We’ve all heard the hype around stress and how it’s as bad for us as swallowing disinfectant (even though that was sarcastic, right Trump?).
Stress is like your backstabbing high school bestie. You don’t realise she’s plotting your demise at the time, but in the end, she’ll totally fuck you up. I recently listened to a lecture with Kamal Sarma where he referred to stress as the ‘asbestos of our century’. Basically, we’re going to look back in 50 years' time and be like ‘ah, that was stupid, we should have known that was bad for us’. Then we’ll spend the next 50 years cleaning up the mess.
We assume a feeling of ‘stress’ is equivalent to the feeling you have when you get your period on a 24 hour long haul flight with no tampons handy (“FUCKKKKK”). But in reality, many of us are stressed on an everyday basis without even realising it. It’s these low levels of chronic stress that are having the most damaging effects.
Despite insisting that you’re cool as a cucumber, some of the symptoms of stress might be less obvious:
- Frequent headache
- Tight neck and shoulders
- Bloated, loose poos, stomach cramps
- Nail biting
- Feeling tired when you wake up
- Waking up frequently throughout the night
- Tight jaw muscles/grinding teeth
- Craving carbs
- Low sex drive
- Frequent colds
- Irregular periods
- Fertility problems
Chronic stress also leads to increased levels of our stress hormone, cortisol. High levels of cortisol increase our cravings for carbs and foods high in sugar (hello Ben and Jerry’s desperation).
This is because when we’re stressed, the body still reverts to its traditional response of ‘fight’ or ‘flight’. For our cavewoman ancestors, this stress response was typically only triggered when we needed to run from a lion or a hungry hungry hippo. But today, everyday events can trigger a full stress response in the body.
When our bodies are constantly in ‘fight’ or ‘flight’ mode, they’re on the hunt for foods that provide a quick boost of energy to power our muscles to fight or run from the hungry hippo. Hence: our cravings for carbs and sugar increase. Side note, I think we can safely assume we’re all descendants of ‘flight’ decision makers in this scenario.
On top of this, our body also refuses to part with its current fat stores, and stores more of what we eat as fat to ensure we have enough energy to fight or flee. So if you’re stressed, you’re going to have a really hard time losing weight, no matter what you’re trying.
Aside from its impacts on cravings and our weight, stress has also been found to shorten our telomeres, which are structures that sit at the end of a chromosome, kinda like the plastic bit at the end of a shoelace. These telomeres act like caps to prevent damage to the DNA. They naturally shorten with age, but stress can speed up this process. This means we’re more likely to age faster and look haggard earlier, but also to experience age-related diseases earlier, like cardiovascular disease, some forms of cancer and Alzhiemer’s disease.
So, what can we do about it? Cue the health and wellbeing flavour of the month: meditation! The new age medication for the stressors of 21st century life. But...
Is it worth the hype?
I’m fully convinced that meditation is insanely beneficial and will literally turn me into the most zen, focused, smartest, nicest version of myself.
Robust (always makes me think of ‘busty’) scientific literature has found that meditation can change the structure of our brain, including areas that have been linked to depression and anxiety. It can also significantly improve our memory by increasing the grey matter in our hippocampus.
On top of this, it increases our gamma brain wave activity which improves concentration and cognitive functioning. Like this shit is for real, it’s like a HIIT workout for your brain.
But despite the fact that I’ve spent months deep diving into all this research, I just can’t manage to get myself to do it. And when I mention the benefits to my gal pals, it feels as if I’m trying to convince them that rubbing cinnamon paste into your pores will stop the 7 signs of aging. Everyone’s like hmm yeh maybe, but nah. It just sounds a bit too zen, hippy and coo coo for anyone’s liking.
Why is it so hard?
I think the challenge for me has been trying to convince myself that doing ‘nothing’ actually isn’t a waste of time. The basis of meditation is the complete opposite of multitasking, you’re required to stop, sit, breathe and not think about anything. It’s hard.
In today’s society, being busy is the new low rise flared jean, it’s ‘cool’. It’s like a ‘who’s busier’ battle every day, we love talking about it and we love complaining about it. To be successful, we’re told we need to work longer hours. To be skinny, we’re told we need to do more exercise. To be social, we have to pack our weekends with catch ups, drinking and parties. Switching off and having down time has been categorised as ‘lazy’ or ‘anti-social’.
So when I have a million things I ‘should’ be doing, but I prioritise sitting for 10 minutes doing nothing, it feels wrong.
I’ve also felt at times that when I have heaps of thoughts running through my head, sitting and stopping with those thoughts is more unhelpful. I just mull over everything and get more worked up. So instead, I've tended to prioritise exercise where I can get some of that negative energy out.
But I’ve come to the realisation that I’m probably missing the whole point.
Something isn’t working for the mental health of our population at the moment. One in five young women live with anxiety or depression, and it’s on the rise. Between 2009 and 2017 that statistic increased by 20%. We’re all just battling upstream like a bunch of migrating salmon. We’re tired, anxious and unhealthy, but we just can’t find a way to stop.
I think meditation is what we need, even if we don’t know it yet. If stress is the asbestos of society, meditation is the replacement cellulose fibre boards.
It’s about learning to do nothing, rather than working out how to do more, and more, and more. And in learning to do nothing, we can become much better equipped to deal with the pressures placed on our time.
So, how am I going to start it (tenth time lucky)?
This time I really hope it sticks. I think it will, because I’ve got a good plan in place.
1. Find a friend to keep you accountable
Thanks to Gussy, who has kindly volunteered to be my meditation accountability buddy!
2. Start small
I’m choosing to start with 5 mins a day. That’s totally possible, especially since my phone informs me I spend an average of 90 minutes scrolling every day (I honestly don’t even know how that happens).
3. Choose the same time each day
To make meditation a habit, you need to do it at the same time each day. I’m going to do it straight after work. I’ve tried mornings and before bed in the past, and they just haven’t worked.
4. Use the right tools
I’ve chosen Headspace as my meditation app because they have a great 10 session beginners course. They also have cute animations which I like!
But there are other suggestions here - Gussy swears by Calm.
Accept that you’ll suck at the start and it takes time
There’s no ‘bad’ meditation session - just giving yourself 5 minutes of time to do nothing every day is good! The ability to zone out and switch off your thoughts takes time and practice (apparently, obviously I’ve never made it to that point).
So, there we have it. I’m not entirely sure whether this article will convince anyone to try meditation (I understand that if Buddah or the Dalai Lama haven’t managed to influence you, I certainly have no chance), but I hope it plants the seed.
For me, it’s taken years of cultivation and thousands of planted seeds before I’ve fully decided to commit and stick it out. So maybe I’ll see you on the meditation bandwagon in a few years time. But hey, if you want to skip the queue and take my word for it, then you go glen coco!