Stress is unavoidable. However, we handle stress is often within our control. There are good ways and bad ways to handle stress, and meditation is considered a healthy stress reduction strategy.
To lower our stress levels, we can either reduce the number of stressors in our lives or we can try to reduce the effect of these stressors. Research suggests that meditation helps us reduce stress by limiting the extent to which each stressor bothers us. As a result, our overall stress levels decrease.
So we know that meditation lowers stress, and that healthy stress management is key to maintaining a healthy lifestyle. But some innovative new research is showing that meditation may exert some of its healthy effects on a cellular level. The Shamatha Project is a meditation research project unprecedented in its scope and design. The project randomized people into two groups — one of which did a three-month intensive meditation retreat, and the other did not. One of the study’s findings was that the group that did the meditation retreat had greater levels of telomerase activity than the control group. What is telomerase? It’s an enzyme that is thought to exert health-building or anti-aging effects on a genetic level. The possibility that meditation could have anti-aging effects is very exciting, of course, and may be true. However we don’t know that quite yet. Further research is needed to replicate this finding, and to better understand the ways in which telomerase affects telomeres. (Telomeres are a protective part of our chromosomes that shorten with age and repeated cell division; research is currently investigating exactly how important telomeres are to the aging process.)
The fact that doing a meditation retreat was associated with higher levels of telomerase could mean that meditation affects the aging process on a cellular level; or it could be a byproduct of reduced stress levels. Perhaps other stress-reducing activities, like exercise, would have a similar effect on telomerase. Future research will clarify the picture. The Shamatha project is a unique and extensive research study that will greatly aid the scientific understanding of meditation. To learn more about shamatha, visit here or here, or check out Turning the Mind Into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham.