“The practice of meditation helps us to release the tension—within the body, within the mind, within the emotions—so that healing can take place.”
- Thich Nhat Hanh, “This Is the Buddha’s Love”
Although “stress” itself isn’t a medical diagnosis, the ill effects of stress can manifest as various physical, mental and emotional ailments. What’s more, doctors and mental healthcare professionals are often trained in a medical system that encourages the prescription of medications with little understanding of long-term side effects and implications.
Given the current global pandemic and universal feelings of anxiety and unease, we thought it’d be valuable to share stress management techniques that don’t involve medication. Not surprisingly, the most affordable, accessible, research-backed practice to minimize anxiety and maximize peace of mind is something we’ve talked about before: meditation.
NOTE: We recognize that some mental and physical health conditions require and greatly benefit from medication. The information provided here is simply intended to provide information on meditation and alternative, holistic practices that are recommended to manage daily stress. Always consult your doctor, therapist, and/or a licensed medical professional before making any decisions or changes regarding medications.
Benefits of Meditation for Anxiety and Depression
Despite the cliche, there’s truth to the saying, “meditation is my medication.” Meditation is the most widely available, free treatment for managing daily stress and anxiety. As a practice, it is rooted in ancient philosophy and spirituality; as a treatment, its benefits and efficacy as a stress-reliever are supported by numerous peer-reviewed trials and studies spanning decades of research.
Former MIT professor and mindfulness expert, Jon Kabat-Zinn, dedicated his career to exploring the benefits of meditation for all people… not just for Buddhist monks or the exceptionally spiritually-inclined population. Rather, Kabat-Zinn developed the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program to introduce people of all beliefs and lifestyles to a stress-reducing meditation practice.
Kabat-Zinn’s and subsequent research on MBSR discovered the following:
- Meditation practice reduces the amount of perceived stress among various diverse populations, including healthcare workers, college students, cancer patients, the terminally ill, anxiety disorder patients and “healthy normals.”
- Even with its nonreligious, nonesoteric platform, MBSR reduces symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression by altering individuals’ cognitive-affective processes, or behavioral patterns based on perceptions of oneself in different situations.
Essentially, meditation has been found to reduce stress among all groups and kinds of people tested. It is an effective treatment plan for social anxiety disorders, improves sleep, eases existential stress and fear among cancer patients, and has been shown to enhance the efficacy of psychotropic medications for PTSD among military veterans.
For more information on why this is the case and the effects of meditation on the brain, check out our previous blog post, called What Does Meditation Do to the Brain?
Benefits of Meditation Twice a Day
MBSR is just one example of a meditation practice. In fact, as a practice, MBSR can be fairly intensive, usually given as a six- or eight-week training program involving breathwork meditations, body scan meditations, eating and walking meditations, as well as hatha yoga practice. In other words, MBSR is likely more effective as a short-term, intensive treatment plan than it is a long-range, sustainable way of life for most American lifestyles. Yet, it is a legitimate and effective stress treatment involving no medication and lays the foundation for lifelong improvements in awareness and mindfulness.
That said, there’s a strong scientific, spiritual, psychological and philosophical consensus that meditation -- specifically when practiced twice a day -- reduces stress and anxiety. Is there something to the “twice a day” prescription? There doesn’t appear to be much scientific research that specifically questions the benefits of meditating once vs. twice (vs. three, four or more times) a day, yet plenty of colloquial and anecdotal support exists.
Most of this evidence aligns with the principle of alternating states between rest and activity. Looking at the typical arc of a day -- transitioning from sleep to waking in the morning, then onto work, school or some other activity, then coming back home for more activity before winding down and transitioning back to sleep -- morning and evening meditation serves as an intentional symbol of transition. Increasing awareness of the transitions from rest to activity -- and choosing a practice to signify each transition -- creates a rhythm, which helps guide and train the mind to adapt accordingly.
The human brain is extremely pattern-oriented, often unconsciously constructing patterns to aid in the understanding and integration of all that occurs in daily life. In tying together research on the importance of rituals -- in terms of their benefit on daily transitions -- and meditation, meditation serves as a ritual and opportunity to check in with the self, your needs, feelings and emotions, as you move through the phases of each day. With the biggest daily transitions from rest to activity occurring twice a day -- in the morning and at night -- both the efficacy of the meditation itself and its potential for positive impact on your physical and mental health is improved by practicing meditation at these points in time each day.
Managing Stress Without Medication
We return to the question of how to manage stress without medication? Although we largely focus on meditation here, the overarching answer -- and reason for meditation’s effectiveness -- is cultivating a sense of awareness, or mindfulness.
Mindfulness and meditation can take on many forms. Exercise, movement, art. Music, cooking, walking. Singing, dancing, sitting. Drawing, writing, photography. Working, commuting, parenting. Relationships, community, activism.
Mindfulness and taking small, regular increments of time to dedicate solely to the purpose of engaging (or disengaging) in activities to promote inner reflection and attention can dramatically shift the internal paradigms and narratives that contribute to stress, worry, fear and anxiety. Certain mental states and disorders require medication - there is no denying that. But, as research and thousands of years worth of personal accounts show, mindfulness is a proven strategy and critical aspect of life that helps eliminate many of the stressors and thought patterns over which we have some control. And the only long-term side effect? Peace of mind.
Understanding the process of Stress Release
Meditation, and Yoga, and Sound Therapy are "mind-body" practices. These practice can help re-integrate the mind and body. Stress can be held in the body. Physiologically speaking stress usually represents a level of disharmony in the rhythms of the body. In my experience this can be reflected in the patterns of the breath, brainwaves, digestion and more. Generally speaking these physiological patterns are unconscious to the thinking mind.
In order to truly release stress, these rhythms, patterns and frequencies must also change. Some of these, like the breath, can be changed consciously. As these physiological patterns change, I have found that there is also usually a change mentally. This may lead to a change in perceived identity, and perception in general. Fundamentally, the goal, in my view, is "relaxation". The rub is that body is also created for homeostasis, which means that it tends to hold the same patterns (generally, for our own well being..) "Change", then, usually requires deliberate, and conscious, daily practice.
There are times when this process may feel like two steps forward and one step back. The key, in my view, is to practice meditation consistently, but in slow manageable steps, that allow for time to process old emotions, and perspectives, or releases of physical stress.
My experience tells me there can also be dramatic shifts once a "tipping point" is reached. These "trauma releases", in my experience can be unnerving as it may feel like a regression of sorts. Afterwards, I usually come out with a greater sense of undertanding about myself, and a release of some of the patterns based on past perceptions.
Some of the skills that meditation may also help to develop, that are helpful in this process are:
- Staying Present in the moment (not allowing the mind to "get lost" in the "future" or "past", which are products of the imagination)
- Choosing Love and not fear, in this moment
- To observe, emotions, or physical sensations as they are releasing without reacting or becoming anxious about them.
It can also be helpful to journal or express, thoughts and emotions, or express them to a professional counslelor. Remember, "expression" is the opposite of "suppression" and it is suppression that can lead to stress and tension in the body.
Many times, the messages in the "world" tells us to keep chasing the fulfillment of our desired image. The paradox, is that when I slow down ("Be still") I can begin to release this unconscious pattern (inertia) and real change (transformation) can occur. I can see, then, that there is no self-created image that could be an improvement on my True Self.
Relaxing sounds, can also be a great tool in the process of stress release.
article by Taylor Goodwin and Sonic Yogi