For many years meditation has been seen as a very good tool for helping control stress. However this was more speculation, based on observations, thoughts and feelings. In more recent times, research and scientific theories seem to back up the notion that meditation can help with stress.
According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), “Practicing meditation has been shown to induce some changes in the body…Some types of meditation might work by affecting the automatic nervous system.” The sympathetic nervous system and parasympathetic nervous system are two divisions of the autonomic nervous system of the body. The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our reaction to stress or fear and is more commonly known as the “fight-or-flight” system. The parasympathetic nervous system is active during times of rest and associated with “rest and digest”. The NIH goes on to say, “It is thought that some types of meditation might work by reducing activity in the sympathetic nervous system and increasing activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.”
One theory, presented by Daniel Goleman & Tara Bennett-Goleman suggests that meditation works because of the relationship between the amygdala and the prefrontal cortex. In very simple terms, the amygdala is the part of the brain that decides if we should get angry or anxious, and the pre-frontal cortex is the part that makes us stop and think about things.
The prefrontal cortex is very good at analyzing and planning, but it takes a long time to make decisions. The amygdala, on the other hand, is simpler and older in evolutionary terms. It makes rapid judgments about a situation and has a powerful effect on our emotions and behaviour, linked to our survival needs. For example, if a human sees a pretador leaping out at them, the amygdala will trigger a fight or flight response long before the prefrontal cortex responds.
But in making snap judgments, our amygdalas are prone to error, such as seeing danger where there isn’t any. This is particularly true in our modern society where social conflicts are far more common than encounters with predators, and a basically harmless but emotionally charged situation can trigger uncontrollable fear or anger, leading to conflict, anxiety, and stress.
Therefore meditation can not only help us reduce our stress levels in the short term, but it can also improve our brains in order to more effectively deal with stressful situations in the future. Regular practice of meditation can help reduce our stress levels to very manageable levels.