In many situations our bodies produce an automatic response to outside stimuli. For example, we may begin to sweat when we are nervous. Some people may shake or shiver when they are cold or scared. Heart rate can go up involuntarily during excitement, exercise, or fear.
These are all responses that are carried out by the autonomic nervous system.
Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system is responsible for regulating involuntary functions and reactions in the body. It can be divided into two separate branches:
- The sympathetic nervous system
- The parasympathetic nervous system
Sympathetic Nervous System
This division of the nervous system is responsible for handling potential threats and risks in the environment. You may know this as the “fight or flight” response.
Typical reactions of the sympathetic nervous system are:
- Increased heart rate
- Dilated pupils
- Increased circulation
- Faster and more shallow breathing
Parasympathetic Nervous System
This system helps regulate routine bodily functions, and focuses on energy conservation. Usually, after a threat has passed, this helps the body:
- Reduce blood flow
- Slow the breathing
- Decelerate heart rate
- Constrict pupils
Essentially this system helps the body relax after a real or perceived threat.
If these responses are automatic, how can they be changed?
Stress is an automatic response. And our body’s are made to respond this way when we feel threatened. However the threat is no longer a predator and prey situation as it was for us many eons ago. Now our sense of threat gets triggered when we are approaching a deadline, when bosses are harsh and require to much from us, when our kids need more then we can give. Our physiological response remains the same even when the triggering situation is vastly different.
But, there is a way to help control our responses to these triggers and it is through conscious effort to generate a change. Meditation!
Meditation to Change Physiology
A lot of people believe that meditation is used strictly as a spiritual exercise to promote deep relaxation and a connection to something greater than ourselves. While this may be true, there are also a number of physiological effects that can be gained through meditational practices.
The main premise for physiological change through meditation is self-awareness and focused attention.
Some of these physical changes include:
- Altered brain activity
- Reduced stress
- Reduced muscle tension
- Boosted immune system
Altered Brain Activity
The physiological effects of meditation all begin in the brain. The relaxed and focused effects of meditation trigger increased activity in the areas of the brain that are responsible for mood and regulating anxiety and depression. These areas of the brain are generally the amygdala, the hippocampus, and the thalamus.
Another example is pain tolerance.
People that meditate regularly are generally more in tune with something called the Default Mode Network (DMN). The DMN is geared towards a more self-aware way of thinking.
So, when a regular meditator stubs a toe the DMN can help focus on reducing anger and tension which are natural reactions to a stubbed toe. The effects will dissipate much more quickly.
A non-meditator will more likely have an increase in activity in the part of the brain related to language, which results in the blind reaction of swearing and thinking “Why did this happen? And how can I make it stop?”
Reduced Muscle Tension
Another good example of how meditation can affect physical change is through muscle tension reduction.
Using a technique called Progressive Muscle Relaxation at the start of a meditation session, can help bring about positive physiological change.
This technique focuses on mindfully eradicating anxiety-producing thoughts and behaviors, which are thought to cause muscle tension in the body.
Meditation is something that we have all heard of. We know it is good for us and can help with a wide array of our emotional and mental concerns not to mention physically making you healthier. Our mind is connected to our body, and it’s been too long that we have only treated the body. The root to our well-being is our brain! It’s time we re-focus and take steps to our emotional and mental health. Meditation is one part in the journey. Granted meditation is not easy, our brains have been used to thinking and planning and worrying all the time. How do we quiet it. Sitting in a quiet still space is step one but how do we control our thoughts? ….. My opinion is that we can’t, we can only let them in and let them go. Easier said then done! There are a lot of resources out there to help. My 2 most successful resources are these apps that are easily downloadable on to your phone and can be done anywhere. Hope you try them and find success.
- HeadSpace App – “ This is an app that teaches you how to meditate.”
- Calm App – Helps you meditate and promotes more restful sleep