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Mental wellness

Brighter life
March 24, 2017

Meditation: Giving stress a time-out

Stress can wreak havoc on your mind and body. Here’s a low-cost, easy stressbuster: meditation.

Canadians are a stressed bunch. According to Statistics Canada, 27% of Canadian employees report most days as “quite a bit” or “extremely stressful.” That means there could be 3.7 million adults who are working with high levels of stress.

These people often report feeling burned out, anxious, depressed and generally unhappy with their lives. They also report physical symptoms such as muscle pain, headaches, fatigue, racing heart and high blood pressure. Some have panic attacks, which are bouts of extreme anxiety.

“It’s one of the issues we hear most about,” says Mark Henick, national director of strategic initiatives with the Canadian Mental Health Association. “Staying up late, waking up early … the body perceives a threat and doesn’t come down from an arousing experience. It adds up over time.”

Catie Fenn knows all about the cumulative effects of stress. An ambitious type-A personality, she finished law school and became a Bay Street lawyer in Toronto. But the fast-paced lifestyle proved challenging and unrewarding. So Fenn decided to take a big step back – not abandoning her job in law, but also becoming a meditation teacher, working with clients in roles similar to her own.

“Most of the people I work with are high achievers and professionals,” says Fenn. “I typically work with people who have a lot of stress in their lives.”

Benefits of meditation

Fenn often leads her clients in meditation workshops, teaching them how to take a few minutes each day to disconnect, find a quiet place and breathe, paying careful attention to each breath. Visualization – picturing a certain image in your mind – can also help people who have a lot on their minds, says Fenn.

In addition to providing a calming moment in the day and refocusing thoughts, meditation changes the brain, says Fenn. This has been documented in recent studies. Meditation strengthens the immune system, improves cardiovascular health and reduces the size of the parts of the brain responsible for the fight-or-flight response, while enlarging the ones responsible for memory and logic.

A study by Harvard University researchers found that grey matter in the hippocampus increased in size in participants who undertook an 8-week meditation program. The hippocampus is the area of the brain responsible for learning and memory. Grey matter also increased in the parts of the brain responsible for feelings of compassion and self-awareness.

Conversely, grey matter in the amygdala, which generates feelings of anxiety and stress, was reduced in size.

How long should I meditate to reduce stress?

Despite the benefits, Henick says many people simply don’t address the stress in their lives. “Most people let it slide,” he says.

But Fenn says meditation doesn’t have to be a big commitment. All it requires is a quiet, comfortable area where you can sit or lie down. Breathing exercises can be as simple as breathing in 2 breaths while saying “Let” and exhaling on “Go.”

She suggests starting small, aiming for 2 minutes a day for 30 days: “Start meditating consistently – work your way up from that.”

She says most of her clients aim for 10-20 minutes a day, up to 2 times a day. The perks are less anxiety and better sleep quality. Many also say they are able to handle stressful situations more effectively when they arise, and are calmer in the face of everyday stressors.

“You can get a significant benefit from that,” says Fenn.

Henick agrees. He also meditates, using an app that talks him through the process. “Meditation teaches you to remain in the present – but in a realistic way,” he says, meaning that by focusing on the present, a person can keep worries about the future in check.

“There are so many ways to integrate it in your daily life,” he says.

  • If your workplace has a wellness program as part of the workplace health and benefits it offers you, look for workshops on meditation and other stressbusters.

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