lead to what we call maladaptive coping — techniques that may temporarily relieve symptoms but don’t resolve the root cause of stress. Some maladaptive coping strategies include excessive drinking, drug abuse, smoking or overeating — all of which can, in turn, cause their own health issues.
Similarly, some people may turn to antianxiety or antidepressant medications. While they are doctor prescribed and can help relieve stress in the short term, they don’t resolve the underlying cause of stress.
But there’s something that can help: mindfulness meditation. It’s one of the most effective stress management techniques currently available — and today there’s science to prove it.
What is Mindfulness Meditation and How Does It Work?
Mindfulness is a nonjudgmental awareness of your mind and body in the present moment. While it’s been around for thousands of years, in the last 40 years, it has been studied a great deal, earning strong support from the medical and scientific communities for its effectiveness in reducing stress.
In mindfulness meditation, you sit quietly and simply observe your thoughts as they enter your mind. You don’t get involved with them or judge them, but are aware of them as they arise. In other forms of meditation, you can focus on a single thing, like your breath or repeating a word, known as a mantra.
When practiced regularly — and for only a few minutes a day — meditation produces what’s called a relaxation response that reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system (which activates our fight-or-flight response). Studies have documented a range of health benefits that result, including:
- Lower blood pressure
- Lower heart rate
- Slow respiration (breathing) rate
- Less anxiety
- Lower blood cortisol (the stress hormone) levels
- More feelings of well-being
- Deeper relaxation
I can personally attest to these health benefits. I started practicing mindfulness meditation several years ago — with considerable skepticism (I must admit!) — but within a few months, I was able to stop taking blood pressure medication. And by adopting a more mindful approach to eating, I’ve been able to drop the weight I’d struggled to lose before then.
As a result of my own experience, I often discuss meditation with my patients, and if they’re interested, will teach it to them in my office. I also recommend the following:
- If you’d like a “taste” of mindfulness meditation, download an app such as Insight Timer (free) or Headspace (annual subscription).
- Read more about practicing mindfulness:
In today’s world, stress is unavoidable. But with mindfulness meditation, you have a proven, drug-free approach to manage it — and give yourself more control over your health and life.
Guest blogger: Lalita Matta, MD, Marlborough Internal Medicine, UMass Memorial Managed Care Network, Primary Care Physician and Mindfulness Meditation Advocate
This blog post is part of our Simply Women initiative that caters to the unique health care needs of women and their families.