Happiness: Meditation Changes Your Body’s Response to Stress

Meditation’s goal is to create a “relaxation response” in ourselves. When we are deeply relaxed, when our mind and our body is quiet, we recover quickly from stress. We have known for years that this is good for us. But a new study tells us that meditation actually changes how our body responds to new stresses. When our body is under stress, it reacts by getting ready to run or fight, or perhaps to “play dead.” While the stress changes were helpful when we lived in primitive conditions, today they really aren’t helpful. After all, when is the last time to had to capture and kill an animal so you could eat? Or run from some predator who wanted to eat you?

Instead, today’s stresses are mental, not physical threats. In other words, the things the body does – run away or fight – don’t help us solve today’s problems. But the problem is that your body doesn’t know if it is 2008 or 10,000 B.C. So it keeps on using same defenses.

Now we know that we bounce back much better from stress generally if we do certain things: Physically exercise every day – for 30 to 60 minutes – to burn off our stress hormones. Daily exercise is as good of an antidepressant as any of the prescription medications. Meditate for 15 to 20 minutes every day, clearing the mind and entering into a sleep-like state.

But what the study asked is whether meditation actually changes how our body reacts to new stresses. It asked this question by testing two groups: One group of experienced meditators, and one group of people who had never meditated but were willing to go through eight weeks of training. They found that both the experienced meditators and the new meditators showed the same type of benefit, over people who had no training in meditation The authors said their study showed that “the relaxation response changed the expression of genes involved with inflammation, programmed cell death and the handling of free radicals. Free radicals are normal byproducts of metabolism that the body neutralizes in order to stop damage to cells and tissues.” What that means is that stress didn’t bother the bodies of the meditators as much. They simply were stronger in the face of problems!

The surprising thing is that this happens at a genetic level! In other words, your own DNA shifts and modifies itself to express fewer stress related genes and more expression of calming and confident genes. What kind of meditation? Frankly, every type is helpful, and there isn’t any evidence that one style is better than another. If you are of a more mystical bent, try Transcendental Meditation or take a class in Yoga. I personally use Autogenic Training and have for over thirty years. Herbert Bensen has a classic book, “The Relaxation Response” which teaches a simply type of meditation. Mindfulness Meditation is also great. Do some Google searches on meditation and find one that fits your needs!

Copyright © 2008 by Lynn D. Johnson, Ph.D. You may reproduce this handout.