Is a Vacation or Meditation the Key to Stress Relief?
How stress-relieving activities affect our minds, brains, and biomarkers
Posted Sep 27, 2016
The stress of daily life makes you long for a break. While sitting in traffic on the freeway, you may dream about sitting under a palm tree drinking pina coladas or reclining on your chaise next to a sparkling infinity pool. Your shoulders may automatically drop down and tension release from your chest as you imagine the feeling of the sun on your body, the cool water, and the familiar smell of suntan lotion.
Unfortunately, not all of us can afford to take an extended vacation at a resort, so for some of us this form of stress-relief is just wishful thinking. On the other hand, if you are one of the lucky ones (and even if you aren’t), you may be curious to find out whether a resort vacation actually relieves your stress and how long this effect continues after you get back to the day to day grind. Is just taking a vacation sufficient or do you need to do a more active routine, like meditating, in order to get the most stress relief? Researchers at the University of California-San Francisco recently published a study that examines exactly this question.
The researchers recruited a group of healthy non-meditators to live at a resort for 6 days (I’ll bet it wasn’t a problem to get subjects!). Within this group, participants were assigned at random to just relax at the resort or to participate in a meditation retreat at the same venue. Both of these groups were also compared to a group of “regular meditators” already enrolled in the retreat. The subjects participated in blood draws before and right after the retreat and also reported on their psychological well-being at the same time and 1 and 10 months later. The blood draws were used to assess patterns of gene expression, immunity, and biomarkers related to cellular aging.
So is there really a “vacation effect” on health and well-being? The good news is that there is!. All subjects, both meditators and non-meditators showed substantial changes in gene expression processes related to regulating stress in the body, maintaining healthy immune function, and metabolizing amyloid beta (a protein segment that can form harmful plaque in the brain related to onset of Alzheimers). Experienced meditators also showed beneficial activity in genes related to fighting viruses and reducing inflammation from pre- to post-retreat. They also showed vacation-related increases in telomerase - a biomarker thought to protect against cellular aging.
But what about the psychological effects? Were there actually long-lasting benefits, not just short-term ones? Here the meditators had an advantage. Participants in all 3 groups felt less depressed, less stressed, and had more vitality both at the end of the vacation and one month later. But the novice meditators were more able to maintain their mental health benefits at the 10 month follow-up, compared to those just vacationing.
This study shows that everyone benefits from a vacation, both physically and psychologically, but learning the skill of meditation can extend the psychological stress reduction effect for almost a year. The vacation also had benefits on expression of genes and biomarkers related to regulating physiological stress and inflammation, even in those who did not meditate.
What Can You Do
Take regular vacations
Too many Americans skip taking vacations because of work demands, finances, or family obligations. Our minds and bodies were designed to alternate periods of stress with periods of rest. We aren’t meant to go, go, go all the time. Vacations can help you feel happier and less stressed for months and may also improve your overall health and ability to manage your stress
Start a meditation practice
This and other studies of the effects of mindfulness show benefits of meditation on brain chemicals and hormones that help you regulate stress and fight off diseases. Meditation can lower blood pressure as well. It also may help your brain to react in more patient and compassionate ways.
Meditation is easier than you think. The practice below will help you get started.
A Simple Breath Awareness Meditation
- Pick a comfortable, quiet place where you will not be disturbed
- Sit in a relaxed posture but with the spine upright on a cushion on the floor or a chair. If you use a chair, make sure your feet are touching the ground.
- Begin to notice your breathing. Try to maintain an open and curious attitude. Notice where the breath goes when it enters and leaves your body.
- Do not try to change the breath in any way. It may change naturally as you observe it.
- If your mind wanders away, note what it is doing, than gently bring your attention back to the breath.
- Continue observing the breath for 15-20 minutes.
- Remember to be patient with yourself and not to judge yourself negatively for having a wandering mind. That's just what our minds do.
Epel E., et al. 2016. Meditation and vacation effects have an impact on disease-associated molecular phenotypes. Translational Psychiatry 6(8).
For More Tips on Managing Stress:
Melanie Greenberg, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist in Mill Valley, California, former professor, and author. She is an expert on stress, the brain, and mindfulness. She provides workshops, speaking engagements, and psychotherapy for individuals and couples. She regularly appears on radio shows and as an expert in national media. She also does long-distance coaching via the internet. She is the author of The Stress-Proof Brain (New Harbinger, 2017)
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