“Buddha was asked, ‘What have you gained from meditation?’ He replied, ‘Nothing.’ ‘However,' Buddha said, ‘let me tell you what I lost: anger, anxiety, depression, insecurity, fear of old age, and death.’”
“I never get stressed.”
I used to say and think this all the time when I saw someone freaking out about an upcoming test, a bad grade, relationship problems, or a boss or coworker.
I had a false sense of being “carefree” because I wouldn’t get stressed over the trivial things that most people did.
I was a “battle hardened” soldier recently back from a deployment in Afghanistan. When I saw people worry about those inconsequential things, I would think to myself, “Please, you have no idea what it means to be stressed.”
As it turns out, my understanding of stress was wrong. It’s also wrong for a lot of people who believe they aren’t stressed.
It wasn’t until I started meditating three years after my deployment that I started to realize that I was stressed—just in a different way and from different things than most people.
After meditating every day for a couple months, my “ah-ha” moment finally hit me.
I was sitting in traffic, late for an appointment (I hate being late), watching all the people around me freaking out. For once, I was calm and collected sitting in that traffic, thinking, “Why freak out about something I can’t change?”
That was when I really started to see the benefits and began reflecting on my past.
I realized that since returning from my deployment, I had become very irritable, not a great people person, and had very little patience.
The reaction time between something happening and my response was almost immediate.
If my girlfriend confronted me about a problem, I would immediately either get defensive and blame her or just shut down and ignore her.
Literally all of this started to change, just from consistently meditating for eight minutes a day!
My life has been drastically different since then. I am much more calm and collected. I don’t get upset over little things, especially if they’re out of my control.
My response time to a stimulus has greatly increased so I can choose the type of reaction I have and think about what to say.
My relationship with my wife (the same girlfriend from before) is incredible, and we know how to communicate like mature adults by allowing time to see the reality of a situation and choose how we respond to it.
I’ve brought about an awareness that allows me to continually grow as a person and manage the hidden stressors that often go by unnoticed.
This is just part of a long list of benefits from meditation, and I could go on and on… like how nice it is to be able to travel in third world countries without constantly keeping an eye out for ambushes or looking for my next piece of cover (a habit I had from deployment).
Although it’s great to talk about meditation and its benefits, what I really want people to understand is that there may be a lot more stress in your life than you realize, and when you meditate you become aware of that stress and are able to shift how you respond to it.
When it comes to this type of stress, the older you are, the worse it gets.
If you have ten, twenty, thirty-plus years of having negative experiences without intentionally prioritizing positive ones, you are much more likely to easily become stressed and have a negative view of the world.
The more hidden stress you experience, the more efficient your body gets at activating your physiological stress response, commonly known as “fight or flight” mode.
Ask yourself this: Were you, or someone you know, once “carefree” but are now afraid of heights, flying, and think natural disasters and shootings are about to happen whenever you leave home?
Well, you can thank your body's efficient adaptability for that. The more stressful situations you have (and yes, watching all the negative things on the news is stressful), the more your body thinks it needs to switch into the fight or flight response to keep you safe.
That means your brain becomes more efficient at recognizing even the smallest of stressors, and less efficient at calming down or noticing positive things.
For me, it was a condensed time period that required a lot of worst-case scenario thinking. When you are constantly exposed to driving on roads with IEDs (improvised explosive devices), that stress response will condition your physiology to tell you that roads are a very dangerous place.
The same thing happens if you only watch the news; you’ll have a very misconstrued perception of the world, and you’ll be constantly feeding the bias your brain has for negative experiences.
Evolutionarily, your brain has needed to remember negative experiences to protect you much more than it needed to remember positive experiences. It takes time to undo this wiring of neural pathways that your brain has put in place. But it can be done, and meditation is a great way to build new “positive pathways” in your brain.
There’s an enormous amount of ways to meditate so I’ll share what I’ve personally done and am still doing, in the hopes that it will help you as well.
1. Basic mindfulness meditation
I started my practice with a book called 8 Minute Meditation. It takes you through a series of different styles, most of which I liked. But from this I continued to do a simple meditation every morning of focusing on my breath. Just doing this lead me to the “ah-ha moment” I mentioned earlier.
2. Meditation apps
I also use a couple different apps now that I like to use mid-day or at night. In particular, I like the “loving kindness” options, also known as “focus on positive”. This is perfect for trying to counteract the negativity bias and rebuild positive neural pathways. There are a lot of options out there, including Calm, which is free.
This may not be thought of as mediation, but if meditation can be doing one task effortlessly with focused concentration on that one particular task, then reading is a type of mediation for me.
I easily enter what’s called “flow state” when I read. Not only that, I’m reading positive things which helps shape the way I think. The other end of this could also be “not watching the news”, just like I don’t like putting junk in my body by eating it, I don’t like putting junk in my body by watching/hearing it.
If reading isn’t quite your thing, then try listening to podcasts. Preferably podcasts that lift you up and feed your brain with positivity and learning. These can be easily listened to on your way to work, at the gym, cooking, walking, or you can just sit down and listen.
Walking is such an undervalued way to de-stress. I love walking for a lot of reasons, pretty much any major life decision my wife and I have made in the past few years has been made while walking.
In terms of meditation, walking meditation is an awesome practice. It’s a great way to bring about your awareness while getting the benefits of moving your body. Odds are, you walk at some point in your day. So if you’re strapped for time, use walking from the car to work as time to practice mindfulness.
After hating being late to the point of stressing out, I now tell myself, “I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. In the here, in the now.” This has helped me drastically. Check out Thich Naht Hahn’s How to Walk for more.
There are a number of other ways to help you de-stress and become a more relaxed, positive person. These are just some ways to get started and feel less anxious, worried, and negative.
Start to use some of these strategies and it’ll feel like a weight has been lifted off your shoulders that you didn’t even know was there.
Meditation vector image via Shutterstock