I want to talk briefly on why meditation, or even simple emotional connection, has such a huge effect on our physiology. After almost two decades of research into the benefits of meditation, it's rare to find a health expert who doesn't recommend meditation as an integral part of a balanced lifestyle. Some of the benefits being increased presence, mental states of calm, focus and alertness; enhanced memory, and increased aptitude for information uptake. (1) But what exactly are the mechanisms involved that provide these benefits?
AUTONOMICS - Sympathetic & Parasympathetic Nervous System
One that we are now beginning to understand in its relationship to meditation, involves the dance between the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system; both of which are part of the autonomic nervous system. (2)
The sympathetic nervous system is responsible for the 'fight or flight' response, when our sympathetic nervous system is activated the energy resources in our body are directed to the extremities; our adrenal glands pump adrenaline, and the heart rate increases as we prepare to outrun the tiger, or in the modern world the raging boss. The stimulation of the sympathetic nervous system occurs in an area of the spinal cord called the intermediolateral cell column (IML).
The parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for the 'rest and digest' functions. When our parasympathetic nervous system has dominance the body's energy is available to assist in digestion, enzyme production, and other related functions. As the communication from the brain travels through an area of the brain called the pontomedullary reticular function (PMRF), the parasympathetic nervous system is activated. The sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system are antagonistic, meaning that one always dominates. As you can imagine, if your body is primed and ready for outrunning a violent storm or animal (angry boss included), there are little resources left to assist in our organ function, digestion, and really any bodily functions that occur without our conscious effort.
AN UNTAMED IML
The result of an over-active sympathetic nervous system is a physiology constantly on edge; soaked in cortisol and the resulting symptoms of anxiety, angst and high blood pressure. One becomes stuck in a cycle where stress begets stress. As well as the parasympathetic nervous system being dampened by an over-active sympathetic nervous system, the resulting brain degeneration also excites an area of the brain known as the mesolymbic system (mid brain reticular function). This area of the brain further stimulates the sympathetic nervous system through the IML. Resulting in a chronic circle of stress, where the presence of chronic stress stimulates more stress; one can live in this state almost permanently until a health crisis presents itself.
PLASTICITY - What is the brain more efficient at; stress or calm?
There's one last health-nerd-point I will mention here; there is another component of brain function that is responsible for this cycle of stress - it is something called negative plasticity. This is where the brain learns a negative function so well that it becomes increasingly efficient at the firing of these pathways; where even the smallest amount of stress can trigger a whole system response, and activation of the sympathetic nervous system.
It's simple to see how at a physiological level a life of stress untamed can perpetuate itself; setting you up for brain degeneration, hormonal fatigue, poor gut health, mental health and chronic illness. For even the healthiest diet and exercise regimen cannot facilitate health without focus on maintaining a dominant parasympathetic nervous system.
One great tool for this is meditation. Meditation activates the PMRF, and dampens the IML; allowing the body to rest in its natural state, where energy is used for maintaining healthy organ function, digestion and regeneration. The effect of this on our mental state, as well as our metabolic and hormonal system is tremendous. Building plasticity that supports the body, not drains it, is fundamental to maintaining health and happiness.
Try implementing a simple meditation of watching the breath once a day for 5-10 minutes. What may be difficult at first, will get easier and easier as the neural pathways become more efficient. Before you know it you'll break the dominance of the sympathetic nervous system, and be in a position to react to stressful situations with a calm, alert, focus. Allowing you to take the necessary action without taxing your system.