Modern life, despite all our technology, can still feel challenging. Many of us work very long hours to make ends meet, burdened by stress that can dramatically affect our health. The internet provides us with a wealth of helpful knowledge but also bombards us with headlines that can make us uneasy about the state of the world. In short, life can feel very stressful. Sometimes, leaving it all behind and becoming a monk may seem like a perfect way to escape it all. Though this may work for some, this is simply not a practical thing to do for many of us. Many of us are here to stay. However, even though the stressful nature of society will not change for a very long time, it is possible to reorient one’s perspective so that it feels less stressful. In other words, rather than needing to go to a temple to become a monk, one can learn to bring the monk mind here.
It can be challenging to know where to begin to generate a positive outlook on life. So many people try to give advice, yet there never seems to be a “one size fits all” approach. We attempt to solve our outlooks by rationalizing the situation in a more positive way. Indeed, this can be useful for some, but not all. Furthermore, different people require different rationalizations. Regardless of advice, some are still stuck wondering how to have a better outlook on life. There is, of course, another method of perspective, and that is through non-judgment and simple acceptance.
Mindfulness meditation is a method of training the mind to become calmer and more at peace. In the scientific community, meditation is defined as a method of self-regulation of attention to the present moment, involving adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences characterized by curiosity, openness, acceptance, and non-judgmental (Bishop et al., 2004). The benefits of meditation are many; however, much more research is required to understand its benefits and mechanisms better. The most well-documented benefit of mindfulness meditation is its ability to alleviate stress and anxiety (Greeson et al., 2018; Petterson & Olson, 2017; Querstret et al., 2020). The method by which this occurs is still reasonably unclear, yet many researchers have developed psychological and physiological theories. Furthermore, meditation reduces stress and anxiety while also creating resilience (Chin et al., 2019; Hwang et al., 2018). So, not only does it seem to be a curative treatment, but a preventative one as well. Understanding how meditation creates stress resilience is crucial to understand why meditation is so beneficial to health—the lessons provided in the research share profound philosophical lessons for us to bear in mind.
When studying meditation and its effects on the mind and body, it is essential to take a neuroscientific and psychological approach. The neuroscientific approach is valuable in both providing evidence that meditation impacts the body and sheds light on the mechanisms of action. A psychological perspective is also critical because it evaluates the mental schemas’ effect on the body to better understand how the reader can practice this at home and in their daily lives. Both points of view will be discussed below.
Amygdala and ACC connectivity
The two brain areas that seem to be highly related to the process of resilience toward stress induced by mindfulness meditation are the amygdala and the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC).
The amygdala is found medial to the brain’s temporal lobe and plays a vital role in emotional regulation and attention (Desbordes et al., 2012). For this reason, numerous studies have shown to be heavily involved in the experience of stress (Britton, 2006; Hölzel et al., 2009; Rubinow et al., 2016). It also influences the body in response to stress. For example, the amygdala regulates blood pressure in response to stressful stimuli (Saha, 2005).
The role of the ACC is seemingly more complex than the amygdala. In general, it is involved in executing responses regarding incoming interoceptive signals (signals from within the body) (Craig, 2002). For this reason, it connects to the motor cortex of the brain (Craig, 2002). On this same note, the anterior portion of the amygdala, the more executive region, has been associated with regulating endocrine functions, conditioned learning responses, expressing internal states vocally, and maternal-infant interactions (Devinsky et al., 1995). The ACC is related mainly to the processing of internal stimuli, associating it with the practice of mindfulness meditation. Less clear is how it relates to the amygdala and resilience to stress.
The neuroscientific observations of stress resilience are found within the connectivity between the amygdala and the ACC. In a randomized control trial involving a 3-day intensive mindfulness meditation program, researchers found that reduced stress following the practice was marked by decreased communication between the amygdala and the ACC (Taren et al., 2014). The study also noted reduced communication between the amygdala and ACC lessened HPA-axis activation (Taren et al., 2014). The HPA-axis is responsible for releasing hormones such as cortisol, which is a common biomarker for the activation of stress. This study is not alone in observing signs that mindfulness meditation reduces cortisol (Hoge et al., 2018). This is strong evidence that meditation induces physical changes within the brain, promoting resilience to biological responses to stress. The question is, how does this occur mentally, and how can we put this into practice?
Important Techniques within Meditation
The discussion and research surrounding how meditation leads to physical changes in the brain and body are complex and poorly understood. The appreciation for science in the west is new, and there is much research to be done. The author’s current opinion is that meditation involves both physical and mental mechanisms that lead to some of its practical health benefits. Regarding resilience, a randomized control trial also observed that the resilience created was both physical and mental (Hoge et al., 2018). Though the exact mechanism is not fully understood, there has been an effort to gain insight applicable to modern-day life.
The research involving the mechanism at which meditation generates resilience towards stress is often pursued from a psychological point of view. To pursue this question, experiments involve different groups of people who are asked to perform similar tasks but differ in mental schemas practiced. The observed differences in health results indicate specific meditation techniques that are so helpful in generating resilience. For example, a randomized control trial in 2018 involved sending a group of participants to a temple (Hwang et al., 2018). One group was asked to participate in meditation sessions, while another group was asked to simply relax during this time at a peaceful place. The purpose was to discern whether or not the relaxing aspect of meditation was sufficient to produce resilience to stress or if something else was causing the change. The results found that both groups showed short-term benefits, but only the meditators had prolonged resilience towards stress months after the experiment. The results indicate that there was a mental practice involved through meditation that promoted stress resilience. A randomized control trial in 2019 expanded on this investigation by having one group of meditators purely practice the focused attention on the present, while the other group focused on the present while also cultivating a perspective of acceptance to all incoming stimuli (Chin et al., 2019). This study found that those who practiced a non-judgmental awareness showed a more significant reduction of stress than the attention group and the non-meditators, suggesting that the non-judgmental awareness of the present moment and experience was an essential aspect of stress resilience. Others have produced a similar theory on why meditation seems to be a healthy therapeutic method for those suffering from PTSD (Thompson & Waltz, 2010). The significance of these findings is not only crucial for those who have a meditation practice but anyone in general.
A key aspect of meditation practice is to be mindful and aware of the present experience and interpret all thoughts, experiences, and stimuli in an accepting and non-judgemental manner. Not only is this important within the philosophical teachings, but it is a core aspect of how meditation works from a scientific point of view. This has profound implications for the importance of how we generate personal narratives. In meditation, one learns to let go of every incoming experience, no matter how tempting it is to value that thought or feeling. This is perhaps why the amygdala and ACC are involved. The amygdala is involved in emotions and stress, and the ACC is involved in “doing something about it.” In meditation, no matter the feeling, thought, or stressor, one must cultivate an attitude of acceptance. One must simply continue sitting and focusing on the present. There is no evaluation, no judgment, simply acceptance.
This article began with the idea that one can become resilient to stress and experience less of it by simply reorienting their perspective of modern stressors. It was also stated that there is seemingly no one answer for everyone. This may be because people often try to generate rational or schemas to help people think about events differently. This article argues a different approach: don’t think, just accept, let go, and move on. This is easier said than done, of course, and by no means are the benefits of meditation best articulated through argument. It is best to be experienced first hand.
Nonetheless, we are heavily burdened by the values we give to thoughts related to the stressors of modern-day life. We cannot avoid the stressors, but we can change their power over us. Removing their meaning and value removes their power and influence.
Bishop, S. R., Lau, M., Shapiro, S., Carlson, L., Anderson, N. D., Carmody, J., Segal, Z. v., Abbey, S., Speca, M., Velting, D., & Devins, G. (2004). Mindfulness: A Proposed Operational Definition. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 11(3), 230–241. https://doi.org/10.1093/clipsy.bph077
Britton, W. B. (2006). Meditation and Depression.
Chin, B., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Brown, K. W., Smyth, J. M., Wright, A. G. C., & Creswell, J. D. (2019). Psychological mechanisms driving stress resilience in mindfulness training: A randomized controlled trial. Health Psychology, 38(8), 759–768. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000763
Craig, A. D. (2002). How do you feel? Nature Review. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105308095062
Desbordes, G., Negi, L. T., Pace, T. W. W., Alan Wallace, B., Raison, C. L., & Schwartz, E. L. (2012). Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, Nonmeditative State. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 6(OCTOBER 2012), 292. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2012.00292
Devinsky, O., Morrell, M. J., & Vogt, B. A. (1995). Contributions of anterior cingulate cortex to behaviour. Brain, 118(1), 279–306. https://doi.org/10.1093/BRAIN/118.1.279
Greeson, J. M., Zarrin, H., Smoski, M. J., Brantley, J. G., Lynch, T. R., Webber, D. M., Hall, M. H., Suarez, E. C., & Wolever, R. Q. (2018). Mindfulness Meditation Targets Transdiagnostic Symptoms Implicated in Stress-Related Disorders: Understanding Relationships between Changes in Mindfulness, Sleep Quality, and Physical Symptoms. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2018. https://doi.org/10.1155/2018/4505191
Hoge, E. A., Bui, E., Palitz, S. A., Schwarz, N. R., Owens, M. E., Johnston, J. M., Pollack, M. H., & Simon, N. M. (2018). The effect of mindfulness meditation training on biological acute stress responses in generalized anxiety disorder. Psychiatry Research, 262(May 2016), 328–332. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychres.2017.01.006
Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., Pitman, R. K., & Lazar, S. W. (2009). Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5(1), 11–17. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsp034
Hwang, W. J., Lee, T. Y., Lim, K. O., Bae, D., Kwak, S., Park, H. Y., & Kwon, J. S. (2018). The effects of four days of intensive mindfulness meditation training (Templestay program) on resilience to stress: A randomized controlled trial. Psychology, Health and Medicine, 23(5), 497–504. https://doi.org/10.1080/13548506.2017.1363400
Petterson, H., & Olson, B. L. (2017). Effects of mindfulness-based interventions in high school and college athletes for reducing stress and injury, and improving quality of life. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation, 26(6), 578–587. https://doi.org/10.1123/jsr.2016-0047
Querstret, D., Morison, L., Dickinson, S., Cropley, M., & John, M. (2020). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for psychological health and well-being in nonclinical samples: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Stress Management, 27(4), 394–411. https://doi.org/10.1037/str0000165
Rubinow, M. J., Mahajan, G., May, W., Overholser, J. C., Jurjus, G. J., Dieter, L., Herbst, N., Steffens, D. C., Miguel-Hidalgo, J. J., Rajkowska, G., & Stockmeier, C. A. (2016). Basolateral amygdala volume and cell numbers in major depressive disorder: a postmortem stereological study. Brain Structure and Function, 221(1), 171–184. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00429-014-0900-z
Saha, S. (2005). ROLE OF THE CENTRAL NUCLEUS OF THE AMYGDALA IN THE CONTROL OF BLOOD PRESSURE: DESCENDING PATHWAYS TO MEDULLARY CARDIOVASCULAR NUCLEI. Clinical and Experimental Pharmacology and Physiology, 32(5–6), 450–456. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1440-1681.2005.04210.x
Taren, A. A., Gianaros, P. J., Greco, C. M., Lindsay, E. K., Fairgrieve, A., Brown, K. W., Rosen, R. K., Ferris, J. L., Julson, E., Marsland, A. L., Bursley, J. K., Ramsburg, J., & Creswell, J. D. (2014). Mindfulness meditation training alters stress-related amygdala resting state functional connectivity: A randomized controlled trial. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 10(12), 1758–1768. https://doi.org/10.1093/scan/nsv066
Thompson, B. L., & Waltz, J. (2010). Mindfulness and experiential avoidance as predictors of posttraumatic stress disorder avoidance symptom severity. Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 24(4), 409–415. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.janxdis.2010.02.005