April is Stress Awareness Month in the UK, and our last post of this month will examine the effects of meditation programs on stress and wellness.
The definition of stress is somewhat elusive. While most of us would probably agree as to what constitutes “stress”, such as rush hour traffic or public speaking, pining down an exact definition has proved difficult. Even Dr. Hans Selye, the Hungarian-Canadian endocrinologist and pioneering researcher in stress theory, stated famously that “Everyone knows what stress is, but nobody really knows”.
While some stress in our life may be beneficial, leading to positive changes and adaptations, long-term chronic stress is generally harmful. Chronic stress can induce harmful effects on physical and mental health.
Dr. Selye described three phases to his General Adaptation Syndrome. Phase 1 or the Alarm Stage is when the stressor occurs, which induces the sympathetic nervous system (aka “fight or flight response”). During Phase 2, the Resistance Stage, our body does it’s best to resist the stress. However during Phase 3 or the Exhaustion Stage we are unable to overcome the stress any longer and reach a stage of exhaustion. It is felt that the increase in stress hormones such as cortisol seen in chronic stress are one of the factors leading to the harmful effects on physical and mental well-being.
While we are probably all familiar with the effects of chronic stress on our mood leading to increased anxiety and depression, as well as interfering with our sleep, it is important to consider the potential effects of stress on physical health. For example, data from the REGARDS study demonstrated that those with high stress and high depressive symptoms have a 48% increased risk of heart attack or death, compared to those with low stress and fewer depressive symptoms.
A research group from John Hopkins evaluated the use of meditation on improving stress related outcomes. The researchers conducted a review and meta-analysis, which included nearly 50 trials, and over 3500 participants.
The researchers discovered that mindfulness meditation showed “moderate” evidence for improving anxiety, depression, and pain. In addition, of the nine trials that reported this particular information, none reported any adverse side effects from the meditation.
There are a multitude of ways to help manage and lower our stress levels, included a proper diet, regular exercise, good sleep hygiene, and nurturing healthy relationships with others. Given the results of this well done study at John Hopkins, we can add mindfulness meditation as another tool to help with stress.
“Adopting the right attitude can convert a negative stress into a positive one.”– Dr. Hans Selye
(Source- JAMA Internal Medicine, January 6, 2014)
This blog is a review of published medical and scientific literature, and should only be used for informational purposes. It does not constitute medical or health advice, nor does it create a physician-patient relationship with anyone.