A very bright college freshman spent much time telling me about the benefits of his marijuana use, mostly emphasizing how this helped him to relax and also increased his perception of things and made him feel closer to solutions. Similarly, anyone who has enjoyed a glass of wine or a timely martini also knows how de-stressing this can be and how the unburdening effect of alcohol flowing to your brain can be so relieving of your daily stress. Meditators too, extol the benefits of the “meditational state” in similar ways, pointing to a unique state of relaxation and progressively improved attention and decreased stress. Are these mechanisms of stress reduction interchangeable or are their differences enough to make us choose one over the other? Does it matter?
Firstly, if we examine drugs, alcohol and meditation, it is obvious that they all have a phase during which one is unburdened of conscious thought and it’s energy expending pathways. They all share an ability to relieve stress for at least a certain period. In fact, their stress relief effects are so obvious, that medicine has opened its doors to medical uses of marijuana, and the benefits of limited alcohol use and meditation on heart health. One mechanism underlying these benefits appears to be the stress relief, taking the obsessed conscious mind off of its focus of attention on the day’s happenings and incomplete tasks and allowing the person to exist through the brilliance of unconscious thought.
However, too much drugs and alcohol can lead to a dominance of unconscious thought and a vicious resurgence of conscious thought the next day. As the withdrawal or hangover starts to kick in, the conscious brain makes a comeback with attention being forced to hang onto the headache, trembling or other uncomfortable sensations the next day. Meditation, however, does not appear to have the same payback. Instead, one has to pay upfront for its benefits by committing one’s self to grappling with the noise of the mind and sitting still. For many people, this is neither desirable nor possible. Yet, once one has tasted the spontaneous benefits of meditation (which often takes six months of more of regular meditating), meditation becomes a worthwhile competitor with drugs and alcohol for stress relief.