Matters of the mind: using meditation for stress recovery

As Australia navigates its way from yet another lockdown – and a widespread one this time – it is natural for stress and anxiety levels to be on the rise. 

In fact, a recent study found that navigating life while in lockdown has a progressive detrimental impact on one’s psychological wellbeing, with around an eight to ten fold increase in the prevalence of stress and anxiety during lockdown. 

‘Stress’ has become a widespread term in our daily conversations and is surely an experience everyone feels at one time or another. However, another term, which is slowly becoming equally common yet infers such a different feeling, is ‘meditation’. 

Now, as someone who practices meditation regularly, I experienced the feeling of tranquility and stillness refreshing – almost as a way to escape the several hours spent indoors. Given its impact on my mental health, I wondered – could meditation help me escape stress or help me reduce and control it, in the least? 

The more I researched, the more studies demonstrated the benefits of meditation and mindfulness which induce a heightened state of awareness and focused attention.

To dive deeper into finding out about the connection between meditation and stress recovery, I decided to have a conversation with Dr Manjula O’Connor, who is one of the more qualified people to speak on the topic.

Dr Manjula O’Connor is a Melbourne-based consultant psychiatrist. Source: supplied.  

She is a consultant psychiatrist, someone I've personally known for the past five years and someone I adore, given her phenomenal social work projects driven to assist victims of domestic violence. 

Not just another psychiatrist, Dr O’Connor wears many hats and embodies many roles – she is a Chair for the Family Violence Working Group at the Royal Australian and NZ College of Psychiatrists, an advisor at White Ribbon CALD Reference Group, an Hon. Senior Fellow at the Department of Psychiatry, The University of Melbourne and the Executive Director, Australasian Centre for Human Rights and Health

What is your definition of stress?

Dr Manjula: Chronic fear leads to a chronic state of stress. There are three kinds of stress - good, tolerable and toxic. 

‘Good stress’ refers to the experience of rising to a challenge, taking a risk and feeling rewarded by an often-positive outcome. One can think of this as sitting for a driving test and passing. 

‘Tolerable stress’ refers to the situations where even when negative things happen, individuals with healthy brain structures are able to cope – often with the support of their family, friends and other individuals. It also helps if one has personal adaptive characteristics that promote resilience, for example, optimistic hopefulness or a desire to help others. A good way to understand tolerable stress is to imagine yourself sitting for a university entrance test and failing the test, but believing that through remaining hopeful and utilising the support of instructors and family, one can pass the exam the next time and feel rewarded.  

‘Toxic stress’ refers to the situations in which when negative things happen to an individual, the stress experienced is chronic and their body reacts in a strong manner. It could also be that the person experiencing toxic stress has limited social support. 

It is notable that if one already experiences low self-esteem, the degree of stress felt by them tends to be more severe with stronger body reactions. This may also leave a greater long-term damage to one’s body and the brain. 

Let’s talk about taking stress control. How can we manage to move away from stress?

Dr Manjula: One of the most important things in life is to feel in control of your own life. For example, by working in some form of employment, or through voluntary work or studying, one not only receives financial independence, but also gets a boost in their sense of self-esteem and networking. These social simulations often also present chances for social support and the opportunity to make decisions, which is good for their self-esteem.

When talking about stress, in particular, there are many ways to heal a stressed brain during the recovery and rehabilitation phase. 

For starters, if needed, one must take proper medical treatments and obtain the best-fitting method of therapy, particularly trauma-based therapy, cognitive behaviour therapy and/or supportive therapy.

Prayer and meditation are also some other ways of healing your brain and reducing stress levels and they also support one’s recovery alongside medications and therapy.  

Diving into meditation, it is a practice which indisputably goes back to thousands of years. Meditation, and chanting or prayer, are still widely practiced in several religions around the world. 

An intriguing practice, modern research has explicitly proven that meditation works well for relaxation and stress reduction. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress – this process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.

How would you define meditation?

Dr Manjula: Focused attention: Focusing your attention is generally one of the most important elements of meditation and a great deal of what helps to free your mind from the many distractions that cause stress and worry. You can focus your attention on such things as a specific object, an image, a mantra, or even your breathing.

Relaxed breathing: Meditation often involves a technique of taking deep, even-paced breaths while using the diaphragm muscle to expand your lungs. The purpose of this is to slow your breathing, take in more oxygen, and reduce the use of shoulder, neck and upper chest muscles while breathing, so one can breathe more efficiently.

‘Yoga’, a Sanskrit word meaning union of mind and body, is a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you become engrossed in the moment which leads to mindfulness away from negative thoughts.   

Why should we consider making meditation a regular practice in our busy lives, especially now? 

Dr Manjula: Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and birth a tranquil mind. It can give you a sense of calm, peace and balance that can benefit both your emotional well-being and your overall health.

When you meditate, you are able to clear away the negative thoughts that have built up during periods of stress inducing situations and move away from them. 

The emotional benefits of meditation can include gaining a new perspective on stressful situations, increasing self-awareness, focusing on the present and building skills to manage your stress. The most important aspect is letting your thoughts pass through your mind without judgment. 

Some research suggests meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as anxiety, depression, sleep problems, chronic pain and tension headaches. To be clear, meditation is not a replacement for medical treatments but it may potentially be a useful addition to other treatments. You must speak to your doctor about it as sometimes meditation could even worsen some mental conditions. 

Constant preoccupation with negative thoughts damages the brain structure and upsets the neurochemical balance in the brain, and thus, mindfulness and focusing on the present gives the brain a chance to remove itself from constant fear, and negative self-critical thoughts.   

As we navigate the pandemic, chanting prayers, feeling love and gratitude for a higher being, repeating a mantra, reading a sacred textbook and reflecting on its meaning are useful ways to get away from negative stressful thoughts, enjoy the positive emotion of love and being cared for. Meditation gives your brain a chance to repair and heal itself, all while reducing stress chemicals in your body and brain.   

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