Many studies show meditation can reduce stress. Yet most studies have relied on subjective measurements of stress, such as self-reports. Little research has quantified how much meditation can reduce stress. New research by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and the University of North Texas seeks to change this.
Researchers spent a year developing a novel stress-measurement strategy. The technique uses the heartbeat irregularities to assess stress levels in the brain. The study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, found long-term meditation can induce permanent physiological changes. Meditation may alter the way the body responds to stress.
Measuring Stress in the Brain Through Heartbeats
Monitoring changes in the brain can be difficult. The study used a new method, dynamic subordination technique (DST), to process these tiny changes. DST uses heart rhythms to measure stress levels in the brain and nervous system.
A normal heartbeat has slight irregularities. The time interval between heartbeats can shift along a spectrum. The shifts are often due to input from the nervous system (especially the brain).
The sinus node is often called “the heart’s pacemaker” because it regulates heartbeat. It is controlled by two systems in the body:
- The sympathetic nervous system, which activates during stress. It causes the sinus node to fire faster.
- The parasympathetic nervous system, which calms the body down (and may activate during meditation). It causes the sinus node to fire slower.
Competing impulses from these systems cause the slight irregularities in a person’s heartbeat.
Researchers measured the level of variation in heartbeats before and during meditation. This number shows how much meditation reduces stress in the brain.
Can Meditation Change the Brain?
Researchers used DST to compare two forms of meditation:
- Chi meditation: Participants visualized a lotus opening and closing within their stomach. Individuals breathed spontaneously.
- Kundalini Yoga: Participants did a sequence of breathing and chanting exercises while sitting cross-legged.
Both types of meditation were shown to reduce stress in the body. Researchers found Kundalini Yoga offered greater reductions in stress. The structured breathing in Kundalini Yoga may contribute to the differences between meditation forms.
Long-term meditation in either form made the reductions in stress permanent. Long-term meditators also showed improvements in executive function. These changes might help a person better cope with external stressors. The Army hopes to use meditation to reduce posttraumatic stress (PTSD) in soldiers.
The study says more research is needed on meditation and stress. (This call includes research on the effectiveness of DST as a measurement of brain changes.) For now, the data support the idea that meditation-related stress relief is linked to physiological changes.
Several approaches to therapy incorporate elements of mindfulness or meditation. One example is mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBCT aims to increase mindfulness as a way of changing behavior and making harmful thoughts less frequent.
- Changes in stress after meditation. (2018, June 21). ScienceDaily. Retrieved from https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/06/180621111955.htm
- Tuladhar, R., Bohara, G., Grigolini, P., & West, B. J. (2018). Meditation-induced coherence and crucial events. Frontiers in Physiology. Retrieved from https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fphys.2018.00626/full
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