Positive Effects of Meditation on the Nervous System and Why it is So Effective at Reducing Stress and Anxiety
Frequent feelings of stress can severely damage our body. Some of the long-term effects of stress are linked to low immunity, depression as well as heart disease. Primarily, it is our nervous system that manages the response to stress, and meditation is extremely potent in empowering the nervous system to manage stress effectively. In this lesson, we look at the impact of stress on the nervous system and examine how meditation can evoke powerful physiological and psychological states that directly oppose the fight-or-flight stress response, and how this technique instead effectively generates a relaxation response.
What is the impact of stress on the nervous system?
We all experience stress at one time or another. There are different kinds of stress, and not all stress is negative. Acute stress is more immediate stress that we deal with in everyday life. Eustress, positive acute stress, provides us with energy when running a race or completing a deadline. It also causes the exhilarating feeling we get when doing things like riding a roller coaster or skiing down a steep slope.
Negative acute stressful situations are those we tend to associate with the word stress with forgetting to study for a test, arguing with a friend or co-worker, or having a flight delayed due to bad weather. We may be stressed for a few minutes, hours, or a day or two, but eventually, the problem is resolved, and we return to a peaceful state.
The physiologic response to stress is controlled by the autonomic nervous system, the involuntary part of our nervous system that controls heart rate, blood pressure, and digestion. There are two branches to the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body to react to stress (“fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic helps us recover from stress (“rest and digest”). When we are stressed, our body releases chemicals that temporarily improve performance. Cortisol, adrenaline, and other stress hormones increase heart rate, slow digestion, and increase blood pressure, all to allow greater blood flow to our muscles, heart, and brain to be able to think or act quickly in the face of immediate or acute stress. The body is able to recover from acute stress via a natural feedback loop with the brain. High levels of stress hormones in the blood signal to the brain to stop producing the stress hormones so we can rest and recover from the stressful event.
Why is constant stress unhealthy?
Sometimes stress can seem more like a way of life. Chronic stress is ongoing stress that seems endless, such as a demanding job, difficult family life, or experiencing ongoing hardship. This type of stress is the most damaging to our health. With acute stress, once the perceived threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing us to relax and recover from the stressful event. But during chronic stress, the body is continually exposed to the hormones that regulate stress. The system’s natural feedback loop is interrupted. The relaxation response is not activated, and the pathway that regulates cortisol is shut down, rendering it unable stop the effects of the stress. It is the constant activation of the stress response that leads to the negative health outcomes seen with chronic stress.
The primary stress hormones are cortisol, epinephrine (also called adrenaline), and norepinephrine. Cortisol is a steroid hormone released from the adrenal glands, which sit above the kidneys. Epinephrine is also released from the adrenal glands. Norepinephrine is a neurotransmitter that helps the body and brain communicate with each other about stress and about how the body should react physiologically to stress. When cortisol is released in response to stress, it works with the other stress hormones to prepare the body to react to stressful events. The breakdown of fat leads to increased blood sugar, helping to provide energy for the essential organs – brain, heart, and lungs (more on this later). Cortisol makes blood vessels more responsive to epinephrine and norepinephrine, and in turn, these hormones constrict blood vessels to increase blood pressure. In addition, epinephrine acts to increase heart rate. Increased blood pressure and heart rate help deliver nutrients and oxygen faster to the organs that need them most. Acting together, stress hormones ensure that we can think and act quickly and clearly in stressful situations.
In addition to creating the emergency response, stress hormones also divert energy away from non-emergency functions like digestion, reproduction, and maintaining the immune system. For example, cortisol inhibits the immune system by preventing the production of T-cells, important players in the immune system, and by interrupting the distribution of other immune cells to the lymph nodes and bone marrow.
Because stress hormones suppress non-emergency functions, such as maintaining the immune system, chronic stress can leave many bodily systems at risk. Constant suppression of the immune system, for example, leaves us vulnerable to infections. Additionally, as mentioned above, to provide the body with extra energy to deal with stress, stress hormones stimulate the breakdown of stored fat into smaller fatty acids that we can use for short-term energy.
These fatty acids, called triglycerides, enter the bloodstream waiting to be taken up by our muscles to be used for quick energy if we need flee a stressful situation. This is likely an evolutionarily advantageous response to stress: earlier in time, stress probably meant running from a dangerous situation, and the free fatty acids gave our muscles energy. But if we don’t use the fatty acids for energy through a physical outlet, the fatty acids remain in the blood, eventually causing high cholesterol.
Thus, chronic stress leads to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease, especially in combination with the stress hormones’ direct effects on increasing blood pressure. When we have high blood pressure, our heart rate increases and blood flows more vigorously through our veins and arteries. Branch points in arteries can receive small injuries from the quicker flow of blood. The immune system then repairs arteries, but this process can lead to the deposition of plaque in the damaged areas. These little clots in our arteries block the free flow of blood, causing heart disease. Exercise is a great way to prevent this negative series of events: in addition to providing endorphins that make us feel better, exercise uses the triglycerides in our bloodstream so there are less to become trapped in our vessels as plaque.
As we can see, chronic activation of the stress response can lead to a host of health problems that impact all systems of the body. We all know that our mind is what controls major functions within our body. Therefore, de-stressing and activating a resting state is important for maintaining a proper balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.
How does meditation reduce feelings of stress and anxiety?
Meditation is a simple technique that evokes a physiological as well as a psychological state that directly opposes the fight-or-flight stress response [1, 2]. Rigorous data from scientific studies show that meditation can indeed reduce chronic stress . Dramatic biological changes are observed after meditation. Reduction in stress hormones, reduction in heart and breathing rate, a reduction in the amount of energy you consume, muscle relaxation and changes in brain waves. These are not ordinary changes. These are changes that are difficult to achieve even with the use of chemicals and drugs. More importantly, these biological changes are the exact opposite of the stress response. Meditation is a technique that can be learned and be used to achieve these positive biological effects. These biological changes are also of therapeutic importance. These changes can help counteract the negative clinical effects of stress in diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis ; and aging , hypertension ; diabetes ; anxiety ; insomnia .
Through meditation, what essentially takes place is a break in the train of everyday thinking, and several mind-body approaches can be useful in eliciting this response. What is important to note is that the mental response to such mind-body techniques is translated into a series of coordinated biochemical changes such as decreased oxygen consumption , carbon dioxide elimination, reduction in blood pressure, heart and respiratory rate  as well as changes in various brain regions . What is incredibly profound is that meditation can even have an impact down on the code that runs our very biological machinery: DNA/RNA.
By turning down the stress response through meditation, profound changes can be observed at the level of gene expression. These changes are very important in neutralising the negative biological effects of stress. Gene expression is a process where instructions in the DNA code are converted into a functional product like a protein (stress hormones such as cortisol are also proteins). Not all proteins are produced all the time. Some need to be produced e.g., during a stress response and then need to be switched off as required. Meditation can lead to sustained expression changes in genes related to a reduction in stress hormone production, reduced energy consumption and improved immunity . Changes in gene expression as a result of meditation are by far the best piece of evidence that supports the strong impact of meditation on human physiology. Even a single session of meditation can induce biological changes that reduce inflammation and stress .
These data provide excellent evidence that meditation has immediate effects on human physiology and such practices are very effective at reducing stress and anxiety. We must remember that the nervous system is tightly linked with the rest of the body. Notably, the brain directly controls the heart through the sympathetic and parasympathetic branches of the autonomic nervous system. Cardiac function can be profoundly altered by varying inputs from the nervous system. This means that by reducing the stress response through meditation, the cardiovascular function can also be improved. The direct benefits of meditation on the cardiovascular system will be discussed in the next section
I hope you found this article on The Positive impact of meditation on human physiology as fascinating as I do. My aim is that it’s provided you with valuable insights into just how powerful meditation is at holistically healing the body and mind, and reducing the risk of psychosomatic stress-related diseases.
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