Clients tell me all the time that they operate at their best when they’re under stress. “But I’m most productive when I’ve got insane deadlines to reach,” they tell me time and again. They get a bit scared that meditation is going to make them less driven, all chill and unproductive.
Here’s what I say about that. One: no one operates at their optimum functionality in stress mode. It’s simply impossible because of the biochemical cocktail of stress hormones in the body. And it’s ridiculously unsustainable. More about that in detail below. Two: meditation is not about doing less. It’s about being able to do more. It’s about releasing stress out of the nervous system, changing our body’s biochemistry, providing deep rest and re-charging our mind and body, the same way that we re-charge our laptops and our phones, so that we can access all of that amazing capability and capacity. It’s also about having the capability to respond to challenging situations, rather than having an automatic biochemical reaction to these situations.
Allow me to explain.
When we are in a situation and we are overwhelmed or challenged by it we experience a stress response. This is more than an emotion. It is a hard-wired physical response, left over from cave man times, that travels throughout our entire body, and alerts and prepares it for imminent danger.
If you’re one of those people that thinks you work well and at your best when you are under stress, and there’s a lot of you out there addicted to this way of operating, here’s some important info for you. When activated too often or for too long, this primitive fight or flight response doesn’t just change the brain, but it also damages many of the cells and organs throughout the body.
Here’s what you need to know. The stress hormones norepinephrine, epinephrine, adrenaline and cortisol are produced by the adrenal glands. These travel through our bloodstream to our blood vessels and our heart. Adrenaline causes the heart to beat faster and raises blood pressure. This can lead to hypertension over time. Cortisol has also been found to cause the inner lining of the blood vessels not to function in their normal way. The latest scientific research is telling us that this is connected to cholesterol plague build up in the body’s arteries. It’s not surprising then that together these changes impact the chances of having a stroke or a heart attack.
And I’ve got more bad news for the heart. And the body in general. Ever craved comfort foods when you’re super stressed? At a guess, I’m going to say that’s a fairly unanimous YES! And have you started to put on weight? Yep?! Chronic stress affects your waistline. Big time. Chronic stress means the body runs more on cortisol more of the time. Cortisol increases your appetite. It tells the body to replenish energy stores with carbohydrates and other energy dense foods. This type of fat doesn’t just make it harder to fit into your favourite pants. High levels of cortisol causes the body to put on extra calories as deep belly fat. Immune system chemicals and hormones called cytokines are released, increasing the risk of developing chronic diseases such as insulin resistance and heart disease.
Not only this but the body has a tough time digesting all that food that we’re stress eating. As the brain begins to sense stress the autonomic nervous system is activated and it is communicated to the intestinal nervous system. This causes us to feel butterflies in our stomachs. The natural rhythmic contractions that move food through are disrupted, and this can lead to heartburn and irritable bowel syndrome and a change in our gut bacteria which can affect digestive and overall health.
Chronic stress also causes head aches; muscle tension; difficulty concentrating; fatigue and irritability. Really, I could go on. But you get the picture I’m painting, you’re not someone operating at your optional capacity in this state.
So what’s the answer?
It’s really no surprise that the meditation teacher is going to scream MEDITATION. MEDITATION. MEDITATION.
Life will always send stressful situations our way. But what matters to your brain and your entire body is how you respond to that stress. If those situations are viewed as threats by the mind and the body we will go into fight or flight mode, and the body will produce stress hormones. This is helpful if we need to run and flee from a bear. Not so helpful if we need to meet deadlines, are stuck in traffic, or giving a presentation. Meditation is a time for the mind and body to rest, repair and recover and release the stress, tension and fatigue we put in each day, and chip away at that which has accumulated in our nervous system over the years.
What MRI imaging is showing us is that very quickly after someone adds daily, regular meditation into their lives, the part of the brain that is responsible for the flight or fight response, the amygdala, starts to shrink. The body produces less and less stress hormones: norepinephrine; epinephrine; adrenaline; and cortisol, and runs more on what we call ‘stay and play’ biochemistry, a cocktail of serotonin and dopamine, the blissful biochemistry that makes us feel happy, energised, less stressed, and more clear in our thinking.