How to Meditate

Meditation decreases stress.

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First, a short lesson on the brain.

One way our brain serves as control center for our body is that it receives and sends messages via hormones, which are chemicals made from amino acids in protein. Chemicals that help neurons (nerve cells) communicate are called neurotransmitters.

As we humans stood up and evolved, so did our brains. The first brain was our brain stem, which is responsible for our most basic and automatic functions. Next to develop was the mid-brain, which governs emotions, memories, and basic functions like eating and sleeping, things we have in common with our dogs and cats (who get happy and angry, remember people and places, and know when they are hungry or sleepy). The last, most recent part of the brain to evolve – and the most sophisticated, electro-chemical, information-processing unit on the planet – is the cortex. That’s the part of the brain lying closest to the skull, and responsible for intelligence, such as language, abstract thinking, and problem-solving.

The brain contains a hundred billion neurons, each of which can fire off thousands of messages to the other neurons and sometimes, to other parts of the body, the reason we call the brain “the body’s control center.” These neurons are using so much energy doing this communication that they consume almost a fourth of the body’s oxygen supply and nearly half of the glucose circulating in the blood. Even sleeping, a brain is burning a lot of calories!

How to get or stay calm.

Yes, we can use our cortex – our higher brain – to tell ourselves (or someone else) to take a warm bath, a leisurely walk in the woods, or listen to soft music to calm down. But the actual calming down takes place in the mid-brain, and in particular, in a small section of it called the hypothalamus. Dr. Walter R. Hess, a Swiss Nobel Prize-winning physiologist (someone who studies what goes on in the body) discovered this calming response by stimulating the hypothalamus of a cat. He called it the trophotropic response, but the same response in humans, was named by another researcher, Dr. Herbert Benson, of Harvard, as the Relaxation Response.

This switch – in the hypothalamus – that tells the body to relax – is actually there to switch off another response, called the Stress Response, or what another Harvard scientists, Walter Cannon, who discovered it, referred to as the “fight or flight response.”

To sum this up: the hypothalamus, which sits deep in the mid-brain, under the cortex, produces two responses. The first is a relaxing response that can turn off a stress response. The other is a stress response. They cannot be on at the same time, but they can both be off at the same time, and in fact, usually are.

Turning on the Relaxation Response.

The actual calming effect that occurs when the hypothalamus gets a message to send a message through your vagus nerve is the Relaxation Response. This nerve controls the parasympathetic nervous system that allows us to relax. Its main neurotransmitter is the hormone acetylcholine. Now, what is interesting about acetylcholine is that, in addition to being responsible for sending peace and relaxation throughout your body, it is also the neurotransmitter responsible for learning and memory. And that’s not all. New research has found that acetylcholine can put a major break on inflammation in the body. Thus, relaxing is anti-inflammatory. Still other research shows that the vagus nerve itself stimulates stem cells to produce new cells to repair and rebuild our organs, another reason to relax.

The Relaxation Response can be easily turned on – all you have to do is slow your breathing down in a controlled way. A great breathing exercise for calming down is explained in How to Meditate, the book that shows how to do the meditationPlus™ meditation. You can this the breathing exercise to calm down in the dentist’s office, before falling asleep, or any other time you need instant calm.

It may be nice to go to Hawaii to slow down and relax, but you can also relax your hypothalamus, which can relax your entire body, with a few minutes of deep breathing, even on a crowded subway train. It may not be as much fun as going to Hawaii, but your body will feel as though it had been there.

How meditation calms you down more than the Relaxation Response.

As we have seen, the Relaxation Response can help the mind and body relax – a lot. But meditation can calm the mind and body down even more. In some ways, meditation relaxes the body like deep sleep, when the muscles are hardly moving, and the brain waves are slow and long. In other ways, however, especially as you become an experienced meditator or are meditating using a technique such as meditationPlus, meditation calms you down and puts you into deep relaxation in a different way. Unlike sleep, when you are relaxed but unaware of your surroundings, in meditation you will be relaxed but alert to your surroundings – alert consciousness is what this state is called.

One demonstration of this calming effect of meditation is that after only a few minutes, meditation can put you in such a relaxed awareness that your mind and body need 10 to 20 percent less oxygen than usual. This reduced need is actually a state of metabolism called hypometabolism, because it is so much lower than usual. You can get to a state of hypometabolism through sleep (and hibernation!) but consider this: it takes 4 to 5 hours of sleep to produce it and then you will still only be using about 8 percent less, not 10 to 20 percent less.

Oxygen needs are what determine metabolism since it takes oxygen to burn the nutrients to produce the energy the body needs. The sum total of that energy is your metabolism. If you have a high metabolism, you will burn a lot of calories, and have a tendency to stay at a normal weight. If you have a low metabolism, you will gain weight. Before you think that meditation lowers metabolism too much and therefore puts you at risk for gaining weight, consider this: meditation reduces stress enough to curb your intake of sugar and junk food. It can also strengthen your mid-brain enough to give you the resolve and will-power you need to resist temptation. (More information on how meditation can help you lose weight or keep it off on the Meditation and Metabolism page, by the way.)

During meditation, brain waves slow down to alpha-type waves, or even theta waves, and can become quite coordinated. With a lowered metabolism, the blood doesn’t have to pump as much oxygen or glucose to the brain or anywhere else. This in turn allows the heart rate to slow down a little – usually 3 to 10 percent, which can also keep blood pressure from rising.

The calming effect of meditation gives the skeletal muscles a chance to relax. In turn, they excrete far less lactate into the blood. Studies of meditators show a significant decrease in their blood lactate. In contrast, during stress, when the muscles are in high gear for fighting or fleeing, they produce excess blood lactate. What’s so great about a decrease in lactate during meditation and an increase in lactate during stress? For one experiment, subjects who were meditating were injected with blood lactate. From the injected lactate they experienced anxiety. Up to 20 percent of those who had been injected had actual panic attacks from the increased lactate.

A few studies have shown that meditation boosts the immune system and help reduce inflammation. One way this occurs may be that the relaxation causes more acetylcholine to be produced, which is an anti-inflammatory neurotransmitter. And another study, of breast cancer patients, showed that those who were meditating produced more T-killer cells, the kind of immune cells that attack tumors.

Because meditation is so relaxing, the adrenal glands can reduce their production of stress hormones, especially, cortisol. Interestingly, both cortisol and serotonin – the “happiness hormone” require the same amino acid – tryptophan (found in turkey, nuts, and other healthy proteins). When the body has too much stress, the tryptophan tends to be used for producing cortisol instead of for producing serotonin. And if serotonin levels are too low, a person will get depressed. Depression is so widespread in contemporary culture that drugs like Prozac, which supplement the brain with serotonin, are the most widely prescribed drugs in the U.S. today!

According to recent research, people who meditate for a long time, such as monks, as well as people who have a shorter daily meditation practice but who have been meditating for years, have significantly larger hippocampuses. This is important because the hippocampus, called the “seat of memory,” is where the brain makes new neurons for making new memories and learning. In fact, in a healthy adult, the hippocampus makes tens of thousands of new neurons each day (which is where the “use it or lose it” expression belongs). This tendency to have a larger hippocampus – and to increase it with certain meditation practices – could also be the reason that meditators are less likely to have addictive behaviors such as smoking or binge eating, or to suffer from dementia.

You can use meditationPlus, to help you solve the problems causing stress in your life.

The second half of meditationPlus encourages you to use meditation to think creatively and insightfully. This can be used purely for enlightened or creative thinking, such as pondering the existence of God or figuring out the first lines of a poem or the subject for your next painting. But it can also be used to figure out how to deal with a stress in your life, such as a stressful situation at work or school, a difficult relationship, an economic situation, or anything else causing stress in life.

The entire meditation, but especially, the second part, can give you insight, peace, spirituality, compassion, and confidence to gain perspective, happiness, optimism, and courage – all of which can reduce or eliminate stress, anxiety, and depression.

Understanding how or brains and bodies react to stress.

Like the Relaxation Response, the Stress Response – “fight or flight response” – starts in the mid-brain’s hypothalamus. Originally, back when we were evolving in prehistoric times, the Stress Response helped us gear up for a fight with or an escape from a predator or other danger. The danger could be real or imagined (seeing a coil of rope in the corner and mistaking it for a snake). Regardless, if the brain perceives danger, it will process that sensory message in the hypothalamus. There, neurotransmitters quickly send messages to the pituitary gland, which is about a half inch under the hypothalamus.

The pituitary glands will quickly send a message to the adrenal glands, which are small glands just above the kidneys, which will quickly manufacture hormones known as “stress hormones.” These stress hormones – cortisol, epinephrine (also called adrenalin) and norepinephrine (noradrenalin) will rush messages to the body to go on high alert. The heart will receive the message to speed up. The lungs will receive the message to breathe faster. The skeletal muscles, especially those on the arms and legs, will ramp up in order to get ready for action. To ensure enough energy for all this, one of the hormones will send the message to release fatty triglycerides into the blood.

The parts of the body needed for this high alert will spring into action in seconds if need be. However, the parts of the body that won’t be needed for this high alert situation will receive the message to slow down or shut off. This includes the digestive, immune, and reproductive system. After all, who needs to digest food in such a high alert (the reason why some people vomit when too stressed out). And sex? Is that really the time to think about sex or reproduction? And fight an infection when you have to flee a predator. Get real! says the body.

Ironically, despite that we are no longer escaping saber-toothed tigers on the plains, our bodies still sense that prehistoric ability – duty, really – to respond to danger and to produce the Stress Response. And of course, there are times when we do face contemporary threats, from the threat of trying to save a drowning child or make a snap decision about a threatening stranger. Soldiers experience a great deal of stress during combat, which is why 15 percent or more return with a lifetime of PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Alas, acute stress can take a huge toll on some people. A sudden rush of too much adrenalin can cause a heart attack. A sudden rush of blood through the body of a person already suffering from hardening of the arteries can produce a stroke or aneurism. Still, for most of us and for most of the time, acute (sudden and temporary) stress is tolerable. At times, it can even be good, such as when it helps us think clearly through a dangerous situation, like a robbery or a 9/11. It can be good if we are stressed about winning a ski race, bunging jumping, or doing something exciting that entails a risk of danger. In short, what the Stress Response does is put the mind and body on high alert, allowing us to think and act as quickly as possible and with as much strength as we can muster.

When stress lasts too long

As noted earlier, stress can be good, especially when it helps you think and act quickly to avert a dangerous situation. On the other hand, chronic stress – stress that last months, years, or longer – can be dangerous to both your mental and physical health. That’s because the cortisol levels stay elevated, the adrenal glands producing stress hormones can suffer fatigue, and serotonin levels drop too low.

With our modern culture and technology that includes round-the-clock TV, Internet, social networking, news and shopping; our constant information overload, an economy that is always outsourcing, downsizing and threatening job and financial security, with all that worries that never seem to go away, or seem to worsen, with childhoods of abuse and neglect, sexual abuse, and the stress of modern warfare and terrorism, is it any wonder that we have more stress than we can handle?

Chronic stress taxes the organs and systems that acute stress is meant to put on high alert. Heart beat, for example, is supposed to rise during an acute stress response, and go back to normal during relaxation response. Instead, when the stress continues for months and years, heart beat stays elevated, blood pressure stays elevated, insulin stays elevated, the muscles continue to tense up and secrete blood lactate. Is it any wonder, given how much chronic stress is in our modern lives, that heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and strokes are the leading cause of death in the U.S. and other developed countries?

Chronic stress ensures continual high levels of cortisol, which cause excess belly fat, cravings, overeating, weight gain, obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes. Excess cortisol production added to too little relaxation deprive the body of serotonin production, which in turn causes depression and anxiety. Given the chronic stress (and sleep deprivation) of so many teenagers, is it any wonder, too, that one-tenth of all college freshman already suffer depression and are already taking medication?

Chronic stress is even wrecking havoc on our hippocampuses, causing its cells to deteriorate or die, which leads to memory loss and the increased incidence – the alarming incidence – of dementia.

Chronic stress causes too many triglycerides to be circulating through the blood, which is circulating too fast and too hard, which his causing hardening of the arteries, heart disease, strokes and death.

Chronic stress suppresses the immune system and causes inflammatory disease – especially in the digestive system. Think chronic stress and you could be thinking chronic diseases from rheumatoid arthritis to impaired digestions, acid reflux, inflamed intestines, constipation or diarrhea and a host of other medical ailments.

Some say that given the extent of chronic stress in modern times and the tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions worldwide, who suffer from it, it should be regarded as a pandemic!

One more stress to consider and something to think about when you think about meditating.

Sometimes we remember what caused our stress, which is important for avoiding it the next time. But sometimes, remembering it, especially if we remember it over and over again, can bring additional stress that may even be worse than the original stress. Remembering a stressful event in our lives can even cause a mental breakdown or a mental illness. Remembering childhood sexual violence, for example, or a trauma that occurred during battle, can cause as much stress as the original incident and sometimes more.

While meditation is good for relaxing and good for dealing with most stress, there are meditation techniques that can cause serious mental problems – for as many as 8 to 10 percent of those practicing that kind of meditation. Maybe they would have had a problem without the meditation. Still, the meditation techniques that allow random thoughts to surface may not be the best practice, especially for someone already exhibiting depression, anxiety, or fear.

meditationPlus, unlike those techniques, is quite safe. If you want to know how it differs and why it is safe, you can read the page on this site that compares it to the other two major meditation techniques.

What to take from this meditation and stress lesson

What is important about the meditationPlus technique, which you can learn in How to Meditate, is that just learning how to prepare for it can stimulate a Relaxation Response in your mind and body, which can turn off the stress you are feeling.

Doing the first part of meditationPlus – the focus meditation – regularly – and especially, for the rest of your life – can put you into an altered state of alert consciousness. This will give you the benefit of sleep plus more than sleep (it is no substitute for sleep – but like exercise, a great addition).

The second part of meditationPlus can give you the creativity and insight to solve many of the situations that are causing stress in your life. Now, given all this, why stress out over which meditation to do? Do meditationPlus and reap all the benefits of meditation – and relaxation!

There are over 120 studies about meditation listed on clinicaltrials.gov, which is a clearinghouse of research that is supported by the National Institute of Health.

 

How to Meditate