In How Stress is Making You Lose Your Mind, stress & resiliency expert Jenny Evans writes:
“Hormones released in response to stress not only affect brain function, they also change the physical structure of your brain. The stress hormone cortisol can kill, shrink, and stop the generation of new neurons in a portion of the brain called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is critical for learning, memory and emotional regulation, as well as shutting off the stress response after a stressful event is over: all much-needed processes in both our professional and personal lives.
Chronic stress can also shrink the medial prefrontal cortex. This negatively affects decision making, working memory, and control of impulsive behavior. Stress also has the ability to affect stem cells, inhibiting access to the prefrontal cortex, where we plan complex cognitive behavior and moderate social interaction. The result is a brain that is less capable of learning and memory, and more prone to anxiety and depression.”
Source: Huffpost Healthy Living
As anyone who has been meditating for a long time will tell you, meditation can work wonders in helping reverse the harmful effects of chronic stress and alleviate the symptoms of anxiety and depression. (Read my personal testimony of how meditation helped me with my depression.) However, better still than managing stress through strategies like meditation, exercise, and diet, is avoiding the causes of stress in the first place.
If you often find yourself in an unwanted state of panic or extreme unease, there may be changes required in your life. It is much easier to develop and maintain a meditation practice if you are generally feeling safe and secure in your personal livelihood and household. For example, if you are married and you are having a difficult time in your marriage relationship, you may need to seek professional counseling or ask for trusted pastoral help. Simply taking more time to meditate is only going to go so far in making your life feel less chaotic and out-of-control.
The overall sense of safety you have in life can involve a variety of factors, such as:
- Your job / career
- Your friends (quantity and/or quality)
- Your family / spouse / significant other
- Your schedule and time management
- Your housing situation
- The state of your finances
- Where you live
Now I fully understand that there are valid reasons for purposefully entering into a potentially dangerous scenario—for example, if you are a missionary to a country that’s hostile to Christianity. However, in a sense you can feel a sense of safety even in a dangerous situation, because you are in control of the choices you’ve made to risk danger in pursuit of a high and noble goal. On the other hand, if you are simply going on your routine errands one day and all of a sudden you’re held at gunpoint as a hostage in a bank heist, that most certainly does not qualify as feeling safe!
The Renter from Hell
Let me give you a personal illustration. Some time ago we rented out a house in which our family used to live to a tenant who—as we soon discovered to our horror—terrorized the neighborhood, broke our lease agreement, and generally treated us horribly. After a lengthy battle, we were eventually forced to evict them due to chronic non-payment, and in the process of leaving the premises they trashed our house and cut the sewer line (a “nice” parting gift we didn’t even catch until much later). It was quite the traumatic situation as you might imagine.
Needless to say, in the midst of dealing with all that craziness, I was not exactly feeling a sense of “safety” and “well-being” in my life. Now I acknowledge that “life happens” and things can and will come up that are out of our purview which end up rattling our cages. These are the times we need to cling tight to our faith that God will provide us a way out of such terrible predicaments and work all things together for good! Sometimes such events are character-building and help us develop a deeper understanding of both our Creator and ourselves. However, I also think there are wise steps we can take to position ourselves so that we avoid unnecessary burdens and an excess of unsafe situations and relationships.
You may need to change jobs so that you aren’t being abused by a terrible boss or co-worker. You may need to let go of that one friendship which has become dreadfully one-sided and leaves you feeling constantly drained. You may need to move to another house, or another town altogether, in order to live more peacefully. You may need to downsize and come up with a more realistic budget so you’re not feeling stressed out about your finances all the time.
Mindfulness is a fantastic weapon against the modern plague of anxiety and depression that often arises from the chronic stresses and hassles prevalent in our busy lives. Yet it is always a good idea to seek God in determining if there are choices you can make to remove unproductive sources of stress and live a more purposeful, focused, and rewarding lifestyle.
Understand What Triggers Unease
One area where meditation can provide tremendous benefit is helping your mind heal from past traumatic events. If you’ve been through a particularly challenging or traumatic situation, you may still feel the effects from those events months or even years later. You may have forgiven the person(s) who wronged you, and you may even have forgiven God for “allowing” bad things to happen—but even if you’ve “moved on” in your conscious awareness, it’s still possible that you’ll find yourself reacting poorly to certain “triggers” that arise in your daily life. You could find yourself in a “funk” at various times and not understand why.
These are what I call the aftereffects of not feeling safe. Your inner sense of danger and chaos may linger on for much longer that you might imagine. Some people are still, decades later, wrestling with the aftereffects of trauma they sustained during childhood. Meditation can be a powerful antidote to the physical and spiritual damage you incurred, and combined with a robust spiritual awareness of God’s healing presence in your life, it can literally have a permanent transforming effect for good.
At the risk of restating the obvious, the key to letting meditation work effectively for you is making sure you are now in a safe situation. For example, people who have endured an abusive relationship early on in their life often find themselves in similarly bad relationships over and over again. On some unconscious level, they are recreating and reliving the same trauma over again in each situation. If you’re slowly nodding your head right now, let me tell you there’s still hope! It’s never too late to make a decision to live differently.
Metanoeō, the Greek word for “repent” in the New Testament, means to undergo a change in frame of mind and feeling, to make a change of principle and practice, to reform. Now I want to be clear: if you were the victim of abuse, you have absolutely no moral responsibility over that situation. You were sinned against, they were the perpetrator. Don’t buy into the false narrative that somehow, in some way, it was “your fault.” Instead, what you do have responsibility over is how you choose to live your life now, in the present moment, and the kind of situations you permit to be a part of your regular lifestyle.
Allow God to renew your mind, lovingly, by committing to a principle of conscious mindfulness as you engage in positive lifestyle reformation!