Chronic stress, anxiety and depression are becoming more and more common in our busy world. I know this reality all too well, since I myself lived with depression for many years. As the number of reported cases of depression increases, so does the economic impact of providing care for those most vulnerable. Depression alone is estimated to affect 16 million Americans and, according to the World Health Organization, is the leading cause of disability world wide. The total economic cost of major depressive disorder is now estimated to be $210.5 billion per year. These alarming stats illustrate the urgent need to find better ways to adequately help those who are living with high levels of chronic stress.
We all can relate to how stress negatively impacts our quality of life. You feel the tension, fatigue and anxiety in your body, and you see the way it can affect your ability to work, play, sleep and be present with loved ones.
A Vicious Cycle
Stress, when it’s chronic, is like a virus. It has a way of disrupting the underlying mechanisms that allow the body to function optimally. It’s complicated, but we know that it contributes to a vicious cycle that has negative effects on overall mental and physical health.
Have a look at the following quote from an article in Frontiers in Psychiatry on the Therapeutic Benefits of Meditation for Adults At Risk for Alzheimers:
“Chronic stress has been linked to adverse changes in sleep, mood and immunological function, and elevated risk for metabolic syndrome, cardiovascular disease and mortality. It can also have profound effects on memory and can cause other adverse changes in the brain, which can again profoundly affect mood, sleep, memory and learning. Chronic stress has also been implicated in the etiology of hypertension, obesity, and in the development and progression of CVD, type 2 diabetes, depression and related chronic disorders. These disorders have, in turn, been shown to predict cognitive dysfunction and to increase the risk for the development and progression of Alzheimer’s Disease.”
If you live with chronic stress, you will already know that its effects are cumulative; momentum builds over time, like a steam train, and can lead to other issues such as sleep disruptions, mood disorders and various illnesses that can further increase the steam train’s momentum.
The quote continues:
“Sleep disruption is common in cognitively impaired adults. Sleep disruption has negative effects on health, functioning, and quality of life. Sleep deficits are known to impair cognitive function in healthy populations and to accelerate cognitive decline. In addition, sleep disturbances have been strongly associated, in a bidirectional manner, with mood disorders and autonomic dysfunction, and can promote glucose intolerance, pro-inflammatory changes, obesity and hypertension. Sleep impairment has likewise been linked to increased risk for incident type 2 diabetes and for cardiovascular disease morbidity and mortality.”
What does bidirectional mean? It means that individual factors that create stress can create a feedback loop that perpetuates those same factors; A helps cause B, which in turn helps reinforce A. For example, chronic stress (A) can lead to insomnia (B) — Chronic stress (A) can lead to chronic illness (C) — Insomnia (B) can lead to high levels of anxiety or stress (D) — Insomnia (B) can lead to chronic illness (C) — Chronic illness (C) can lead to more sleep deprivation (B) and to more stress (D).
As each reinforces the others, the effects of everything together simply get stronger and harder to slow down. For many, it can become too intense to realize that there may be a way out.
Stress and Insomnia
Many of us don’t sleep well at night. We have trouble turning our minds off. We worry, plan, regret and feel guilty, making sleep more difficult or in some cases, impossible. Because our experiences feed off of one another, our daily lives can be dominated by negative emotions, making it challenging to feel good without considerable mindfulness. Shifting negative experiences in a meaningful way is possible, but only when we address the root of our problems.
Changing stress patterns in your life can take time and positive results may be realized slowly, but you can do it! The many manifestations of stress-related symptoms act as identifiers of where we need to shift our attention. Understanding triggers, such as relationships, living situations, or financial concerns, provides us with important information, so we can choose how to respond. To have a noticeable effect, we need to step between the cause (your job, family, money, etc) and the reaction (your stress, anxiety, endless thoughts, pain, worry, etc).
Meditation for Anxiety and Depression - Can it Help?
A few years ago, stress, anxiety, depression and insomnia were a constant reality in my life. It peaked when our son was born. With little time to address what was happening to me (and with so little sleep!), I felt like I simply needed to accept the way I felt, as though it was my new normal. There was nothing I could do about it.
At one point, I became acutely aware that I was on a downward spiral. I became determined to not allow it to continue, and I started doing some research.
As I said earlier, perpetual stress-filled days build on each other until the momentum feels unstoppable. It’s important to understand that when you initially try to slow down the ‘stress steam-train’, it might feel impossible the first time. However, if you try again, you may notice a tiny shift in its strength – barely noticeable. The next time, the same thing. If you then choose to make it a daily practice, whatever you are doing to conquer your stress can begin to overcome the momentum that has accrued.
Meditation is a great example of an effective counter to a stressful life. In fact, a regular meditation practice is not only an effective means of slowing down the ‘stress steam-train’, but it can become a ‘dream-train’ itself. Its effects are also cumulative. Its momentum builds as you continue practicing and its force can gradually reduce that influence that stress and anxiety have in your life, if you stay disciplined.
Many studies reflect this reality. They’ve shown that even brief meditative practices can improve perceived stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms, enhance quality of life, decrease sleep disturbance, improve brain function and reduce your fight or flight response. They’ve shown that meditation promotes beneficial changes in brain chemicals and increases blood flow, oxygen delivery and glucose utilization in specific regions of the brain associated with mood elevation and memory. Meditation helps enhance immune response, reduce blood pressure, insulin resistance and glucose intolerance and inflammation. Long term meditation practice has also been associated with cortical thickening and increased gray matter volume in brain regions involved in attentional performance and sensory processing, apparently offsetting typical age-related cortical thinning and gray matter loss.
We know meditation works. It’s also simple, economical, noninvasive and can be easily learned and practiced by almost anyone, even by the elderly, ill or disabled.
What is Meditation?
Meditation can be broadly defined as “an intentional and self-regulated focusing of attention, whose purpose is to relax and calm the mind and body”. There are many different names, including mantra, mindfulness, kundalini, TM, loving kindness, vipassana, yoga nidra, relaxation techniques and visualization. It doesn’t matter what we call it or what technique you use. What does matter is that it resonates with you, that you experience a focused attention that makes you feel more alert and awake, and as a result your mind and body relax.”
How Does Meditation Work?
Let’s narrow down the reasons why meditation works to provide a brief analysis of why it’s effective for stress, anxiety and depression. There has been an incredible amount of research into meditation in the past decade, and although the mechanisms underlying its beneficial effects are not yet well understood, they likely occur because of four effects on the body.
Meditation reduces activation of the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for stimulating the body’s fight-or-flight response. In doing so, it promotes feelings of well-being, alleviates the effects of stress, enhances sleep and mood and causes many more beneficial changes in the body.
Meditation enhances parasympathetic activity, which moves the body toward rest, shifting the balance of the autonomic nervous system more toward the parasympathetic.
Meditation selectively activates the specific parts of the brain associated with positive mood, attention and memory.
The last one I find to be absolutely incredible. Meditation may also help prevent damage to your telomeres. Telomeres are a region at the end of your chromosomes that are linked with aging. In fact, the shortening of your telomeres have been linked to stress, depression, sleep loss and been shown to predict cognitive decline. So, in effect, meditation may help lower the effects of stress-induced cellular aging.
These effects (with the exception of number 4), can be felt in a very tactile and perceptible way! More and more studies are showing that in order to heal from stress-related illness we need regular devotion to eradicating it. We don’t heal by having an enlightened idea; we heal by repeating what allows us to look within, what encourages us to better understand ourselves.
Yoga for Anxiety and Depression - Can Yoga Help?
Yoga has also been shown to be an effective alternative treatment for stress, anxiety and depression. It has been shown to be effective with fatigue, depression, inflammation, anxiety, stress and tension and to improve sleep quality, general well-being and vitality. A regular yoga practice can literally transform your life, as it did for many who participated in our Transform Your Life 30-Day Yoga Challenge. Yoga can help with stress relief and help us let go of the many fears, emotional blocks and tension that we hold inside. It can help us live more fully and with more joy.
At the foundation of yoga are a series of ‘right living’ or ethical rules to live by. They are called yamas, and are designed to help us learn about ourselves, by asking questions that make is think about how we live, make choices and exist in the world. Three of the yamas in particular help us dig deeper into who we are as humans and help illustrate how yoga can help us live with chronic stress, anxiety and depression.
Satya is the principle of truthfulness and living in integrity. These principles really only come alive when you ask yourself what they mean to you. Therefore, it’s helpful to explore their wisdom through a question. For example, have you ever spent just one hour paying close attention to everything you say, simply to make sure that it lined up with your truth? If not, a deeper question may be ‘why don’t you?’. I think the biggest reason is that this act can make you feel exposed and vulnerable, and that can often feel really, really hard. However, the more you live the life of Satya, the more you will hold yourself with ease, the greater you will understand yourself and the more you will observe others with empathy. More people with similar values will gravitate to you, which will in turn make it easier to speak your truth.
Aparigraha is the principle of non-hoarding, non-possessiveness and non-attachment. It has constant relevance in our lives since it perpetually returns us to the question ‘what do I really need?’. This is a difficult question to answer since it raises so many more questions, like ‘what defines a need?’. A good place to start would be to ask yourself: ‘do I feel possessive or attached to the things I own?’. You don’t have to own a lot of stuff to feel possessive or want more. In fact, it seems to me that wanting more is a deeply-rooted human desire that we all experience. Wanting more stems from the belief that you are lacking in some fundamental way, that you don’t have enough, or that you are not enough. The irony is that getting more is not at all satisfying and does nothing to ease the feeling.
Ahimsa is the principle of kindness and compassion toward yourself and others, in words, thoughts and actions. I find the best way to actualize this principle is to take yourself back to a moment in your life when you felt hurt or betrayed; remember how it felt, how you handled it and how you felt afterward. Then try your best to imagine that you were the person who hurt you and you are able to experience all of his or her most powerful and impactful memories, that made him or her who they were. This is empathy, and the simple intention to do this will shift things for you. This exercise may be hard, and it’s even more difficult in the moment that you are confronted with great conflict or anger.
Some Final Thoughts
If you are living with chronic stress, anxiety and/or depression, addressing the root cause will ensure your best success in taming it. Yoga and meditation can help to achieve this goal, through practicing Satya (being truthful), Aparigraha (being non-attached) and Ahimsa (being compassionate) and by bringing awareness to your reaction. Your objective is to get to know yourself in great detail by watching yourself closely with great love, passion and curiosity.
Through meditation and yoga, you are training yourself to become aware of the space between the source of the stress and your reaction. In the world of meditation, we say ‘you sit with it’. You watch the feeling and the desire in a non-judgmental, non-reactive way with no expectations. You completely let go of control and simply observe what is there.
If you are new to meditation, the best way to learn is to listen to guided meditations. We have many guided meditations on our site, including total body relaxations, yoga nidra, mindfulness, loving kindness, visualizations and meditations to help chronic pain and symptoms of cancer. If you are new to yoga, we have hundreds of free yoga videos to choose from, many of which are beginner yoga classes.
If you really want to feel better and are ready to dedicate yourself to a program that is designed to do just that, then join us for 14 days of yoga and meditation. The program is called Yoga for Chronic Stress, Anxiety and Depression and it’s completely free. Click here to go to the program page now. This is where you will return to complete your daily practice. To make it easier for you, we have also provided the option for you to sign up to receive daily emails with links to the daily classes and meditations.
We hope you can be a part of this journey with us. We want more than anything for you to feel joyful, energetic and to live your life fully.