Actually, why does mindfulness reduce stress? – somebody asked me recently…

Before answering the title question, let’s look at what  stress is and what ‘stress reduction’ stands for in case of mindfulness.

Every day we face stressful situations: we were late for work,  we burned our tongue drinking the morning coffee, read disturbing news on the Internet, the boss added another portion of work, a colleague at the opposite desk  rattled on about these boring things again, our child caught a virus, our partner did not do what they promised… let’s admit these  are trivial reasons to get overwhelmed by stress. However, life often gives us harder  knocks that make us cringe inside and  make our mind invent the worst possible scenarios. We all wish these life events wouldn’t  happen.

However, all stressful situations, as well as those that incite joy and contentment, are part of our lives and will always be. We will not change it. What we can change is our approach to stressful events and what we will allow our mind to do with them.

… and here mindfulness  comes into play.

How do the techniques of mindfulness change the response of our body to small and big life catastrophes?

1 We start to interpret the reality differently, thus changing the way we react.

Imagine the situation: you’ve come home after work and you are spending  time with your family. You look at the phone and you see a missed call from your  boss. How do you react and what do you think? It is possible that thoughts  like this come up: What else did I do wrong? I probably forgot about some deadline. They want to give me more work again! Why does he have to call me in my spare time? Or you might think:  It may be a mistake and he wanted to call someone else. I wonder what the reason of the phone is? (with calmness) Maybe some good news?

Our reaction depends on the mood we are in and on our past experiences  which have a huge impact on what appears in our head when the same thing happens again. When the situation occurs, whether positive or negative, our brain in milliseconds decides  how to behave, making us not notice our interpretation since we do not give ourselves more time for it. As a result, we react nervously from autopilot, allowing our body to produce stress hormones and causing tension in the body. Any time when, in our own opinion, something bad is happening, it seems to us that it is only the situation that triggered a state of stress, but we forget that it is mostly our interpretation that did it.

It is said that stress is 10% a situation itself  and 90% our approach to it. As you can see, we have a very big influence on how much or how little stress  we can create in our experience.  We can always change our interpretation and attitude in order  to suffer less.

 

How does mindfulness help in this? Through meditation, we learn to stop our constantly rushing mind and we can clearly see what is actually happening  by questioning our  thoughts. There is more space between the situation and our reaction, namely, we give ourselves a moment to take a step back and with curiosity and acceptance approach the situation. It will not happen after the first mindfulness session, but with time our brain will begin to learn distancing from a problem and we will see that there is always a  choice  how to react.

I ‘m closing  this point with my favorite quote from Viktor Frankl:

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”

2 Our nervous system begins to work in a more harmonious way. There’s a possibility of breaking a cycle of chronic stress.

The nervous system in our bodies is quite complex. One of its part is the autonomic nervous system which consists of the sympathetic and parasympathetic system. The sympathetic part is responsible for activating our body in case of danger, when we need to be ready to ‘fly or fight’. It gets activate in every situation  our mind perceives as stressful.

The parasympathetic system has the opposite effect to the first one. It sets our body in a state that allows it to “rest and digest”. In this state we are relaxed, able to react sensibly and with calm to what is happening to us.

Both systems regulate each other and if they do it well, our body works harmoniously. However, when there is a lack of proper regulation between them, chronic stress  begins to reside in our body. When we are exposed to stress every day and all the time we react nervously to what occurs, our sympathetic system is constantly active. In other words, stress hormones are continually produced in our body (including adrenaline, noradrenaline, cortisol), we are always in a state of alert- a condition that absorbs our energy immensely.  Moreover, our body is persistently  tense, the pulse and blood pressure are high as  the blood vessels  narrow  and our brain focuses mainly on the stressful situation hindering  its long-term thinking ability. When we are under stress all the time and our sympathetic system is constantly  working hard, our body loses its strength to protect itself from the destructive effect of constant tension which results in physical changes in the body. Chronic stress causes  depression, heart disease, chronic fatigue, contributes to the development of diabetes or cancer.

How can mindfulness help?

Meditation and mindfulness techniques help our body achieve a state of  ‘relaxation response’  – a concept created by Dr. Herbert Benson  who investigated the effect of the mindfulness practice on the nervous system.  Relaxation response is the body’s ability to produce neurotransmitters that relax muscles and organs, improve blood flow to the brain, help our body to silence the sympathetic system allowing the parasympathetic one to take over. Dr. Benson discovered that this condition can be trained and remembered by our brains thanks to relaxation techniques and meditation. The more often our brain receives signals that allow the body to be in homeostasis, the easier it will be for us to achieve this state in stressful moments. What is more, mindfulness  facilitates noticing that our body is under stress, and we better see what impact a given situation has on our body and mind. We become more aware of the processes taking place in the body, they no longer escape unnoticed.

3 The areas of brain responsible for mood regulation develop, while the part of the brain that triggers stress reactions  shrinks.

Numerous studies (e.g. Hotzel and Lazar, 2010) prove that the practice of meditation regulates our prefrontal cortex responsible for memory, concentration, decision making, planning, mood regulation, emotional stability and motivation. At  the same time, research shows that regular meditation reduces the amount of gray cells in the amygdala,  and so it shrinks. The amygdala is a part of our brain  responsible for survival and  automatic reactions in case of  emergency,  which means it sends  a signal to the body to produce stress hormones making it ready for ‘fly or flight’ response.  That’s a  great function of our brain in a realistically  threatening  situation, yet not very useful in most of our everyday affairs ….

I encourage you to listen Sarah Lazar, the author of the research, who initially gave mindfulness a lot of skepticism  until she started practicing regularly …

4 We build new neural connections using the neuroplasticity of our brain.

The last decades of brain research prove that our brain is plastic which means it can change its structure!  All our beliefs, thoughts, patterns of emotional reactions are stored in our brain in the form of  neuronal connections. In other words, the brain is a network of constantly strengthened pathways and these are often destructive patterns that make us experience all over again  the same low states and reactions leading to even more stress. However,   mindfulness can make us train our brain and build new neural connections which are  new possibilities of behavior patterns. The more these new paths are ‘trodden’, the more  calm and well-being we experience,  making old connections slowly disappear.

I  you feel like, I recommend the article below  describing the study of the influence of meditation on  the brain structure:

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2944261/

The above four points are just a drop in the bucket of what mindfulness can do for us. There is more to come!

What effect does mindfulness have on you?  Have you got any questions or comments? – post it below!