Brain Hacking Stress with Meditation
Chip Grossman — June 11, 2017
If you told me 10 years ago that one day my favorite thing to do would be to sit quietly and pay attention to my breath, I would have called you crazy.
Little did I know that sitting quietly had much to offer me. Something that I really needed. Presence.
To be present is to be here now. To be in the moment. The moment has much to offer — so many things to hear, smell, see, taste and touch. But we often are out of touch with these beautiful sensations. Paying attention to sensation is what meditation is all about.
Meditation is an ancient practice. It’s more than 2500 years old. It has lasted all these years because it works. It works to make you more present.
The basic idea of mindfulness meditation is to pay attention to your thoughts and the sensations in and around your body. You can think of meditation as any activity in which you are actively and consciously engaging your brain in a non-automatic mode of thinking. You’re paying close attention to your thoughts and you are honing your concentration.
Try it out for a second. Take one full inhale, and one full exhale. As you exhale see if you can relax your face muscles a little bit. See if you can notice any sounds or smells around you that you didn’t notice until you paid attention. See if you can notice the feelings of your clothes on your body. See if you can feel your heartbeat.
Congrats! You just had a mindful moment. You were paying attention to those physical sensations, and maybe for a second you weren’t lost in thought. That’s pretty cool.
One of the interesting realizations I had while reading Your Brain at Work was that when you do the above practice, you physically engage different regions of your brain. You use some mental energy to focus on the experience of the moment. As opposed to being in “story mode”, where you’re thinking about this or that, you’re actually tuned into what’s going on around you. You’re tuned into the present moment.
Living in the present moment is what I live for…This is fueled by my understanding of what it’s like to not live in the present moment. I used to have crushing anxiety because I was always freaking out about the past or future. Meditation is my all natural cure to anxiety. That’s why I do it every day. It makes life WAY more enjoyable.
Neuroscience explains why it makes my life more enjoyable. As David Rock notes in Your Brain at Work, “making decisions and solving problems relies heavily on a region of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex”. The Prefrontal Cortex (PFC) is located right behind your forehead, and it’s the region where your brain processes your sense of self. “I’m a guy — I’m buff — I’m overweight — I’m a nice girl” — These are the kinds of thoughts your PFC holds. We build these stories about ourselves, and we come up with a sense of who we are based on those stories. With meditation practice we begin to recognize these stories, and we slowly learn to see them as just thoughts and not our identity. It’s complex stuff, and it might be hard to understand if you’re just starting, but it makes sense over time.
As an example, let’s consider the thinking you might do around an upcoming deadline for a project. Say you start freaking out about it. You’re doing all this thinking about this deadline, and you’re now having thoughts that your brain perceives as a threat. Having a thought like “s*** there’s no way I can get this done on time” literally sends a signal to your brain that you are now in a situation of danger.
Having perceived a dangerous situation, your PFC starts sending threat signals to your amygdala, a different region in your brain (here’s an animation that demonstrates how that works). The amygdala controls emotions. So your deadline thought triggers your amygdala to go into stress mode, which means your body releases stress hormones like cortisol and norepinephrine. David Rock notes that these chemicals cause physiological changes in your body like increased heart rate, increased tension, and reduced functioning of the autoimmune system. Your body literally goes into emergency mode, and while this is helpful for emergencies, it’s not always helpful in everyday life.
So now your body is in a “stressed” state from a chemical perspective. It’s changing your physiological makeup for the time-being. The thing is, these chemicals released during the stress response aren’t good for our long term health. As noted in this article by the American Psychological Association, chronic stress actually leads to “serious health conditions including weakened immune system…and the development of major illnesses such as heart disease, depression, and obesity”. That’s why the saying “Stress Kills” is true.
Not all stress is bad, though. Stress is important to our lives. It’s an evolutionary adaptation that led to our survival. By perceiving threats that weren’t in our immediate surroundings we were able to preemptively avoid predators like saber tooth tigers. The smart Cavemen back in the day were the ones who were thinking “I’m going to get up in this tree in case there’s a tiger around that corner”. They were planning for a threat even though it wasn’t there. The cavemen who were lying down in an open field looking at the sky, not stressed about anything, were the ones who got eaten. So over time, the stressful survived. We evolved from freaked out apes, not relaxed ones.
The stressful also thrive in the USA. It’s that type A drive that gets a lot of people to the top. But even still, most people aren’t operating at what David Rock calls “Peak Performance level”. In order to perform at this level, you want to have an optimal stress level. If you don’t have any stress, you’ll be too relaxed and won’t get much done. We all need some stress to motivate us to achieve our goals, but it’s easy to cross that level and become over-stressed.
When I was younger, I had my stress response firing on full blast 24/7. It’s just how it was. Then I found meditation, and I learned over time how to get more control over my own stress response. Now it doesn’t fire as much. I stress way less, and as a result I am able to get a ton more accomplished.
Meditation trains you to stay focused on the present moment. That includes all that you sense, feel, and think. As you develop your meditation practice, over time you become more skilled in staying aware of your thoughts as they occur in real time. Thus, after some meditation practice, you might notice that same deadline thought occurring before it has a chance to grow into a fully fledged state of stress. You notice that thought occurring, and gently bring your focus back to the present moment. Thus, you avoid that panic state all together. You stay cool, and you’re able to get back to work. Boom. That’s efficiency.
Do you want to have more control over your own stress response? Then you might give meditation a shot.
- Meditation is the practice of paying attention to all that exists in the present moment, including sensations, thoughts and emotions.
- You can practice meditation with as little as one breath. Breathing in, notice the muscles in your face. Breathing out, relax them.
- Most of us live with levels of stress that are way more than optimal. With meditation practice you become more effective in managing stress and negative mental states.
- Not all stress is bad, and the goal isn’t to eliminate stress altogether. We just want to get our stress to optimal levels so we can thrive in all that we do.
- Meditation is the equivalent of mental reps in the gym. You are training your mind like a muscle to stay focused on the present moment. As a nice side effect, you stress less about past and future events.
Thanks for reading!
Originally published at www.chipgrossman.com on June 11, 2017.