A quick note:
Firstly, it's important that we clear something up - Stress isn't always a bad thing. It's simply your body's way of dealing with change. We know, right (mind blowing up)?
It's also important that we know there are two types of stress. One helpful, and one not so helpful. Yep, it's true. These two different kinds of stress are called 'eustress' (helpful) and 'distress' (not so helpful).
Eustress is a kind of stress that can make us feel excited. It can also help us improve our performance, motivate us and help us focus our energy. We like this stress.
Distress, on the other hand, is very different. This kind of stress doesn't feel so good. It can cause anxiety, mental and physical illness and has been linked with decreases in performance and energy. We don't like this stress so much.
We just wanted to clear that up - because we think it's important you know.
It's been found that coping with stress is the number one issue young people are concerned with.
When surveyed about what most concerned them, 38.4% of teens indicated it was stress. In fact, not only were they most concerned about coping with stress but they were either extremely or very concerned about coping with it .
Does this sound a bit off to you?
It does to us.
So, what is stress?
Stress is a normal part of life. It can help us get things done and it can help us achieve our goals. There are situations where we're more likely to experience stress, but these aren't the same for everybody - 'stressors' are relative.
A common situation where we may feel stress however, is when an assignment is due or when we have to speak in front of a group of people. We might also feel it when we have a disagreement with a friend, a sibling or with our parents.
Back in the days of the saber-toothed tiger, our bodies would actually use stress to help us get out of a dangerous situation.
When our mind and body feel threatened a part of our brain called the amygdala (our 'fear center'), which controls the 'fight or flight' response, activates, causing adrenaline and cortisol to be released. This means the heart pumps faster, we breath more quickly and we feel a sudden surge of energy - all the things you need to either 'fight' or take 'flight'.
As you could imagine this was a pretty handy way to make sure we'd survive. However, things have changed - we don't have so many saber-toothed tigers running around now but our amygdala is still reacting as if there were. So instead of having to react to life or death situations, we're often experiencing this heightened state when we have to speak in front of the class, or when we're asked to answer a question we may not know the answer to.
Mindfulness and meditation practice has shown to reduce stress.
A study found that after 8 weeks of regular meditation participants reported lower levels of stress. Brain scans also revealed the gray-matter density of the amygdala (the 'fear center') had decreased .
A less active amygdala means our fear response is less likely to be switched on. This means we're much less likely to experience high levels of stress - AND this means there's more time to lead a happier, healthier life.
How can mindfulness and meditation help with stress?
We're glad you ask.
When we meditate regularly things in our bodies (and brains) begin to change. Not only have studies seen decreases in heart rate, blood pressure and respiration, brain scanning technology has shown parts of the brain change in shape and size . With this comes increases in calmness, relaxation and a greater ability to regulate emotion .
This means that instead of being controlled by sudden 'fight or flight' impulses, we are able to 'respond' to situations rather than 'react'. Developing this ability - to 'respond' rather than 'react' - is incredibly powerful and leads to us being in a position to make choices throughout our lives we really, REALLY (not just 'really') want to make.
How's this sounding - are you ready to attend a retreat?
To see a short TED talk explaining how stress affects your brain, click here
1. Cave, L., Fildes, J., Luckett, G. and Wearring, A. 2015, Mission Australia’s 2015 Youth Survey Report, Mission Australia.
2. Hölzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience. 2010;5(1):11-17. doi:10.1093/scan/nsp034.
3. Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W., Walace, B. A., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience , 6 (292), 1-15.
4. Baer, R.A. (2003) Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention. A conceptual and empirical review. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice. 10 (2), 125-43