We are living in a time where modern science is making incredible advances in medicine. However, the number of people with chronic illnesses is rapidly increasing. The World Health Organisation has projected that by the year 2020, chronic diseases will account for almost three-quarters of deaths worldwide. A chronic illness is a long-lasting condition with persistent effects. It cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medication, nor does it just disappear. Various studies have shown that the stress epidemic in our society is a major contributor to chronic illness.
Stress is described as a feeling of being worried, overwhelmed or run-down. In response to stress, our bodies release extra cortisol – a hormone that regulates our fight or flight response. Cortisol serves the body well by replenishing energy reserves after periods of intense activity. This function is supposed to be short-lived, just long enough to deal with the perceived threat. However, chronic stress occurs in our modern lives in response to everyday stressors as well as traumatic events and creates an allostatic load. The allostatic load is the wear and tear on the body that grows over time when an individual is exposed to repeated or chronic stress and has been linked to many illnesses.
Decreased Stress Equals Increased Peace
How can we manage stress better? Our immune systems work best when relaxed. Dr. Herbert Benson coined the term “The Relaxation Response’, which is essentially the opposite reaction to the stress response. His studies in the 60s and 70s largely demystified meditation and helped to bring it into the mainstream. Meditation can break the train of everyday thinking that creates stress. According to Dr. Benson, one of the most valuable things we can do in life is to learn deep relaxation by spending time every day quieting our minds in order to create inner peace and inner health. There are numerous approaches that elicit the relaxation response, and many have been around for thousands of years. Science now supports the benefits of meditation because these benefits are measurable, predictable, and reproducible. MRI’s of the brain after regularly practicing mindfulness exercises have shown the reduction in size of the amygdala, a section of the brain that is responsible for detecting fear and preparing for emergency events. Ongoing stress enlarges the amygdala. In animals studied under chronically stressful conditions, the amygdala remains enlarged long after the stressful conditions are removed.
The benefits of meditation are measurable, predictable, and reproducible. Image: Keegan Houser
Stress Management and DNA
Researchers from the University of Calgary have found yoga, mindfulness meditation and support group involvement to be associated with preserved telomere length. Telomeres are the stretches of DNA that cap our chromosomes and prevent them from deteriorating. As we age our telomeres shorten. The telomeres of the breast cancer patients in this study who received only one stress management course shortened, whereas the patients in the eight-week mindfulness program maintained their telomere length.
Modern science has shown us that the mind has the power to heal. We should use this capacity. We don’t have to give up drugs or surgery, but rather combine ancient wisdom and modern medicine to increase our quality of life. There are many healthy ways of expressing our emotions rather than internalising stress. While we can’t simply tell ourselves to have a particular feeling, we can influence our emotions via our thoughts.
By practicing mindfulness meditation, in which you observe your thoughts and feelings objectively and without judgement, you can perceive your stressors differently and even rewire your brain.