A student recently told me that she felt like she was on a perpetual rollercoaster. That she felt like she was constantly going around and around in circles and could never keep up. The constant demands of everyday life were leaving her feeling completely exhausted. And I've got absolutely no doubt that many more of my students would say the same.
The Stress Response
In our society these days, we live in this constant state of “fight or flight”. In ancient times our bodies sympathetic nervous system worked to keep us safe from being attacked by sabre-toothed tigers, but these days it’s being triggered by things like work deadlines, conflict with our partners and friends, and the million notifications and emails we receive on our phones. When we’re overusing our sympathetic nervous system, it puts us in a perpetual state of alertness and stress, using up a lot of energy, which can ultimately lead to a weakened immune system, loss of mental clarity, digestive issues, and burnout.
On a more serious level, prolonged stress can also lead to a range of debilitating health concerns. Scientists have confirmed that the number one reason for doctor’s visits in Australia today is due to stress-related illnesses such as heart disease, digestive problems, ulcers, anxiety and depression. Isn’t that crazy?
The Relaxation Response
Thankfully, practising meditation and mindfulness actively engages the parasympathetic nervous system, the body’s “rest and digest” system which allows you to relax and restore. When the parasympathetic nervous system is engaged, the heartbeat regulates, digestion takes place and the mind becomes clear of ruminating thoughts, all of which contribute to greater health and wellbeing.
On a grander scale, meditation can also help to:
- Improve focus and concentration by strengthening your ‘mental muscle’
- Reduce anxiety and enhance your ability to cope with stress
- Increase your levels of optimism and positive emotions, therefore improving overall feelings of happiness
- Encourage the development of your identity, confidence, resilience, self-awareness and acceptance
- Develop healthy lifestyle habits and improve your general wellbeing, including immune system functioning
- Stimulate your vagus nerve (one of the body's largest cranial nerves), reducing risk of illnesses such as anxiety, depression, fatigue and inflammation
- Reduce the size of your amygdala (the brain's "fight or flight" centre) and thicken your pre-frontal cortex (associated with awareness, concentration and decision-making)
- Slow down the ageing process (my personal favourite!)