We’ve all heard that meditation can help to reduce our stress levels. Studies have proven that it works, and many doctors now recommend meditation to patients who are stressed.
But have you ever stopped to wonder why exactly meditation is so effective? Is it just that it’s beneficial to escape from our everyday lives for a while and clear our minds?
New research suggests that there’s more to it than that. A recently published study shows that meditating regularly can help us develop certain skills which make coping with stress much easier. And these changes are so significant that they can even be measured in our bodies.
When we get stressed, our levels of a hormone called cortisol increase rapidly. As we calm down, they slowly decrease again. But researchers have found that in those who meditate, cortisol levels drop faster after people are exposed to a stressful situation.
Though interesting, this doesn’t really tell us very much—previous studies have already shown that meditation helps with stress relief. But what’s different about this study is that it also measured certain personality traits in both meditators and non-meditators to find out exactly why meditation is so beneficial.
The results? Meditators scored better on a number of traits linked to our response to stress. One trait was particularly significant—acceptance.
Accepting what is
What does it mean to be skilled at acceptance? In this context, the term means accepting the stressful situations we go through for what they are. Rather than wasting time and energy wishing things weren’t happening, meditators accept the situation and focus on the solution.
Why does meditation help us cultivate acceptance? It may be because taking some time to breathe and calm down allows us to put things into perspective. We realize that stressing out and resisting reality is not beneficial, and that in the long run it will only make us feel worse. Once we’ve come to this conclusion, the logical thing to do is accept the situation.
The researchers also identified compassion as a factor in acceptance—specifically, compassion towards ourselves. Meditation helps us to realize that we’re doing the best we can; we have no need to be ashamed or worry that we aren’t doing enough. This allows us to stay present and focus on what we can do right here, right now.
Acceptance wasn’t the only area where the meditators in the study fared better. Another was the ability to put a positive spin on the situation. This doesn’t mean denying that certain events are difficult or stressful—rather, it’s about recognizing that things are rarely all bad. There are often important lessons to be learned from situations which don’t go so well, and this can be a positive thing in the long run.
Meditators also tended not to get overly worked up over stressful situations. Again, they showed an ability to see things as they really were and keep things in perspective. This skill, along with the others, allowed the meditators in the study to regulate and process their emotions in a healthy way.
Putting it into practice
How much meditation do we need to do to reap the benefits? It’s hard to give a specific figure, but the most important thing seems to be regular practice. An occasional session here and there may provide short-term stress relief, but it likely won’t have long-term benefits. All the meditators in the study had been practicing for a minimum of three hours a week for three years or more. To get the full benefits of meditation practice, you may need to be a pretty committed practitioner.
But meditation is still worthwhile for those who can’t commit to several hours a week. Even 10 or 20 minutes a day can help us to de-stress and clear our minds. And starting with a short but regular practice helps us to form the habit and gives us something to build on.
With most of us incredibly busy and stressed out, we could all benefit from learning to regulate our emotions and channel them in a productive way. And meditation may just be the simplest and most powerful tool we have at our disposal.
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Photo: Jesse Bowser on Unsplash