How mindfulness can help alleviate stress and improve mental health
The American Psychological Association states that a greater number of Americans are reporting extreme levels of stress. As researchers continue to understand the ability for stress to precipitate mental and physical ailments, the importance of research-backed stress reduction strategies increases.
Stress can at times be beneficial - it can motivate us to study for a test and it helped our ancestors survive the threat of dangerous wildlife.
The challenge is that ongoing stress, trauma, and adverse life events impact our ability to stay resilient and over time we may find ourselves developing anxiety, depression, health challenges and addictive behaviors to deal with the chronic stress we are experiencing internally. While mental illness is the foremost contributing factor to disability in the United States, research demonstrates that many mental health challenges are preventable, and intervention treatments are often highly effective.
However, no matter what the situation is, the ability to return to a parasympathetic, calm state once the stressor is over, is a leading component of good health.
As our world speeds up, it’s up to us as individuals to take the time that we need to slow down. Think of mindfulness as an exercise for your brain. Just as physical exercise is a component of overall health, so too is mindfulness and meditation. As we continually find more efficient solutions to our everyday problems, sometimes it’s nice to have a reminder that going back to basics, and focusing on our breath, will help keep us evolving.
Natural Alternatives to Alleviate Stress
The use of meditation to reduce stress has been demonstrated in its ability to change perception and build resilience to stressors. In a population of student athletes, one review assessed three intervention studies - each included 7-12 mindfulness sessions, around an hour in length, over a few weeks. They summarized that mindfulness reduced perceived stress and negative thoughts. Another study analyzed the effects of an eight-week mind-body program. Results showed that compared to the control group, the meditators had improved resilience and emotional intelligence.
Evidence is demonstrating that a regular meditation practice may increase awareness of emotional responses and improve one's stress response, reducing the ability for stress, and its debilitating effects, to overcome you.
This was noted in a group of ER nurses, a population known for having high amounts of stress due to a high-pressure job. After using our biofeedback meditation program for four 30 minutes sessions over one month, the nurses reported significant improvements in their ability to manage their stress.
Using Breath To Access The Stress Response
One of the first things that are affected when we are chronically stressed is our breathing. A nervous system that is stressed causes rapid, shallow breathing. When we form a chronic pattern of rapid, shallow breathing then we create a nervous system that is operating under chronic stress, which, in turn, affects your mental and physical health.
Breathing is one of the best ways to get access to our Stress System (the Fight/Flight/Freeze system) and help it get back to a relaxed state where optimal health occurs.
Take a breath in right now. Are you breathing into your chest or into your belly? If you notice your chest expanding when you breathe then you are likely breathing on a shallow level. Your breath stops at your sternum and doesn’t go deeper into your belly expanding your diaphragm.
Take a minute now to breathe deeply into your belly. While breathing in expand your diaphragm and belly. When you exhale allow your belly to go back in. This is how we were born to breathe. When you watch a baby breath you can see their belly rising and falling.
Deep, slow breathing helps us to move from a chronic stress response back into a state of BALANCE…because it is a balance that we really want to help us create optimal health. A nervous system that is in balance is one that is calm and regulated in the face of stress. Keep in mind that it is not about NOT experiencing stress because we cannot avoid it…we are all human after all. Instead, the shift in mindset here is about HOW we experience stress and changing our nervous system response to stress.
If we don’t resolve the stress then it tends to live on and on in our bodies creating a chronic stress response.
Breath is an incredible tool to help us shift our response to stress and immediately activate the relaxation, rest and repair part of our nervous system.
Taking Control Of The Chronic Stress Response
Breath is a very ancient tool that only recently the science has proven is an incredible healing tool to access the automatic stress response happening in the Autonomic Nervous System. This is the part of our nervous system that we cannot control, and it can go off on a tangent creating high blood pressure, anxiety, sweaty palms, panic responses, as well as pain and ill health. The inability to return to a parasympathetic nervous system state is the critical message reported by Americans. This can have significant consequences on health, having the potential to bring about high blood pressure, stroke and circulatory complications. It is estimated that $30 billion/year is lost from work-related stress, with work being the largest source of stress. Although people seem to be aware of their high levels of stress, the biggest obstacle to change is noted as a lack of money, energy or confidence to improve.
Transforming Your Stress Response Through Habit Creation
The best way to develop a new habit is to tie it into a habit you already have. You can do it during meetings or working on the computer. Many of us hold our breath when hurrying to type emails and documents. You can also do it while on your smartphone on social media!
You can also practice more regulated deep breathing every day by using Unyte’s iom2 biofeedback device with the many interactive Journeys available. Unyte helps you learn relaxation skills through engaging content and beautiful breathing exercises.
Creating Optimal Health Through Breathing
The science and research indicate that deep breathing and mindfulness practices help to decrease inflammation and improve immune system regulation, metabolism, emotional regulation, and improve anxiety and depression symptoms too. It also helps with cravings and optimal brain focus and functioning.
One recent study followed clinically diagnosed anxiety patients during an eight-week mindfulness meditation program and showed improvements in anxiety and depression scores post-intervention and at the three-month follow-up. We are still uncovering the exact ways in which meditation reduces anxiety, but studies are showing certain areas of the brain become active during meditation that relate to the ability to better control emotional responses.
- In addition, frequent mindfulness practice is connected to:
- Decreased cortisol levels (stress hormone)
- Increased dopamine levels (feel-good hormone)
- Increased immune function
- Decreased cardiovascular risk factors (lower blood pressure)
- Decreased inflammation (by changing histones and methyl groups sitting on top of genes that reduce inflammation)
- Optimization of the enzyme telomerase (which slows the aging process)
It’s time for us to take control of our emotional responses to difficult situations. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, the best way to reduce stress may not be to work harder and push through it. By acknowledging the overwhelming feeling stress can cause, and removing oneself from the situation, we can take time away and return to the task with a different perspective. Using this time out to establish a regular meditation practice may be one important solution to improve our quality of life.
Even though researchers are still establishing the mechanisms underlying meditation’s effects on the brain, the benefits of the practice are becoming widely acknowledged in the scientific community. In our technologically-advanced and high-stress society, the diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and other mental illnesses are increasing. By sharing meditation research and products with you, we hope to provide you with tools that can help you and your families live with good health, happiness, and peace.
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