In the chaos that is life, we can find it increasingly difficult to pause, to take a step back and breathe, and to think clearly about our situation or the task at hand. The ability to do this simple thing can make a radical difference to the way we cope with everyday life and the situations and events that it throws at us.
Of course this is nothing new for the human condition – we have faced situations and challenges that may stress or overwhelm us from the beginning of time (fleeing from predators, fighting for our lives, recovering from injuries, defending our tribe) – but life in the 21st century presents us with a very different set of circumstances. In addition to (hopefully) very rare and extremely stressful events, we may experience the majority of our stress and anxiety very differently. Ongoing problems, worries or health issues that seem so much a part of contemporary living for many of us mean that cortisol (the ‘stress hormone’) released while fleeing from a Palaeolithic predator is now stretched over time; a continuous drip-drip effect of chronic stress which eventually proves detrimental to body and mind.
There are a number of things that we can do to help mitigate the effects of stress and anxiety. Firstly – and true to Paleo-principles – we can ensure that the following are in place:
Getting enough sleep is the number one priority. This is often a hard thing when stress and worry take over but as with everything – any little improvement that can be achieved is a big bonus. As much as possible, everything should take a back seat to dialling in sleep patterns.
Eating real food, with a particular emphasis on good quality sources of fat (particularly important for brain health) is essential. But the cycle of stress (particularly if accompanied by reduced sleep) is like a vortex that drags us into irresponsible food choices often centered around carbs (sugar). Again, being gentle and kind to ourselves by making small improvements where possible (rather than spinning into self-recrimination) will help.
The will to exercise often disappears at times of stress yet it is so beneficial to our well-being. The very thing that we need becomes the thing we avoid if we are feeling unmotivated and lacking in energy. Keeping it simple – in particular getting out into nature for a walk – can be hugely beneficial.
Contact with friends, family or a local group reinforces the social bond that is so often neglected in times of stress. Interaction with others helps us to look outside ourselves; whether through engaging in group activities or through listening, chatting and just being with others. This is particularly effective when we experience a feeling of contribution; a sense that we are helping with something bigger than ourselves. Making time for these things – and learning to ‘Be‘ instead of ‘Do’ – may help tremendously.
Making improvements wherever we can (and however small) in these areas will pay dividends – not only in periods of stress but in our everyday lives. But what else can we do?
As research continues to show, practising meditation may be very effective in helping people overcome stress and anxiety. Of course,the addition of meditation fits well within a Paleo approach and mindfulness may contribute to making (and reinforcing) wise choices in how we sleep, eat and exercise.
“Meditation is not just blissing out under a mango tree. It completely changes your brain and therefore changes what you are.” Matthieu Ricard, Molecular Geneticist, Buddhist monk and humanitarian
I recently began meditating again after a long break of many years. I used to go to my local Bethnal Green Buddhist Centre and practise basic meditation (in particular what is known as loving kindness meditation or ‘metta bhavana’). This was sometimes regular and sometimes sporadic but circumstances changed and I eventually stopped. Meditation inexplicably fell away and despite knowing that I should probably be meditating (and after many recommendations from people to practise), I never made the time. This was due to a mixture of perceived time poverty, rational scepticism and a feeling that I just wasn’t the sort of person (too hyper) that could meditate (even though it had helped me in the past). Clearly these excuses were a load of old nonsense but it made sense at the time (a bit like eating a low fat high carb diet)…
This changed at the beginning of the year after watching an interview with Dan Harris, journalist and author of the book and podcast 10% Happier on the wonderful documentary Minimalism (more to come on that in a future article – a MUST WATCH!). Here was a man who seemed like the last person on earth that would be meditating. His live meltdown on Good Morning America is excruciating to watch and it was this watershed moment that prompted him to begin meditating in an effort to deal with soaring stress levels. His persuasive and enthusiastic approach made me rethink and I began cautiously with a 9-minute guided vipassana (mindfulness) meditation by Neuroscientist Sam Harris which you can find here (Sam is no relation to Dan, and has an excellent podcast).
I figured that I could spare 9 minutes out of a day in which I seem to fill every second and despite misgivings, I persevered. Needless to say, and being the sort of person that I am, I wanted to read the scientific research behind the effectiveness of meditation and it is fascinating and compelling. In combination with Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (which I have also tried), meditation can be extremely effective as a therapeutic tool to fight stress, anxiety and depression, obsessive compulsive disorders and generally improve mood (for more on the effectiveness of this dual treatment – see the video link below).
The nine minutes gradually crept up and I am making time to meditate on a daily basis, fitting it in wherever I can (although first thing mornings and last thing evenings work best). I have found guided meditations to be very helpful. These can be accessed via the internet and also with apps (for instance Buddhify, which has a huge selection of guided meditations for various situations). There are a number of sources below to help you get started.
I have definitely noticed and improvement in mind state after beginning meditation again. Feeling much more focused and calmer as well as learning to ‘let things go’ are some of the many benefits for me but of course it is different for everyone. The best thing is to begin with 9 minutes or even 5 minutes a day and do not deviate from this for a while. The problem is if you are like me, you will jump from 5 minutes to 30 minutes too soon, consequently fail to fit it in, and then begin to stress due to failing to achieve perfection (which is partly why I need to meditate in the first place). Like all of the areas listed above – sleep, food, and exercise – a little change is better than none at all…
I wondered about the evolutionary perspective on meditation and how it fitted in with ancestral health. In an absolutely fascinating paper entitled ‘Did meditating make us human? (2007)’ Matt Rossano (Department of Psychology, Southeastern Louisiana University) posits a theory that ‘campfire rituals of focused attention’ through meditation-like periods of reflection or shamanic healing enhanced working memory capacity and symbolic thinking for our Homo sapiens ancestors. He suggests that such traits were essential for advances in the brain’s ability to innovate and experiment, thus leading to evolutionary advances:
‘Consciousness-altering rituals, often taking the form of shamanistic healing rituals, constituted an important and unique aspect of the human selective environment. This environment targeted those areas of the brain involved in focused attention and working memory, and in time, facilitated the genetic mutation(s) that ultimately fixed enhanced working memory and symbolic function in the human population…’
Rossano suggests that periods of reflection or meditation may have been an integral – but very natural – feature in the life of early humans:
‘ …The campfire rituals of focused attention practiced by our hominid ancestors need not have been as meditatively disciplined as that of Tibetan monks to have activated the brain regions important for attention and memory.’
He also highlights the increasing amount of research to show the benefits of meditation to brain function and general health:
‘…meditation produces short-term and long-term effects on both the structure and function of those areas of the brain closely associated with working memory and focused attention such as the dorsolateral pre-frontal cortex’. Such changes may have helped to propel Homo sapiens towards innovative and successful development as a species.
‘What is critical is that these rituals required focused attention which activated those areas of the brain associated with attention and working memory. Those whose brains were most ‘ritually-capable’ would also have been the ones to reap the greatest fitness reward. Enhanced working memory capacity was a by-product of ritually-induced fitness enhancing brain changes.’
The practice of ‘being’ rather than ‘doing’, of observing our thoughts dispassionately and with curiosity and detachment, a fluidity to the concept of ‘the self’ and a feeling of interconnectedness (particularly with the natural world), an ability for precision-like focus… These traits would have been beneficial to our hunter-gatherer ancestors and in some cases, may have meant the difference between life and death. Perhaps they came naturally to them without a conscious need to be cultivated or were partly induced through certain practices, as Rossano suggests. What we do know is that in our 21st century world, many of us have lost the ability to detach ourselves from the cacophony of chaos that surrounds us; from social, financial and personal pressures and from a 24/7 media culture, and to focus on what is important. Finding the time to pause, take a step back and breathe might go a little (or a long) way to helping us overcome this. In conjunction with a Paleo approach to health, meditation may provide wonderful benefits and yet again, our ancient ancestors may have more to teach us than we think.
‘…nightly around the fire – singing, chanting, eyes fixated on the hypnotic flame – our ancestors built their brains into human brains.’
There is a wealth of information out there on this subject. To get started, here are some videos, sites and article I have found interesting and helpful:
The Happy Movie – if you have not seen this film, it is an absolute must! It is available on Netflix if you have it. Watching this introduced me to the work of Buddhist monk, photographer and humanitarian Mathieu Ricard (tagged by the media as ‘the happiest man alive’ – a label that he has been trying to shake off with little success ever since). While I depart from Mathieu over the subject of eating animals, he seems a truly fascinating and wonderful person. His father was the famous French philosopher Jean-François Revel and they come together to discuss their relative views in the book The Monk and the Philosopher.
Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things – a wonderful film. Definitely check this out!
10% Happier with Dan Harris – Dan has quite a few guided meditations led by guests on his podcast, as well as some interesting interviews.
There is a wealth of meditation apps available such as Imagine Clarity (with Mathieu Ricard), many with a monthly charge but Buddhify seems to be one of the only apps with a one-off payment of £4.99. I have Buddhify and use it in combination with various other resources.
Youtube: Jon Kabat-Zinn guided meditations are really helpful (Jon created the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) program and is associated with the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. There are also some excellent interviews on YouTube with Jon.
Youtube: Joseph Goldstein interviews and guided mediations. Joseph is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society (IMS)
Extremely interesting lecture on Applying Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy to Treatment
7 Ways Meditation Can Actually Change The Brain – great article with links to research papers on the benefits of meditation