Stress is something most of us feel, to some extent, every day. There’s always that alarm, deadline or delayed train to ramp up our anxiety levels – and if this wasn’t bad enough, we’re always finding out something new about the damage this stress can cause, both to our appearance and wellbeing.
None of us actually want to be stressed out all the time, but stress is so ubiquitous in the modern world it can feel like there’s not much we can do to sweep it out of our lives. In much of our working culture, 80 hour work weeks are applauded (rather than prompting management to take us aside and order a holiday, which would be a more sensible response), and living in a perpetual state of high alert is considered the norm.
But rather than giving into the idea that being constantly stressed is an inevitability, and simply living with the consequences it can have for us inside and out, one of the benefits of meditation is that it has been demonstrated to be a way to pull the breaks on runaway stress for good.
What are the effects of stress?
The effects of stress are particularly noticeable when our lifestyles create a drip-feed of anxiety that doesn’t let up for months on end, and quick fixes such as smoking or an evening glass of wine (or three) are the only way to switch off the panic stations. We may feel as if we are managing our emotions and coping tolerably well, but eventually, like all mysterious baddies, stress will manifest itself.
Stress on the outside
On a superficial level, stress can wreak havoc on our appearance, and dent our confidence in a major way if left to get out of hand.
The stress hormone cortisol has been linked with cravings for sugar and fat. These foods are usually fine in small doses, but unfortunately usually occur in the kind of food that is otherwise nutritionally void and vitamin free. It’s easy to end up looking undernourished when we are living on our nerves and quick, unhealthy meals that are grabbed on the go.
If we weren’t feeling down in the dumps enough, stress-related increases of the hormone androgen can cause skin outbreaks and worsen acne, and has also been linked to hair-loss. With lack of sleep inflicting dark circles and signs of fatigue, stress can make us look and feel washed out.
Finally, the stress hormone cortisol has been linked to signs of getting a little old before our time. It’s thought that stressful events (and the emotional distress they cause) actually increases cellular aging. For a real world example of this, we can consider the strange phenomenon that every US President seems to age at an accelerated rate. Every year in one of the most responsible roles on the planet seems to equate to half a decade’s worth of greying hair and permanent frowns, and it seems that the more stressed we are the quicker those fine lines make an appearance.
Stress on the inside
Going beyond what’s skin deep, the “fight or flight” stress response releases chemicals (such as adrenaline and cortisol) that cause vascular changes, leading to tension headaches or worsened migraines. Stress can also hamper the formation of new memories, as it interferes with neurotransmitters as we try to fix new information in our minds. This can mean we don’t perform at our best and end up in a stress feedback loop, fighting against sluggishness to complete tasks and getting more stressed as we do so.
Stress also worsens conditions like asthma, irritable bowel syndrome and, although more research is needed, may have a negative effect on heart health and blood pressure. There’s also suggestions that it supresses our immune system, allowing every cold germ that’s passing through to set up home in our sinuses. All this means that, unless we are using the adrenaline-fueled energy burst to outrun a slavering bear, it doesn’t do our health or appearance any favours.
How meditation relieves stress
This is all pretty bleak, but instead of making stress another worry in our lives (which would be rather counterproductive) there are methods we can use to manage it, one of which is meditation.
By allowing us to rest in a way that’s significantly more profound even than sleep, meditation for anxiety and stress can ease use into a far more relaxed state. With the production of physiological and biochemical changes that are the exact opposite of the stress response, meditation reduces the over-reaction of “flight or fight” reaction so it’s only triggered when truly appropriate.
Over time, meditators can find the stress hormone cortisol reduced by up to a third. With stress reduced it’s easier to sleep better, perform efficiently and think more clearly. All these things make it easier not to panic about things that would otherwise make us feel like we are steaming from the ears, and take life in our stride. When stress is eased, all the negative impacts of stress are eased too – whether they concern what’s in mirror or how we feel in ourselves. With this major barrier to contentment dealt with, we can feel more in control of our own lives rather than at the mercy of the pressures of work, life admin and family. This results in a positivity that is infectious, and our happiness will shine through.