The price we pay
Updated: Jul 2, 2021
"I don't have time." This is the most common excuse I hear from beginners struggling to establish and maintain a meditation practice. I get it; it's what I said when I started.
I worked 50-70 hours weekly. Stress had been my default state. I did not realize the cost my lifestyle, choices, and habits were exacting on my mental and physical health. Before itemizing those costs, let's define stress. Stress is the body's reaction to a perceived challenge or demand. Vigorous exercise is stress. I don't mean this. When we speak of the harmful effects of stress, we usually mean chronic stress- the persistent and unrelenting strain on our physical, psychological, and emotional well-being- not episodic stress (a project deadline, a presentation, a performance, a pregnancy, a move). Episodic stress has a limited duration, chronic stress is persistent.
Here's an itemized list of the costs we assume when chronic stress is left unchecked:
Cost: back pain, neck pain, muscle tension and stiffness
Before meditation, exercise was my primary way of mitigating stress. It was somewhat effective. However, as intense as my workouts were (I was a fitness instructor), I still experienced the kind of muscle tension common to those under stress. When the body perceives a threat, the muscles contract. They are recruited in a fixed order. Small, low-threshold motor units are recruited at low levels when mildly stressed, before larger ones, and are kept activated until the muscle is completely relaxed. I did not know how to achieve a state of complete relaxation, so the muscles remained contracted all day. Long-lasting activation of these units, I learned, could cause degenerative diseases. The low levels of activation I experienced were contributing to chronic pain in my back and neck. Unless I could learn to fully relax, the same muscle fibers would remain active during breaks at work and after work.
Cost: sleep deprivation, compromised cognitive functioning, poor mood
The brain's method of waste removal — the glymphatic system — is highly active during sleep, clearing away toxins responsible for Alzheimer's disease and other neurological disorders. The brain's cells reduce in size during sleep, allowing waste to be removed more effectively. “The restorative nature of sleep appears to be the result of the active clearance of the by-products that accumulate during wakefulness,” asserts Maiken Nedergaard of the University of Rochester Medical Centre.
Stress affects sleep. Sleep exerts major modulatory effects on endocrine function. For some hormones, 50-75% of the total daily secretion is dependent on sleep and is eliminated by total sleep deprivation. 75% of Human Growth Hormone (HGH), for example, plays a key role in growth, cellular repair, metabolism, and body composition. HGH promotes muscle growth, strength and recovery. The hormone is mostly secreted in pulses during sleep. Poor sleep reduces the amount of HGH production.
Sleep deprivation also affects endocrine function the following day. Lack of sleep impairs cognitive and immune functioning.
I was not getting sufficient sleep most nights. Stress plus sleep apnea compromised sleep. I was fatigued on most days. This was my default state. It exacted a toll on my relationships and well-being. And I just didn't have the energy.
Cost: metabolic syndrome
Metabolic syndrome is defined as a cluster of cardiovascular risk factors:
•Abdominal obesity: waist circumference>40” men/35” women
•Elevated triglycerides>150 mg/dL
•Reduced HDL cholesterol<40mg/dL men/50
•High blood pressure> 130/85 mm Hg
•Increased fasting glucose> 100 mg/dL
When stressed, the fight flight response is triggered. The body secretes cortisol. Cortisol promotes the synthesis of glucose from proteins in order to make more glucose available as fuel in response to stressful situations. This reduces lean muscle mass and increases blood sugar levels. Sugar is the fuel the body uses to fight or flee. When stress is chronic, the pancreas hypersecretes insulin to try to get sugar out of the bloodstream. Cells weary of insulin and begin to ignore signals. Cells become inefficient at producing energy which leads to further increases in hunger and blood sugar levels.
Research has shown that cortisol increases the deposition of abdominal fat and increases cravings for food, especially carbohydrates (sugars). This helps to set up the vicious cycle of stress and overeating (especially of unhealthy foods), which created more stress and more overeating, etc.
Although I exercised daily and my routines were intense, my blood sugar levels were high- close to pre-diabetic levels. My father died of diabetes, a merciless disease which pecks away at its victims. Aware of the threat, I exercised vigorously and ate a plant based, vegetarian diet. Diet and exercise helped mitigate the worst effects of stress, but this was not enough. I was lean and muscular, but my sugar levels remained elevated. Learning to relax and meditate helped me to mitigate stress at the level of thought. In meditation, I learned to cut mental elaborations and challenge those perceptions which triggered stress. At the physiological level that meant increased insulin sensitivity and lower blood sugar levels.
Cost: compromised immune function
Chronic stress suppresses immune functioning. Natural killer (NK) cell activity declines significantly when under stress. These cells are one of a battalion of bodily defenses, many of which are compromised when stress is chronic. Long-term stress suppresses or dysregulates innate and adaptive immune responses by altering the Type 1-Type 2 cytokine balance, inducing low-grade chronic inflammation, and suppressing numbers, trafficking, and function of immunoprotective cells (Dhabhar, 2014).
While I was relatively healthy, I would fall ill once or twice a year. These incidences fell to once every few years. Meditation techniques enhance immunoprotection.
I was diagnosed with spinal degeneration in my 30s. Spinal degeneration is a form of arthritis. When stressed, I'd feel stiffness in my joints, especially my neck, hands and along the vertebral column. I felt my genes were accursed.
Pain in my back plus insomnia plus apnea made it hard to sleep. I was wearing myself down. Spinal degeneration, my doctor informed me, was caused by wear and tear. While it could not be reversed, it could be slowed and the symptoms mitigated. Exercise, diet and meditation made the difference. Mindfulness meditation training, compared to relaxation training, reduces Interleukin-6, an inflammatory health biomarker. The benefits were not "in my head," but measurable.
Cost: Accelerated aging
My hair began graying in my 30s. “Thoughts and emotions, especially highly stressful thoughts that involve worrying about the future or ruminating obsessively about the past, seem to influence the rate at which we age, right down to the level of our cells and our telomeres- the specialized DNA repeat sequences at the tips of all our chromosomes that are essential for cell division and that shorten over time as we age, " writes Jon Kabat-Zinn. Lifestyle changes have not reversed aging, but have slowed it. I am often told that I look 10 to 20 years younger than my actual age.
When we are under chronic stress, the body hypersecretes cortisol. Hippocampal shrinkage and memory loss is directly proportional to elevations in cortisol, writes Dr. John Ratey. When depressed, we are often caught in rumination, the same negative thoughts repeating in a loop. In meditation, we develop cognitive flexibility and strategies to detach from depressive thoughts. At the structural level, we strengthen neural networks that allow for detection, detachment, and the reorientation of attention. At the experiential level, we no longer feel stuck. We cultivate self-efficacy, a greater trust in our ability to manage strong emotions. We approach our emotions, moreover, with a degree of compassion and curiosity. This leads to greater integration, self-acceptance, and wholeness.
This list of costs is not exhaustive. There are more: epigenetic imprinting, damaged memory cells, diminished productivity, cognitive inflexibility, and distorted perceptions of hopelessness, helplessness, and reduced agency.
Nor does stress end with us. In The Female Brain, Louanne Brizendine, M.D., writes: “The nervous system environment a girl absorbs during her first two years becomes a view of reality that will affect her for the rest of her life. Studies in mammals show that this early stress versus calm incorporation can be passed down through several generations. Stressed mothers naturally become less nurturing, and their baby girls incorporate stressed nervous systems that change the girls’ perception of reality. This isn’t about what’s learned cognitively- it’s about what is absorbed by the cellular microcircuitry at the neurological level.”
"I don't have time." When I realized that I was compromising my health and peace of mind, I decided to make the time to investigate the practice. After my first weeklong meditation retreat, the contrast between the quiet and equanimous state I experienced and the busyness that had been my default state was so pronounced, I committed to observing a daily practice.
The body does not lie. My biomarkers improved, my health and mood improved. It was not "in my head" but in my physical charts year after year, a marked improvement in all measures.
"I don't have time," or so I told myself. Rather, I had to choose how I would spend my time. My father made time to sit in a chair 4 hours a day three times a week for hemodialysis treatment. I would rather take 30 minutes to exercise. Others made time to travel 30 minutes to see a psychiatrist or therapist weekly for an hourlong session. I would rather spend 20 minutes meditating daily. We make time to drive to the pharmacist to pick up our prescriptions. We schedule time for doctor's visits, surgeries, procedures, chemotherapy or physical therapy when the stress we impose on the body begins to exact its toll. We can make time for self-care.
One of my teachers said that if we practiced for an hour a day in the morning and an hour in the evening, we would be more productive. This seemed counter-intuitive. But I trusted him and practiced for an hour the first year. My mind was clearer. I was more detached from outcomes. I made better decisions. I was more rested. My moods and mindset improved. I added a second hour in the evenings, accelerating the benefits. Then I added 20-30 minutes of formal practice midday as a mental reset, optimizing cognition- not to become a more efficient cog, but to be more fully human.
Bronnie Ware, a hospice nurse who worked in palliative care, recorded the epiphanies of the dying. "I wish I had the courage to live a life true to myself" and "I wish I hadn't worked so hard" were the top two regrets of the dying. In my ignorance, I was working myself to illness, and quite possibly to an early grave. I changed course. "Work harder on yourself than you do on your job," Jim Rohn quotes his mentor as saying. This is sound advice. The harder I worked at improving my mindset, attention, sleep, nutrition, exercise regimen, communication skills, and service, the more grounded I felt... and the more effective I was as an educator.
Experiment for yourself. Start with a 10 day silent meditation retreat. Challenge yourself to make the time. Complete a course, any course, and see for yourself. Whatever you decide, may you find your way to peace.