Being in a prolonged period of stress and fear is exhausting, and it will be having a massive impact on your mental and physical well-being.
An 8 year study of 68,222 adults (published in the British Medical Journal) found that even mild anxiety produces a 20% greater risk of death.
Research also shows that negative emotions such as fear, pessimism and resentment depress our immune system.
That’s the bad news; the good news is that there is something we can do to help ourselves; to aid in boosting our immune system and our general well-being, and that is ‘meditation’.
Meditation is a calm and alert state of mind. It is when the body is relaxed and the mind is focused. It is when thoughts drop aside, and we are at one with the sensations of the moment. It is not just about being relaxed, because at this point the mind can still wander. Meditation is about focusing on something we enjoy and being in the present.
But how does meditation work?
In order to explain it, we need to learn about “BRAIN WAVES”.
As you will have read in my ‘Anxiety and the Brain’ series, the brain is made up of billions of neurons, and these neurons use electricity as a way to communicate with one another. When synapses are firing in synchrony, they create a ‘neural network’ which is linked to a specific state of consciousness, your thoughts and mood.
The combination of synchronized electrical activity in the brain is called a ‘brain wave’ because it’s cyclical and ‘wave-like’ in nature.
There are five categories of brain waves or ‘states’, which are:
Gamma (31 – 100Hz) – Is a state of hyperactivity in the brain and active learning. It can be the most opportune time to retain information, however if over stimulated it can lead to anxiety.
Beta (14 – 30Hz) – We spend most of our time in this state, it is our active state of mind; thinking, planning, analysing, assessing and categorising.
Alpha (9 – 13Hz) – Is the state where your mind slows down out of thinking. You are relaxed and your mind doesn’t jump from one thought to another. Your attention is in the present, not in the past or the future. You are more accepting and non-judgemental. You can be in this state when walking in the woods, doing yoga or during an activity that relaxes the body and mind.
Theta (4 – 8Hz) – Is the state when your mind transitions from verbal and thinking, to a meditative, visual state. You move from planning, to a deeper state of awareness. Theta can be a source of creativity, intuition, increased memory and enhanced concentration. This is also where the body and mind naturally perform self-healing.
Delta (1 – 3Hz) – Most of us reach this state in deep, dreamless sleep, however, Tibetan Monks who have been meditating for decades can reach this whilst awake and alert.
At the present moment I think we are all operating constantly in the high end of Beta and in Gamma; our minds will be focusing on the fear and uncertainty that we find ourselves in, and as we have learnt these are the states where anxiety and depression are created.
Beta is our default state because it helps us more in conditions where we need to survive; it is the signature wave of fear because it is fear that helped keep our prehistoric ancestors alive.
The more stressed we become, the higher the amplitude of the Beta waves, reducing the levels of Alpha waves, sometimes by up to 80% (Church, Yount & Brooks 2012 study). This can mean that you shut down the regions of rational thinking, decision making and memory, and lose your optimal state of relaxed alertness.
“Stress isn’t like a light switch, either on or off. It’s like a dimmer switch, getting brighter or darker. When we relax, this nudges our cortisol levels and Beta brain waves lower.” – Dawson Church
We may dip into Alpha during the day for an hour or two; maybe when we sit down and have a cup of tea, or go for a walk in the woods, but this will probably be very short lived because we have little control over states. We cannot be in two states at the same time, and as Beta is the prominent state, we will find that this will take over, so you will start thinking again, even whilst trying to enjoy your tea.
Alpha is the bridge between Beta and Theta, the bridge between our conscious and subconscious minds. Some people who are stuck in certain thought patterns find it hard to engage with reality, and can have problems remembering (eg: you may be aware that you had a dream but the details won’t come to mind) and therefore find it difficult to get to Alpha.
We generally get into Alpha just before we go to bed; we then go into Theta and Delta once asleep. The trick is to try and spend more time in Alpha, and if possible, in Theta whilst awake (there can be some dangers to going into Theta, so please check before hand, especially if you have ADD).
Mindfulness and meditation tend to produce more Alpha waves without having to use technology or medication. When I go for a walk I can still find my mind is working away, which is why I take pictures, and try to be in the present by focusing on what is around me.
By learning to meditate, we can expand the boundaries of consciousness; we can reach a relaxed state for longer, and whilst awake; we can take a bit of control back and lessen our levels of anxiety and depression.
“The goal of meditation is not to get rid of thoughts or emotions. The goal is to become more aware of your thoughts and emotions and learn how to move through them without getting stuck.” – Dr P Goldin
As I mentioned, there are levels of meditation that can take you into the Theta state whilst awake, and this can have a massive impact on your health. Because of the deep levels of relaxation in this state, your mind and body are easily able to restore themselves during and after illness, as well as after mental burnout and physical exertion.
It can also boost your immune system. Stress and anxiety cause harm to the immune system by releasing a surplus of harmful chemicals such as adrenaline and the hormone cortisol. Theta brain waves activate the release of pleasant chemicals and neurotransmitters to help keep your immune system at a peak level.
I have to admit that I have struggled to meditate, for various reasons that I will go into at a later date, however I am now determined to try it for myself and see what the results are. Kim and I have signed up to Headspace, and Kim is going to help me learn EFT (Emotional Freedom Techniques) or ‘Tapping’ as it is also called.
I will tell you more about this another time; for now, why don’t you explore meditation for yourself? There are lots of books and videos that can help you along the way. Headspace offers a free trial session, so why not have a go at this?
This is not just a message for now, to be used during these unprecedented times; it is something we should be taking seriously every day of our lives, when the world gets back to ‘normal’ (whatever that is) and we return to the Rat Race.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.