Stress is a killer. The science is clear. With all our success and achievement, there is an invisible cost. Our physical, emotional and psychological health take a beating over time. And sometimes there is no return.
Stress is also addictive. Just like caffeine is the magic ingredient that powers our love for coffee, chronic stress often fuels high-performing individuals. But something interesting is happening in the world of stress management—a kind of sea change.
In 2014, we started to see a stampede of businesses embrace the ancient art of meditation as an effective countermeasure to stress. And not just any businesses. We’re talking about a host of Fortune 500 organizations. Why is that? Well, there are a few reasons. For one, stress is expensive.
In the UK alone, the Mental Health Foundation estimates that work-related stress costs British businesses more than three billion pounds a year (almost $4.6B US). That’s kind of shocking and sounds like an epidemic if you ask me.
And as good as mindfulness is at countering stress, it’s also promoted in the workplace as a way to re-energize employees and elevate performance. Corporate mindfulness coaches are proliferating across Silicon Valley, Wall Street, and beyond.
What Is Stress & How Can Meditation Help?
So what is stress exactly? Stress management expert Elizabeth Scott writes that: “Your stress response is the collection of physiological changes that occur when you face a perceived threat—when you face situations where you feel the demands outweigh your resources to successfully cope.”
Stress often triggers our fight or flight response, shutting down the executive function in our brain and filling us with adrenaline and cortisol. These were great hormones to help us fight dinosaurs and sabertooth tigers a million years ago in the jungle, but not so much when our boss is pushing us to produce at a higher level.
But that’s exactly where we tend to experience the equivalent of those ancient threats to our survival.
Can you relate? If you can, you may want to consider meditation as a way to balance your stress. These days, there is extensive research showing how meditation not only mitigates the effects of stress, it can also reverse them.
Elizabeth Scott underscores this point saying that, “The benefits of meditation are manifold because it can reverse your stress response, thereby shielding you from the effects of chronic stress.” In short, it activates what pioneering Harvard trained physician Herbert Benson calls our relaxation response.
She goes on to say that “when practicing meditation, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalizes, you use oxygen more efficiently, and you sweat less. Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves. Your mind also clears and your creativity increases.”
And fortunately, it’s becoming easier to learn how to manage stress through meditation as hospitals, businesses, coaches, and therapists all embrace this approach.
Is Stress A Necessary Cost Of Success?
So how should you relate to this? We don’t achieve great things without working incredibly hard and embracing some measure of stress. That’s fine, and even necessary, but without a reliable way to balance that stress, you’re going to pay a steep price.
What is that price? I’m talking about burnout, compromised well-being, an unfocused mind, and spreading yourself too thin. None of this is a secret. These are common side-effects of “success.” But are they necessary? And more to the point, can you afford them?
According to this article from Popular Science magazine, chronic stress could be killing us. Looking at the latest research, they put together a list of stress’s adverse affects from “the cellular level on up to our major biological systems.” From the health of our nervous, cardiovascular, and digestive systems to our cells, immunity, metabolism, and sleep, the effect of chronic stress is devastating.
Fortunately, it’s never too late to put down this addiction and start stimulating your “relaxation response,” as defined by Harvard Professor, Dr. Herbert Benson, one of the pioneers of mind-body medicine. Developing a meditation habit can help you achieve that balance as you develop an inner wellspring of confidence and well being.
So let’s break it down. As you reach for success and achievement, how does meditation help you manage stress? How can you find balance?
How To Manage Stress Through Meditation & Mindfulness
Here are four common ways that stress compromises our performance and how mindfulness meditation can help you turn it around.
Burnout is a killer. You have big goals, big visions, and big plans, so you need to keep your batteries charged. Burnout happens when you tap your core energy reserves without replenishing them. Maybe you know what I’m talking about—it’s like hitting a brick wall. Unfortunately, it’s a very real obstacle for high performers who also manage a family, friends, and other commitments.
Meditation is one of the best ways to prevent burnout. Why? Because it taps you into a limitless source of energy. What is that energy? I like to think about it as the wholesome source of Life itself—pure and unmediated.
A lot of people don’t know this, but when you meditate, you sink into a part of yourself that is regenerative. Numerous scientific studies have shown that Meditation triggers your relaxation response which Dr. Benson describes as “a physical state of deep rest that changes the physical and emotional responses to stress… and the opposite of the fight or flight response.”
That’s happening on one level, but mindfulness practice also gives you access to a deeper level of your own awareness. It’s a part of your attention that is at rest and untouched by the world of time and action. Spending time relaxed in this part of yourself is like plugging into a cosmic wall socket. It fortifies your deeper batteries and creates space for fresh thinking and perspective.
When it comes to burnout at work, meditation is one of your best preemptive measures. If you to learn how to manage stress through meditation, a regular practice is the way to go. It will restore your energy and focus while centering your mind and expanding your awareness beyond the crisis of the moment.
2. Stress Addiction
When you are trying to achieve big things, it’s easy to start living off the energy of stress. I’ve seen it a lot and have fallen victim to it myself.
Sure, there are benefits to stress, because it propels us forward. It’s one of the key drivers in the march of evolution. But in our culture, stress is chronic and often acute. Many of us struggle to manage it, and the toll is heavy on our health and our humanity. There is a heavy cost to living off this kind of stress, which isn’t always obvious.
Think about it for a moment. You are your most precious resource. When you live with chronic stress, you are redlining your nervous system all the time. Even the best performance sports car will seize up if you keep the RPMs too high for too long. It’s the same with you and me. Stress erodes our energy, our cognition, and our bodies. It can only take you so far.
And that’s where meditation comes into the picture. Meditation and stress are opposites. A regular meditation practice helps you cultivate access to the dimension of your self that is free from anxiety, worry, and the pressure of deadlines.
As you practice meditation and access the still calm center of yourself, you’ll start to notice something interesting. Your capacity to let go of the things that create stress increases. As that capacity grows, you’ll find that you’re developing a preference for calm and centered composure over stress. You may even start to see your own tranquility and poise rubbing off on others.
This shift in your preference for relaxing over red lining is huge and it’s how meditation can help you break your addiction to stress.
3. Lack Of Focus
Meditation helps you center your mind. That’s something all of us need, but it takes practice. Just like investing money in a mutual fund, time spent in meditation pays dividends. What are those dividends? It’s your capacity to focus your mind when you need it most.
Often, your mind can feel like your best friend and your worst enemy. That’s a problem, because you need your mind to be steady when you are trying to achieve big things. The problem with chronic stress is this—it divides your mind and destroys your focus.
How do you steady your mind? Contrary to popular belief, it’s not through trying to stop your thoughts. You’ll have better luck bottling a tornado. Instead, meditation teaches you how to be at ease with the unpredictable turbulence of your mind. The benefit is that you won’t lose focus if your thoughts are running wild like an unruly toddler.
As you stick with your practice, you’ll discover a new confidence in yourself and your capacity to let go of stress and focus in the present moment.
4. Spreading Yourself Too Thin
Do you spread yourself to thin? This is another challenge for stressed out leaders. Meditation can help.
When I meditate, I always return to the center of myself. From that center, I know that anything is possible. I feel that I can conquer the world. But there’s also a catch.
If I leave that center, I lose touch with that feeling of confidence and conviction. You see, meditation fills us with a sense of positivity. Being alive is a beautiful thing and meditation helps us to know that in our core.
But it’s so easy–especially when you’re feeling your best–to overcommit and spread yourself too thin. That’s also true for high-performing individuals. When it happens, we find ourselves a million miles from home, scrambling, and wondering how we got there.
How can mindfulness help? For me, it means slowing down and honoring that calm space I discover in meditation. Valuing that space is what mindfulness is all about. When you start to respect that calm center in yourself, you make different choices. You consider what actions are going to support your equanimity and focus, and which ones are going to spread you too thin.
In truth, you can never stay centered when you are spread too thin. You’ll generate stress, resentment, and other strong emotional responses that knock you off your game.
Tune In To Mindfulness
Tune in to this quality of mindfulness. Slow down and honor the calm center you are discovering in your self. If you do, you’ll be surprised what can happen and how quickly you can beat back the stress that’s been eroding your performance.
Of course, meditation is more than a mere antidote to stress. For me, it’s a big part of what makes life amazing. If you recognize that stress is taking a toll on your own life, these four tips will certainly help. But you can also expect that meditation will do much more for you than what I’ve pointed to in this short article.
And like any other aspect of your work-life balance, meditation is just one part of the whole picture. But have no doubt, it’s an important part of that picture.
(Photos via Flickr CC: Mike_tn, Techniker Krankenkasse, Florian Simeth, Erich Ferdinand, Dimitris Kalogeropoylos)