How to reduce our stress response at the deepest level

Anyone who practises integrated mind-body methods such as yoga, meditation, tai chi or qigong knows how effective they are in helping us feel calmer, more centred, and more stable in our responses to the world. For some people this effect can be immediately felt at their very first class, although for others it takes longer.

When we make this kind of practice a part of our daily life, we can begin to feel this relaxation response deepening. In fact we can begin to condition ourselves so that as soon as we take our meditation position, put on our tai chi clothes and shoes or stand in preparation for our qigong practice or first asana, the effect kicks in almost immediately.

And the longer we practise – months and yes perhaps – the more this more stable centred and calm state seeps into the rest of our waking and sleeping lives.

This is our lived experience and we don’t need scientific research to say it is so, but it is interesting to see how a recent study both confirms this effect and explains some of the mechanism behind it.

The research reveals that mind-body practices such as yoga, tai chi, qigong and meditation can change our stress response at the body’s deepest level – the DNA.

When we are exposed to external or internal stress, the sympathetic (‘fight or flight’) branch of our autonomic nervous system is triggered. This causes physical reactions throughout the body – right down to the level of the genes. They start to produce cytokines – proteins that cause inflammation within the cells. Prolonged inflammation of this kind can lead to a wide range of chronic mental, emotional and physical diseases – as well as to premature ageing. It is even thought that inflammation is the single most important cause of such degeneration.

The good news is that this new study (which analysed 18 previous individual studies) appears to show that mindfulness practices reduce this inflammatory reaction.

More precisely (and scientifically) the authors say “The results of 18 studies that used gene expression analysis in research on meditation and related mind-body interventions have overall found downregulation of NF-κB-targeted genes, which can be understood as the reversal of the molecular signature of the effects of chronic stress.”

The full study is available here

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