Meditation: Resources for Stress Management
By Evelyn Cunico, M.A., M.S.
Posted November 24, 2014
For thousands of years, many cultures throughout the world have practiced meditation for religious and spiritual reasons. For example, Hinduism (the dominant religion of India) and Buddhism (a religion of eastern and central Asia) are among the earliest religions teaching meditation.
At ancient East Indian archaeological sites, archaeologists have discovered carved images of figures in yoga-like postures, appearing to be practicing meditation.
Today, in Western culture, meditation is often secular, used as a form of mind-body medicine.
Meditation may be practiced for health-related reasons, such as to increase calmness, to gain a new perspective on stressful situations, to cope with illness, or to enhance overall well -being.
Meditation is not a replacement for conventional medical treatment. However, daily meditation may help you to relax and to manage stress.
Features of Meditation
Typically, meditation techniques share the following features:
- A quiet location. Especially if you are a beginner, practicing meditation may be easier if you are in a quiet location, away from cell phones, televisions, radios or the talk of persons who may be nearby.
- A comfortable posture. You can select the posture you would like for meditation, such as walking, standing, lying down, or sitting. Some persons meditate while practicing yoga.
- Focused attention. Focusing your attention helps to free your mind from distractions that cause stress and worry. You can focus your attention on a mantra, your breathing, or on a specific object, such as an image.
- An open perspective. While meditating, you maintain an open perspective, letting distractions, such as emotions and thoughts, come and go naturally, without judgment.
- Relaxed breathing. The Mayo Clinic emphasizes the importance of relaxed breathing when meditating. When you breathe deeply with an even pace your breathing slows down. You also reduce the use of shoulder, neck, and upper chest muscles, allowing you to breathe more efficiently.
Meditation and Science
The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) is the federal government lead agency for scientific research on complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). CAM is one of the 27 institutes and centers that make up the National Institutes of Health (NIH) within the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
The NCCAM website, titled, “Meditation: What You Need to Know,” presents an overview of the effectiveness and safety of meditation.
The NCCAM overview also presents useful summaries of recent studies of meditation, as it relates to stress-reduction programs.
In addition, the NCCAM overview summarizes meditation studies related to specific medical conditions, such as anxiety, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, smoking cessation, and other conditions.
Results from a 2012 NCCAM-funded study suggest that meditation can affect activity in the amygdala (a part of the brain involved in processing emotions). The study suggests that different types of meditation can affect the amygdala differently, even when the person is not meditating. So, meditation may have an effect on brain function, even outside a meditative state.
Herbert Benson, M.D., Harvard Medical School, and other researchers conducted studies, finding that TM Meditation brought about bodily changes, such as a drop in heart rate and a drop in breathing rate, which Benson later named, the “Relaxation Response,” in his book of the same name [see References at the end of this blog].
If you have ten to 20 minutes, you may follow Benson’s “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.”
The following two steps are the most important to bring about the Relaxation Response, according to Benson’s book:
- Repeat a word, sound, phrase, or prayer.
- Disregard everyday thoughts, without judging them, and return to your repetition.
If you have one minute, two minutes, or three minutes, you may try, “Mini-relaxation exercises,” from the Harvard HEALTHBeat e-newsletter. For example, while sitting, breathe slowly and deeply in the following way:
- As you breathe in, quietly repeat slowly to yourself, “I am.”
- As you breathe out, repeat slowly to yourself, “at peace.”
Tips to Remember:
When under stress, your body reacts by releasing hormones that produce the “fight-or-flight” response. Your heart rate and breathing rate increase and blood vessels narrow, restricting the flow of blood.
In contrast, the Relaxation Response slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases levels of stress hormones.
The NCCAM offers “Five Things to Know About Relaxation Techniques for Stress.”
- Relaxation techniques are generally safe, but there is limited evidence of usefulness for specific health conditions.
- Relaxation techniques include a number of practices, such as progressive relaxation, guided imagery, and deep breathing exercises.
- Relaxation techniques often combine breathing and focused attention, to calm the mind and the body.
- Most relaxation techniques can be self-taught.
- Do not use relaxation techniques as a replacement for conventional care or to postpone seeing a doctor about a medical problem.
A disclaimer: The information presented in this blog should not replace the medical advice of your doctor. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any disease without first consulting with your medical doctor or other healthcare provider.
Benson, Herbert, M.D., Harvard Medical School. “Steps to Elicit the Relaxation Response.”
(Accessed 18 October 2014)
Benson, Herbert, M.D., with Miriam Z. Klipper. The Relaxation Response. Updated edition, paperback. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, Inc., 2000. [Hardcover edition published by William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1975].
Benson – Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine. Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston.
(Accessed 22 November 2014)
Bonadonna, R. “Meditation’s Impact on Chronic Illness.” Holistic Nursing Practice. 2003 Nov-Dec;17(6):309-19.
(Abstract accessed 14 October 2014)
Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School. HEALTHbeat e-Newsletter. “Mini-Relaxation Exercises: A Quick-Fix in Stressful Moments.” Archive: November 10, 2012.
(Accessed 13 October 2014)
Mayo Clinic. Patient Care and Health Information. Tests and Procedures. “Meditation.”
(Accessed 14 October 2014)
National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Five Things to Know About Relaxation Techniques for Stress.”
(Accessed 16 November 2014)
National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Meditation: What You Need to Know.”
(Accessed 24 November 2014)
National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Meditation Training Program Shows Brain Effects Even Outside a Meditative State.”
(Accessed 22 October 2014)
National Institutes of Health. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM). “Relaxation Techniques for Health: An Introduction.”
(Accessed 13 October 2014)
New World Encyclopedia. Entry, “Meditation.”
(Accessed 21 October 2014)