A little less worry, little more peace: how meditation reduces stress
It is the first benefit of meditation to be researched and recognised since the late 60s , and the reason medical practitioners brought it into Western public awareness: reducing stress.
Now may be a good time to understand how meditation reduces stress, as the new year begins, reality resurfaces after the holidays, and we’ve just experienced what analysis suggests is the gloomiest day of the year – Blue Monday.
What is stress?
We all know it…it’s the feeling of worry and anxiety, of too much pressure. It could be about anything. Some feel it more than others, and different things cause stress for different people. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and then something goes wrong with the body to inform us that we are stressed.
Stress had a very useful role to play in the days of hunting and gathering. Headspace has a great section on why we get stressed here. In essence, it evolved to alert us of physical danger so that our “fight or flight” response is triggered by the part of the brain that’s known as the amygdala (a term we will come across frequently on this site). While this was a tremendous help for our ancestors who lived a perilous life from moment to moment, it only gets in the way of the life we lead today when we don’t have to be afraid of being attacked by wild animals around every corner.
Appropriate doses of stress can be healthy and effective at making us deal with situations, but unfortunately our stress reflex has stayed on high alert even though dangers to our minute-to-minute survival have diminished. This causes a problem because stress stops the normal functioning of the body.
“Our blood is flooded with adrenaline and cortisol, increasing our heart rate and blood pressure, as well as our respiration…. The body …shuts down longer term projects which are taking up energy. Our digestive processes, immune system, growth and reproductive processes are inhibited (no time for eating or nookie when we’re being chased!)” – Get Some Headspace
In the UK, a study by the University of Cambridge and University of Hertfortshire found that more than 8 million people suffer from anxiety disorders a year – which costs the UK almost £10billion annually. “The figure includes cost of treatment and lost productivity and covers problems from stress to obsessive compulsive disorder.”
Research commissioned by the UK’s Mental Health Foundation in 2009 found from a poll of over 2007 British adults that “81% of people agree that ‘the fast pace of life and the number of things we have to do and worry about these days is a major cause of stress, unhappiness and illness in UK society’ ”.
The list of stress-related illness is long, ranging from eating disorders, depression and panic attacks to heart problems and diabetes; it also makes it more difficult for the body to combat diseases such as cancer.
And finally, being too stressed stops us from dealing effectively with what’s causing the stress in the first place.
Stress-reduction: universally agreed to be one of the main benefits of meditation
In 1968, a group from the Transcendental Meditation (TM) movement approached Herbert Benson, a physician at Harvard Medical School to ask him to do a study, claiming TM could lower blood pressure. He said “no” initially, but his eventual investigation led to the publication of The Relaxation Response – a book based on some of the TM techniques, that reveals how to elicit a relaxation response in 9 steps. By 1986 it was a best-seller and recommended by clinicians to stressed patients.
The MIT-trained molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, introduced mindfulness meditation in his Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachussettes Medical Centre in 1979. His Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction programme is now offered globally by national healthcare providers. In the UK, many NHS Trusts refer patients to do the course.
In 2010 the UK’s Mental Health Foundation published a Mindfulness Report which explains in detail what mindfulness is, and sets out the evidence that it works.
With particular reference to Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, it says:
“MBSR has been shown to reduce stress and mood disturbance, improve mood regulation, and increase perceptions of control in people with long-term anxiety disorders….
…Participants in MBSR workplace programmes report being more engaged in their work, more energised and less anxious after the course, and also decreased medical symptoms and psychological distress. People who have taken an MBSR programme also show a greater ability to concentrate than do controls.
..Participants in MBSR have reported less depression, anxiety and overall psychological distress. Prison inmates in one study reported significantly reduced levels of hostility and mood disturbance after MBSR, and increased self-esteem.
…HIV positive patients attending an MBSR programme reported significant improvements in quality of life and less psychological distress, as well as better immune system functioning, compared with controls.
So how does mindfulness meditation help reduce stress? There is an experiential explanation and a physical one.
Mindfulness meditation counters the “negativity bias”
Experientially, by directing our attention to everything that is going on in the present moment, mindfulness stops us from being “ ‘trapped’ in re-living past problems or ‘pre-living’ future worries”. And admittedly, most of our stresses have to do with worrying about the near or far future or feeling unhappy about something in the past.
Research has shown that people have a “negativity bias”: that is, humans have greater recall of negative memories compared with positive memories. Mindfulness practice prompts the question: what exactly is there in this moment right now? For most people, this inquiry leads to an appreciation of the present moment with a more accurate view of both the positives and the negatives; so the negatives fall into perspective, and the past and future potential negatives leave the picture.
The practice of mindfulness meditation generally helps to become more aware of our thought patterns, feelings and emotions without being caught up in them.
“Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier, and helps us deal with them better…
…Mindfulness, then, is a way of experiencing things ‘as they are’. By paying careful attention to how things are in a non-judgemental way, we can see what is happening more accurately and respond more effectively in all areas of our lives. In this way it enhances our quality of life and well-being.” – The Mindfulness Report
Maria Gonzalez, author of “Mindful Leadership”, describes in this interview at HBR blog how mindfulness doesn’t just help us manage stress, it actually reduces stress by changing the way we perceive events.
Anything is only stressful if it causes a negative reaction in us – mindfulness meditation helps us to stop reacting and start responding as we’d like to respond.
Mindfulness meditation is explained in more detail here.
Mindfulness meditation regulates the body’s “fight or flight” response
Physically, the explanation is even simpler because the biological effects have been observed in many studies. In broad terms, mindfulness meditation has been shown to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for the “rest and digest” system in our bodies.
Researchers looking at brain scans at Stanford University found that the 8-week MBSR course reduced the reactivity of the amygdala – as aforementioned, the amygdala triggers fear, and people who have chronic anxiety have a more reactive amygdala.
And researchers at Harvard University found that the MBSR changed the physical structure of the brain; there was a lower density of neurons in the troublesome amygdala, and higher density of neurons in areas involved in emotion regulation, which would help to manage stress levels.
More on how mindfulness meditation changes our brain here.
It may even bring…inner peace
Reducing stress is a welcome effect, but to add an even more encouraging note a recent study from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre shows that mindfulness meditation enhances our experience of inner peace. The study is a randomised controlled trial of 57 students in China. More studies on the topic will show if the effects are the same nearer to home.
In the meantime, even if absolute inner peace proves evasive, there is hope for facing the new year with a more calm disposition.
Some books on mindfulness for stress reduction:
 Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323-370. and
 Goldin, P. R., & Gross, J. J. (2010). Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation in social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10(1), 83-91.
 Britta K. Hölzel, James Carmody, Mark Vangel, Christina Congleton, Sita M. Yerramsetti, Tim Gard, Sara W. Lazar.Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research: Neuroimaging, 2011; 191 (1): 36 DOI: 10.1016/j.pscychresns.2010.08.006 and
Hölzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, K.C., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L., Et al. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5, 11–17.
 Liu, X., Xu, W., Wang, Y., Williams, J. M. G., Geng, Y., Zhang, Q. & Liu, X. (2013) Can inner peace be improved by mindfulness training: A randomized controlled trial. Stress and Health.2013 doi: 10.1002/smi.2551