by Diane Malaspina

If you are having a hard time adapting to stress or are lacking focus, follow through, and creativity, it may be time for you to start a meditation practice.

Many of us are aware of the physical effects that stress has on the body, but we may be surprised to learn that stress can also affect us mentally by impairing cognitive flexibility and self-regulation. Two areas of the brain are activated during a stressful event—the prefrontal cortex (the area of the brain responsible for decision making, concentration, and self-regulation) and the amygdala (the region of the brain that initiates fight-or-flight arousal)—and both are sensitive to the detrimental effects of stress.

The degree to which the prefrontal cortex regulates the amygdala determines how we perceive and respond to stress both cognitively and emotionally. When the prefrontal cortex is in control, top-down processing is executed, and we can make conscious responses before emotionally reacting or going into flight-or-fight mode.

In contrast, when the amygdala becomes more active than the prefrontal cortex, it often leads to maladaptive responses and bottom-up processing—responding with emotion, like fear, without evaluating circumstances. Even minimal amounts of stress have been shown to impair functioning in the prefrontal cortex and amygdala.1 Interestingly, there’s some compelling evidence in favor of using meditation to fortify these very brain structures that are adversely impacted by stress.2 3

The Impact of Stress on the Brain

Stress produces a rush of neurohormones to the prefrontal cortex. The amygdala is also activated; it recognizes threats and sounds the alarm. In turn, the prefrontal cortex signals the amygdala to ascertain whether the alarm is justified. This interaction helps us regulate our emotions on a moment-to-moment basis.

The neurohormones released during a stressful event impair the top-down functioning of the prefrontal cortex and strengthen the emotional responses of the amygdala. Structurally, both the amygdala and prefrontal cortex change. At the cellular level, dendrites, the branches of the nerve cells that receive electrochemical stimulation from neighboring neurons, show atrophy in the prefrontal cortex and extension in the amygdala. This leads to fewer neurons being fired in the thinking brain and more neurons fired in the emotional brain. Emotion then overrides cognition, which results in bottom-up processing and emotional dysregulation. And these poorly modulated emotional responses can lead to more stress and impaired functioning.

Self-Regulation and How Meditation Can Help

Emotional dysregulation is the foundation of many psychological challenges, including stress, anxiety, and depressive disorders. In contrast, self-regulation is the ability to monitor emotions, thoughts, and behavior as a situation demands. It includes the ability to balance highly emotional reactions, change expectations in the face of frustration, and direct behavior toward a goal despite our feelings. When our self-regulation skills are honed, we are more likely to respond to stress in adaptive ways. Furthermore, when thoughts and emotions are appropriately regulated, we are less likely to activate the flight-or-fight response in the face of stress. The stress is still there, but how we process it, make decisions, and choose a course of action are influenced by our ability to self-regulate. As a form of mental training in cognitive control and emotional regulation, meditation can foster adaptive self-regulation, thus honing the ability to respond to stress mindfully.

In meditation practice, we hone the ability to keep the mind focused on one point, such as the breath, a word or phrase, or a state (such as compassion), while maintaining a relaxed physical posture. Research in neuroscience suggests that meditation can initiate neuroplastic changes in both the prefrontal cortex and amygdala, positively influencing how we regulate emotions. Meditation has been associated with increased grey matter and cortical thickness in the prefrontal cortex and decreased brain cell volume in the amygdala.45

These structural changes might allow the cognitive functions of the prefrontal cortex to become stronger, even while allowing reactivity to emotions and stress as produced by the amygdala to become weaker. With practice, meditation may enhance self-regulation by boosting cognitive flexibility and decreasing emotional reactivity, changes which in turn promote healthy responses to stress.

When it comes to establishing a regular meditation practice, accessibility is key. If meditation becomes one more thing on our to-do list, we are more likely to experience stress before or during our practice, which in turn may mean that we have a harder time sticking with it. Remember, meditation has a cumulative effect, meaning the benefits are reaped through consistent practice over time, so it’s important to approach meditation in a way that makes it more likely to become a part of our lifestyle. Below are a few tips that can help you incorporate meditation into your life.

When it comes to establishing a regular meditation practice, accessibility is key.

1. Start simple: Sit for three minutes.

Start with sitting quietly for three minutes and see where it takes you. Use a meditation app on your phone (silence the ringer) or set a timer. Don’t ask any more of yourself than sitting quietly for these three minutes with your eyes closed, mentally following your breath. What happens from there doesn’t matter. Step one is to just get into the habit of showing up for meditation and committing to being quiet. If you do this each day, you may experience noticeable benefits, like less reactivity and more tranquility. Eventually, you’ll probably sense that you need more than three minutes and will start increasing your time.

2. Select a time and meditate at that time every day.

It helps to have a regular time and space for your meditation practice. You might try different times of day to see what works for you. The mind may be calmer in the morning than later in the day. Choose a time that you can commit to. If it helps to have a dedicated space with a meditation cushion and an altar with candles, that’s fine, but it’s not necessary. Sitting against the wall or in a chair is recommended if you find that sitting on the floor is uncomfortable.

3. Choose something on which to anchor your attention.

If we don’t choose a point of focus, the mind ends up pulling us in multiple directions. You can follow your breath or choose either the inhale or the exhale to focus on. Another option is to count the length of the inhale and/or exhale to maintain concentration. If focusing on the breath isn’t working for you, try a phrase related to why you are sitting in the first place. For example, you can mentally say “Be” on your inhale and “still” on your exhale.

4. Release expectations of what meditation should or should not be. Let go of the end result.

There’s no hard-and-fast “right” versus “wrong” way to meditate, and there’s not a magic number of minutes that leads to the best results. Refrain from bringing a controlling mindset into your meditation practice. Let go of worrying about doing it right, of pushing yourself to increase your sitting time, and of thoughts of not being “good” at it. Instead, take a calm and open approach. Acknowledge that just showing up and sitting is a success.

5. Label thoughts as thoughts and let them go.

To be human is to have a stream of consciousness running through our minds at all times. What’s neat about meditation is that it is a mental break from the chatter of the mind. All meditators experience lapses in focus during which their minds wander—the key is not to go down the rabbit hole by pursuing those inevitable thoughts. When you notice yourself indulging in thought, label it as thought, and then go back to your anchor (your breath or other focal point).

6. Be willing to try different techniques.

If sitting and following your breath is not working so well for you, try a different approach. Use a guided meditation app that allows you to select how long you want to meditate and then be led through a practice (Insight Timer, Headspace, and Calm are popular choices). Or (as noted above) work with repetition of a phrase (mantra) to keep the mind focused. If my mind is particularly busy, I mentally repeat “I am peace” as I practice. If closing your eyes is difficult, try a one-pointed visual focus technique like candle meditation. Light an unscented candle and place it three feet away from you at eye level. Bring a soft gaze to the glow surrounding the candle and maintain your focus there.

When we can skillfully manage stress and emotions, we function at our best. Enhanced self-regulation aids us in identifying opportunities in difficult situations, maintaining motivation, and being able to keep going when times are tough. Research on meditation seems to be heading toward revealing how the practice initiates structural and functional changes in the brain that impact our ability to think and respond to stress. Through meditation, we can learn to clear the mind and strengthen our ability to stay present. With this presence may come better decision-making and a clearer sense of how to accomplish our goals. Once the mind is balanced, other behaviors follow.

Footnotes

1. Arnsten, A.F.T., Raskind, M.A., Taylor, F.B., & Connor, D.F. The effects of stress exposure on prefrontal cortex: Translating basic research into successful treatments for post-traumaticstress disorder. Neurobiology of Stress, 1, 89-99, 2015.

2. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897, 2005.

3. Taren, A.A., Gianaros, P.J., Greco, C.M., Lindsay, E., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K.W., . . . Creswell, J.D. Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting statefunctional connectivity: a randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(12), 1758-68, 2015.

4. Lazar, S. W., Kerr, C. E., Wasserman, R. H., Gray, J. R., Greve, D. N., Treadway, M. T., . . . Fischl, B. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness. NeuroReport, 16(17), 1893-1897, 2005.

5. Holzel, B.K., Carmody, J., Evans, K.C., Hoge, E.A., Dusek, J.A., Morgan, L., . . . Lazar, S.W. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11-17, 2010.

Holzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S. M., Gard, T., & Lazar, S. W. Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Psychiatry Research, 191(1), 36-43, 2011.

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