Building Stress Resilience with Meditation

The heroic rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a flooded cave complex has captured the world’s imagination. One of the surprising discoveries that has emerged is that all 12 of the young boys managed to stay calm throughout the harrowing 18-day ordeal thanks in part to meditation, which was taught to them by their coach, Ekapol Chanthawong, who spent a decade living as a Buddhist monk.

This highlights the powerful impact that meditation can have on our health and well-being. It’s a reminder that, no matter the circumstance, our inner strength is always within reach.

How does mindfulness buffer against stress? Practices like meditation, yoga, and conscious breathing activate the vagus nerve, our tenth cranial nerve, which modulates the parasympathetic nervous system—the part of the nervous system that helps us to calm down and relax. Also called the “wandering nerve” because it meanders through the body, the vagus nerve regulates heart and breath rate and controls our voice tone, organs, and digestive tract. 

“In many ways, the vagus nerve is the air traffic controller of our physical body—sending and receiving messages from the brain about when to digest, when to breathe, and what to feel,” says Angela Wilson, who teaches programs on the science of yoga at Kripalu. “This makes it an essential player in building stress resilience.”

A growing body of research is expanding on this understanding, including a study by Sara Lazar, PhD, a key meditation researcher from Massachusetts General Hospital. After an eight-week mindfulness program that included meditation, participants showed an overall trend of decreased perceived stress, with a parallel decrease in activity in the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. 

“The amygdala helps us to recognize threats so that we can keep ourselves safe, and it’s key in our stress response system,” Angela explains. “Like so many things, when we can find the right balance of its activation, it’s helpful; we have to know when danger is present. But when the amygdala is overactive, it can leave us feeling chronically stressed and anxious.”

Mindfulness has also been proven effective in addressing PTSD, Angela says—which the Thai boys and their coach may well experience after this traumatic event. She cites a study by Bessel van der Kolk that explored whether yoga (which involves similar psychological and physiological mechanisms as meditation) could help women with complex trauma who had been through therapy, but continued to experience symptoms. 

The results were clear: After 10 weeks, those who had participated in the yoga program experienced a significant reduction in PTSD symptoms compared to the control group. In fact, 52 percent of participants in the yoga group no longer met the criteria for PTSD, compared to 21 percent of the control group. 

However, Angela cautions that meditation and yoga alone are not necessarily enough for grappling with the after-effects of traumatic experiences. “One of the safest ways to utilize mindfulness practices as a healing modality for trauma is to pair them with traditional therapy,” she says. “Yoga and meditation can be powerful ways to access challenging feelings and memories, and working with a trained therapist helps trauma survivors makes sense of these experiences and process them for healing and growth.”

Find out about upcoming programs on the science of yoga at Kripalu.

© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail