Conquering the Health Effects of Chronic Stress Through Meditation and Mindfulness
A global pandemic. Civil unrest. Inflation. Supply chain crises. The threat of recession. Let’s face it: life is stressful, especially right now, and that chronic stress takes a toll.
Indeed, when you’re under prolonged and significant stress, it’s not only your mental health that’s going to be affected. Your physical health is likely to suffer in myriad ways as well.
The good news, however, is that there is a solution short of chucking it all and fleeing to a cave on a remote mountaintop. While you may not be able to control the stressors in your life, you can control your responses to them and that, in turn, means that you can manage how your life’s stresses impact your overall well-being.
Your greatest tool, in fact, for protecting your health from the effects of chronic stress may well lie in the practices of meditation and mindfulness.
The Stress-Sickness Cycle
Anyone who’s ever experienced chronic stress knows all too well how unpleasant it can be, and how quickly it can rob you of your peace and joy. However, the impacts of chronic stress run far deeper than even this.
Over time, persistent stress can be extremely detrimental to your health. Moreover, these negative health impacts are often far more wide-ranging than you might imagine.
For instance, research has shown that chronic stress can wreak havoc on the digestive system, altering the gut’s microbiome. These alterations in gut flora can impact the all-important mucus membrane lining your gastrointestinal system and nourishing, hydrating, and filtering cells throughout your body.
When the gut microbiome and mucus membrane are impacted, not only are you vulnerable to a range of digestive disorders, but you are also at significantly higher risk for health hazards far beyond the GI tract.
Indeed, given what we’re now understanding about the so-called “gut-brain axis,” when your gut microbiome is disrupted, so too is the functioning of your central and autonomic nervous systems. Your immune system, for example, will not be able to function properly, putting you at an elevated risk both for infections and for autoimmune diseases.
And it’s not only the gut-brain axis that is impacted by chronic stress. Stress can also take its toll on your skin, contributing to the emergence or the worsening of serious skin conditions, such as psoriasis and eczema. When you experience stress, your skin responds by releasing neuropeptides that can cause skin lesions, hives, itching, and redness. These neuropeptides can even reach the brain, triggering a neurochemical response that can leave you feeling even more anxious.
That’s not all, though. When you’re under chronic stress, you’re also significantly more likely to experience mental illness, ranging from depression to anxiety disorders. This occurs both from the effects of stress on the gut-brain axis and from the structural and functional changes that occur in the brain when it is under stress.
In other words, when you’re living with chronic stress, you’re likely to be sick all over, both in body and in mind. Worse, the stress-sickness cycle means that one element feeds on and instigates the other. To put it simply: When you’re sick, you’re stressed, and when you’re stressed, you’re going to get sick — that is, unless you take proactive measures to break the cycle.
De-stressing with Meditation and Mindfulness
It might seem like the stress-sickness cycle is something you just can’t break free of in these challenging times. Thankfully, this is not at all the case. In fact, by integrating meditation and mindfulness practices into your daily life, you can end this vicious cycle.
For instance, “body scan meditation” takes just five minutes and can not only help to calm and refocus your mind, but can also help to nurture your heart by reducing heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration.
When you’re feeling overwhelmed and anxious, learning to be present in the now can help you stop dwelling on trouble that may never actually come.
Another highly beneficial mindfulness technique is journaling. By keeping a nightly journal, you can purge the anxieties of the day and prepare your body for the all-important rest it needs. Likewise, making a gratitude list in the morning can help you orient your mind toward the positive, setting a healthier perspective and intention for the day.
There’s no question that life today is stressful, and that can leave you vulnerable to a host of mental and physical illnesses. The good news is that you don’t have to fall victim to the stress-sickness cycle. Practicing mindfulness and meditation each day can help you conquer whatever life throws your way, calming your mind, soothing your spirit, and restoring your body.
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