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What is Stress? And How Does Meditation Help?

Updated: Sep 11, 2020

Stress comes in many sizes shapes and situations. Situations, such as getting married, moving, starting a new job, or having to stay at home for a seemingly indeterminable length of time due to COVID-19, can all be stressful events. Incidentally, all of these things are to do with change in some way.

Whenever we enter into a new situation or experience change in life there is an element of unknown which is often coupled with a degree of uncertainty. Depending on how these changes occur, many folks feel uneasy with the feelings that come from a lack of control. An uncertain future mixed with a lack of control in the present can bring about feelings of stress and anxiety.

Of course these aren’t the only ways in which we experience stress. We may be under pressure to meet a deadline at work or to live up to others (or our own) expectations to perform a certain way or reach a goal. I’m sure you can come up with a list of current stress factors in your own life.

All of us can handle a certain amount of stress in life. In fact, stress is a useful force to help us grow. It’s like building muscle by lifting heavy weights - when you stress and tear the muscle it grows back even stronger. Stress in our own life can give us the opportunity to learn, adapt, grow, and ultimately become more resilient. The problem comes when the stressors begin to layer on top of one another and become overwhelming.

When we're stressed we might get snappy at those around us. We feel on edge, unsettled or even unable to concentrate on the things we find most important and valuable in our life.

Everyone has their own innate ability to manage stress and we might compare this to a bucket’s ability to hold water. The size of our bucket will determine how much water (stress) it can contain. A bucket can only hold so much, and if you keep pouring more in, the water ends up spilling out over the sides.

Once we’ve filled our bucket, we’re left with two options:

1. Get a bigger bucket.

2. Get rid of some water.

Until we’re able to better manage our response to stressful situations, we have to learn how to better cope with the stress we have. Only once we have learned to handle the stress we have, can we take on new stressors.

Imagine that you are a bucket and water is stress.

Some situations will add water (stress) to your bucket (life). Situations such as physical strain or busyness, unrealistic deadlines, relationship problems or any situation which is governed by time restrictions.

There are also things in your life that help to drain the water out of the bucket. Such as good sleep patterns, balanced nutrition, regular exercise, strong relationships, and a healthy work/life balance.

Like I mentioned, some amount of stress is actually healthy and helpful. Like the stress we experience before an exam or an important job interview, but on-going stress can be destructive physically, emotionally and mentally.

*Image from Kain Ramsey’s “The Stress Bucket” worksheet

At first glance, we might assume that the best way to cope with stress is to remove the stressors (or, the things that are causing the stress). We may try to sort out our finances, try to keep fit and healthy and stay organized. And this might help us to some degree or another in the short term. However, there are some stressors which cannot be prevented, and we can end up causing ourselves more stress if we are constantly avoiding them!

Another way we can cope with stress is to change how we respond to it instead of simply trying to remove it from our lives or getting a bigger bucket. We can develop coping strategies so that we are better equipped to handle stress when it comes along.

In the stress bucket example, coping strategies are like holes in the bottom of our bucket – which help to reduce some of the water (stress) so that we are less likely to overflow. An example might include getting help from other people, taking more time out to relax, or meditation.

How does meditation help?

You may already be familiar with the the countless benefits touted by psychologists, medical practitioners, and spiritual leaders around the world. That meditation can lower your blood pressure, alleviate depression & anxiety, increase patience & compassion, raise your self-awareness, along with many others. And they’re all true (so long as you practice consistently and correctly).

You see, meditation works from both ends. Meditation directly reduces our experience of stress in the moment as we relax the body. On a physiological level, meditation simulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which in turn reduces our neurophysiological experience of stress. It reduces heart rate and blood pressure, it influences the limbic system in our brain, where emotions are processed, and stimulates digestion. All of these things help us to develop an increased feeling of well-being.

Along with these direct “in the moment” benefits, we’re also developing the skills to help us better respond to stress, effectively increasing the size of the holes in our bucket. In meditation, we practice allowing our feelings, even the uncomfortable ones, which means we’re not adding tension by avoiding or pushing back against negative thoughts and feelings. We’re actively directing our attention towards positive thoughts, feelings, and sensations. As our skills grow, we naturally bring this more adaptive and resilient state of mind into our daily life so that we spend more time attending toward positive goals rather than negative outcomes.

We can think of meditation like tuning a guitar. As we get more and more stressed in life our nervous system fires up and stresses our figurative physiological ‘ strings’ to the point of snapping. As we meditate we attune to feelings of peace and ease to help guide us into balance.

Take time to tune your instrument.

Don’t take my word for it - you’ll have to experience it yourself to believe it!

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