Never meditated? I get it. Neither had I before turning thirty. But once I hit that landmark, my mind and body began failing me, at thirty years old! I was feeling anxious at my office, developing nervous facial tics, and waking up in the middle of the night with panic attacks. Medical tests like an electrocardiogram (ekg) for my heart and an electroencephalogram (eeg) for my head concluded I had nothing medically wrong.
Friends and family encouraged me to see a therapist and take medication to help deal with my stress. Growing up going to my father’s pharmacy taught me how medication can help people, but I had my reasons for resisting pills as the solution. I didn’t want to be beholden to the pharmaceutical companies and the side-effects of their drugs. I had a thirst to discover the inner workings of why my body was failing me. I didn’t want medication masking underlying issues that my mind and body could reveal, so I decided to take a few months and do a deep dive into what was happening. Pills would be the last resort.
Reading books like The Celestine Prophecy by James Redfield, The Anatomy of the Spirit by Caroline Myss, and Many Lives, Many Masters by Brian Weiss opened my mind to a different way of thinking. While I was well versed in Western medicine, it was a revelation to discover Eastern medicine, which addresses different treatment modalities. While it may be obvious to some, I discovered for the first time that there is a strong mind-body connection. A light bulb turned on for me: if my mind’s not in a good place, then the body follows suit.
Here’s a simple example of the physiological effects of stress on the body. By having a negative and stressful thought, the hypothalamus (a tiny control center in your brain) sends out signals to your adrenal glands to release stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones start the “fight or flight” response. The hormones increase your heart rate and send blood rushing to the areas that need it most in an emergency, like your muscles, heart and other important organs. While this is good in an emergency situation, frequent or chronic stress will cause harmful effects throughout the body. During the stress response, the muscles helping you breathe tense up, causing rapid breathing and leaving you short of breath. When the perceived fear is gone, the hypothalamus should signal all the systems to go back to normal. But, if the stressors don’t go away, then the central nervous system fails to return to normal and the response will continue. Chronic stress hormones lead to an increased heart rate and tighten your blood vessels, which can raise your blood pressure. Over the long term this can cause damaged arteries and an increased risk of a stroke or heart attack.
Now, let’s explore the opposite effect. When the hypothalamus is not bombarded with negative and stressful thoughts, cortisol production decreases and the brain manufactures serotonin. This hormone impacts every part of your body, from your emotions to your motor skills. It’s considered a natural mood stabilizer. The chemical helps with sleeping, eating and digesting. For example, serotonin is found primarily in the stomach, intestines and brain. It helps control your bowel movements and function. Production of serotonin rises to push noxious or upsetting food out of your system and, in excess, can stimulate nausea or diarrhea. Serotonin also stimulates parts of the brain that controls sleeping. Whether you’re awake or asleep depends on what area is stimulated and which serotonin receptor is in use. Serotonin in the brain is responsible for regulating anxiety, happiness and mood. Low levels of the chemical have been associated with depression while normal to increased levels help you feel calmer, less anxious, more focused and emotionally stable.
Exposure to bright light through sunshine or light therapy increases serotonin levels. Regular exercise can have mood-boosting effects along with a healthy diet. Food such as eggs, cheese, turkey, nuts, salmon, tofu and pineapple can increase your serotonin levels. During my research I was surprised to discover meditation can help relieve stress and promote a positive outlook on life, which can greatly boost your serotonin levels.
I’m still a scientist at heart, so I needed medical evidence that meditation could help people. During my deep dive, I discovered that there are hundreds of scientific articles in peer-reviewed journals touting the benefits of meditation.
Meditation has been studied in fields ranging from clinical psychology to preventive medicine. One article I found, in the November 2014 Scientific American, addresses the various benefits derived from meditation. Depression, chronic pain, and stress all seem to respond positively to meditative practices. Universities have reported that meditation may be clinically effective in helping the body fight off inflammatory diseases. It caught my attention that a study using magnetic resonance imaging had discovered that experienced practitioners of Buddhist meditation have been shown to have decreased volume of the amygdala—the fear processing center in their brain.
Through books and online research, I was convinced that meditation is a way to cultivate the basic human qualities that can reduce suffering in life. Your mind becomes more stable and clear, you achieve emotional balance, and you begin to develop more love and compassion. We all have the potential to grow this way, but these qualities can remain latent if we don’t make an effort to develop them through a practice like meditation. And, it is just that—a practice rather than an activity; a way of being rather than a daily ritual.
Once I proved to myself that there was scientific and sound reasoning to start meditating, I needed to figure out how to do it. Being a perfectionist, I searched for the correct way to meditate. After going to some classes and reading a lot of books I discovered that you can drive yourself crazy reading up on all the various ways to meditate. But meditation is very personal. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate.
When I first started meditating, my mind would not stop thinking about other things, so I had to learn calming techniques. The first one was called focused attention—taming and centering the mind in the present moment while developing the capacity not to get distracted. Even after several months my mind was still not focusing on the present. I tried mindfulness—cultivating a detached reactive awareness to emotions to prevent thoughts and feelings from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. That lasted a couple of months, too, and then I fell right back into the dismal abyss of my melancholy state. Finally, I learned to meditate with compassion and loving kindness, which helps foster an altruistic perspective towards other people. Eventually, I learned to combine all three techniques.
Although I still have moments when anger and frustration overwhelm me, meditation has helped me feel less anxious. I now have the ability to help control my mind more when it wants to mess with me. By meditating, you can enrich the mind to be more stable and clear, develop love and compassion, and achieve emotional balance. Once the mind is healthy, it will facilitate self healing in the body. This power remains latent for many people, but you can make an effort to develop it through meditation, and it will serve you well!
If you enjoyed this article, make sure to check out Blaine Langberg’s new novel, “Journey of a Jubu”—a hilarious spiritual story of how a neurotic orthodontist came to find his inner peace. Now available online at all major book retailers.