How does it help?
Most of us deal with large amounts of stress on a regular basis, especially right now during the pandemic. To reduce our levels of stress, we try different things. Some people exercise, some eat more food, and some meditate. You might think of meditation as a spiritual practice. It can be; however, it’s a great tool to decrease stress, too. How does it do this? Are there certain things that you need to do to participate?
Meditation has been around for thousands of years and originally was meant to help deepen the understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. Nowadays, it’s more commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction. It establishes a secure connection between our internal and external worlds. Since external factors can only be pleasurable if you’re happy from the inside, having clear thoughts is key to attaining it. Meditation also awakens the body to all aspects of the conscious and subconscious layers of the mind and lets it focus on the now. Due to these factors, it’s considered a type of complementary mind-body medicine. So, it’s no wonder that a recent survey showed that the number of people in the United States who practice meditation daily has increased significantly. Despite these attributes and two decades worth of studies, there’s still much we don’t understand about meditation. The early findings related to the positive benefits led to enormous amounts of enthusiasm for the practice. In-depth looks at these studies indicate that the science has often suffered from poor research designs and small effect sizes. In addition, many scientists don’t agree on the definition of meditation nor its types. So, what’s currently believed about mediation?
The first thing to know is that there are many different forms and each one assists with different things. There are two main styles: focused-attention and open-monitoring. With focused-attention meditation, you concentrate your attention on a single object, thought, sound, or visualization. It emphasizes ridding your mind of distraction. Often, you focus on breathing, a mantra, or a calming sound. Since we all breathe, this is usually the easiest to focus on if you’re a beginner. Relaxed breathing involves deep, even-paced breathing using the diaphragm muscle to expand your lungs. The purpose is to slow your breathing, take in more oxygen, and reduce the use of shoulder, neck, and upper chest muscles while breathing. A quiet setting with few distractions is vital when you’re first practicing. As you get better at it, you may be able to do it anywhere. It’s also essential to be in a comfortable position, which could be sitting, lying down, walking, or another position. Just try to keep good posture. Open-monitoring meditation fosters a broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, train of thought, and a sense of self. Typically, this allows you to become aware of thoughts, feelings, or impulses; you might usually try to suppress. The central element of doing this type is to let thoughts pass through your mind without judgment. There are many variations between the two types. Each one offers different strengths and benefits.
- Guided meditation (guided imagery or visualization) is when you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing. You try to use as many of your senses as possible, like smells, sights, sounds, and textures. You can be led through the process by a guide or do it on your own.
- Mantra meditation is when you silently repeat a calming word, thought, or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. Transcendental meditation is a form of this and involves silently repeat a personally assigned mantra, such as a word, sound, or phrase, in a specific way.
- Mindfulness meditation is based on having an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment. You broaden your conscious awareness and focus on what you experience during meditation. You observe your thoughts and emotions, but let them pass without judgment.
- Qi gong (CHEE-gung) combines meditation, relaxation, physical movement, and breathing exercises to restore and maintain balance. It’s part of traditional Chinese medicine.
- Tai chi is a form of gentle Chinese martial arts. You perform a self-paced series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner while practicing deep breathing.
- Yoga is a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you’re encouraged to focus on the moment.
- Mindfulness-Based Stress Relaxation (MBSR) is mostly used in corporate settings to reduce work-induced stress in employees and leaders. It combines meditation, mindful body scan, and thought journaling to combat burnout.
- Loving-Kindness Meditation (self-compassion meditation) is a method filled with care and kindness to heal the soul and make yourself feel loved and looked after. It can also be used to have increased compassion for others.
What kind of meditation is right for you? That depends. If you’re tackling a specific issue, then you should choose a practice aimed at helping that issue. Each approach creates a distinct mental environment.
During meditation, when you focus your attention on eliminating the jumbled thoughts that are crowding your mind, it can reduce stress. This process is thought to enhanced physical and emotional wellbeing. The good news is these benefits don’t end when your meditation session does. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health’s (NCCIH) research and reviews show that those who commit to a daily practice of meditation improve their overall quality of life, both in the short and long-term. The emotional benefits of meditation include acquiring a new perspective on stressful situations, developing skills to manage stress, expanding self-awareness, improving the ability to focus on the present, lessening negative emotions, strengthening imagination and creativity, and increasing patience and tolerance. There’s some evidence that meditation might be useful for medical conditions, especially those that are worsened by stress, such as anxiety, asthma, cancer, chronic pain, depression, heart disease, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, sleep problems, and tension headaches. Recent research has demonstrated that meditation profoundly impacts skin conditions, like eczema, acne, dry skin, and psoriasis. This is because our skin is an excellent indicator of our emotions and mental state. It reflects extreme emotions, such as stress, anxiety, depression, excitement, and happiness. Psychodermatology looks at how the skin reacts to internal stress and how stress-reduction through meditation influences it.
The most important organ that is affected by meditation is the brain. Numerous processes take place here and can be positively influenced by meditation. One area that most people focus on is stress reduction. When you’re stressed, your cortisol (stress hormone) levels increase, which activates the autonomic nervous system responsible for fight-or-flight responses. This produces many harmful effects, such as disrupted sleep, increased depression/anxiety, elevated blood pressure, fatigue, and unclear thinking. Brain studies of regular meditators discovered that these individuals have lower cortisol levels in their brains, which explains their resilience and insightful nature. This helps your mind and body bounce back from stress and stressful situations. Besides, meditation helps to dampen the activity in your amygdala (the fear center of your brain that is responsible for the fight-or-flight response) and increases the connections between the amygdala and prefrontal cortex (the part of your brain responsible for your perceptions, understanding, knowledge, logical reasoning, and rational thinking). Both of these changes help you to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it. People who use meditation to ease stress don’t have to rely on alcohol, sleeping pills, or other harmful substances to relax. Another positive benefit is when you have less stress, your anxiety levels decrease. So, you’re less likely to have anxiety disorders, such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and panic attacks.
Since meditation helps to adjust the functioning of the ventromedial cortex, dorsomedial cortex, and insula in addition to the amygdala and prefrontal cortex, it helps to regulate your emotions, reactions to anxiety/fear, and bodily sensations of pain, hunger, and thirst. This is important for those who suffer from depression. Inflammatory chemicals, cytokines, are released in response to stress and can affect mood, leading to depression. Several studies suggest meditation can decrease these inflammatory chemicals, which reduces the chances of developing depression. Another study compared electrical activity between the brains of people who practiced meditation and those who didn’t found that those who meditated showed measurable changes in activity in areas related to positive thinking and optimism. By training your mind to pay attention to the present during meditation, you’re less likely to focus on anxious thoughts that can fuel depression. One group, in particular, that might benefit from meditation is pregnant women and new mothers. They’re at risk of developing depressive disorders due to sudden hormonal flushes in the body. Studies have shown that those who practice meditation decrease the chances of acquiring these disorders.
What our brain thinks about when we aren’t focused on anything specific falls under the brain activity known as the Default Mode Network (DMN). It allows the mind to wander and engage in non-targeted pieces of information. If you regularly meditate, you reduce DMN activity in your brain, which will enable you to remain more present-oriented and focused. You can look at it as weight lifting for your attention span because it enhances the strength and endurance of your attention. One review determined that meditation might even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind-wandering and poor attention. This is known as habituation, or the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Another constructive advantage is that improvements in attention and clarity of thinking help keep your mind young. A review of 12 studies found that meditation helped boost attention, memory, and mental quickness in older volunteers. Research shows that older adults who practice meditation for as little as two minutes per day can significantly influence their memory dysfunctions. The improvements in the brain’s problem-solving and decision-making strategies doesn’t just apply to older individuals. It can be harnessed by those of any age. In 2011, researchers from Harvard Medical School inspected the effects of meditation on the brain and found a connection between mindfulness and processing new information. The study contained 17 people who participated in an eight-week meditation program. Brain scans were completed before and after the program and showed an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation. A different study done by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University in 2016 demonstrated how meditation could expand concentration and decision making. The study consisted of 35 unemployed adults looking for work. The group was divided with one set partaking in a three-day relaxation program without meditation components. The other participants practiced three days of mindfulness meditation. Brain scans before and after displayed a surge in connectivity among parts of the brain that control attention for those in the meditation group.
Meditation appears to increase compassion and empathy towards ourselves and others. Practicing loving-kindness meditation encourages connections in brain sites that regulate positive emotions and amplifies our willingness to take action to relieve suffering. The lessening of amygdala activity in the presence of suffering also activates circuits in the brain connected to good feelings and love. Typically, the focus is on developing kind thoughts and feelings toward yourself, but through practice, you learn to extend this kindness and forgiveness externally. This means that meditation could have a positive impact not only on your wellbeing but on your relationships. One study looked at couples’ cortisol levels after discussing a conflict in their relationship. Unsurprisingly, all the couples had spikes in their levels. However, the levels in the people, both men and women, who had a habit of practicing meditation were quicker to return to normal after the conflict ended. It’s not just your relationship with your significant other that can benefit. Meditation is also linked to better relationships with your kids. Studies have discovered that it can lessen stress, depression, and anxiety in parents, especially those with preschoolers and children with disabilities. It’s also linked to more positive behavior in kids. The advantages don’t stop with people your related to but can transcend to friends and strangers. Twenty-two studies demonstrated this type of meditation could increase peoples’ compassion toward themselves and others. These benefits also appear to accumulate over time and help to reduce many kinds of bias.
Meditation can aid in improving your self-image and developing a more positive outlook on life. To do this, you need to gain a stronger understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you through self-inquiry meditation. You learn to recognize thoughts that may be harmful or self-defeating. The goal is that as you gain greater awareness of your thought habits, you can direct them toward more constructive patterns. By doing this, you’ll not only boost your self-image and self-worth, but you can break dependencies on harmful behaviors and addictive substances by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers. Research has shown that meditation helps people learn to redirect their attention, which can strengthen their willpower, control their emotions/impulses, and raise their understanding of the causes behind their addictive behaviors. This applies to all types of addictive things, like alcohol, cigarettes, drugs, food, gambling, and so on. Those trying to overcome an addiction and regularly meditate have less aggression and cravings than those who don’t. In addition, they’ve got better self-awareness and usually recover sooner than non-meditators. It can help prevent future relapses since it produces a therapeutic effect that helps regulate how the brain experiences pleasure.
Another area that is being studied for the positive effects of meditation is pain. Scientists know that your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind, so it can be elevated when you’re under stress. One study looked at the effects of meditation in 3,500 participants and found that it was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain. A different study looked at meditation in patients with terminal diseases and discovered that it might help ease chronic pain at the end of life. In either study, meditators and non-meditators experienced the same causes of pain, but meditators displayed a better ability to cope with pain and even experienced a reduced sensation of pain. The NCCIH released a study that found that meditation reduces pain sensations in the body without using the brain’s natural opiates. This means that if meditation is combined with medication, individuals might need to take less medication to control their pain.
Many people have difficulty sleeping due to anxiety or “uncontrollable” thoughts. Nearly half the population will grapple with insomnia at some point in their life. Meditation is thought to aid you in gaining control over anxiety and redirecting the “runaway” thoughts. Additionally, it can help relax your body by releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state that is more likely to encourage sleep. This would correspondingly support a better sleep-wake cycle. To garner these benefits, you should practice a short period of meditation right before you go to bed.
Meditation is also shown to reduce strain on the heart. Over time, high blood pressure resulting from stress makes the heart work harder to pump blood and contributes to atherosclerosis (narrowing of the arteries), which leads to poor heart function and can cause heart attacks and strokes. Meditation relaxes the nerve signals that coordinate heart function and tension in blood vessels. This helps to regulate blood pressure. Meditation appears to protect people from the inflammatory response to stress and is shown to increase the activity of telomerase (an enzyme implicated in longer cell life). Meditation similarly boosts the lymphocyte count in the body, helping develop a natural shield for fighting toxic cells that can cause cancer.
It’s important to keep in mind that while meditation does improve some aspects of health, it’s not the only thing you should do for you to promote good health. An analysis published in 2014 in JAMA Internal Medicine looked at 47 randomized controlled trials of meditation programs that contained 3,515 participants. According to the examination, the programs resulted only in small to moderate decreases in anxiety and depression, which means they weren’t shown to be more beneficial than other treatments, like exercise, therapy, or prescription drugs. So, the authors’ recommendation is that meditation should be considered an adjunct to, but not a replacement for, other treatment options. There’s concern that it might worsen symptoms associated with certain mental and physical health conditions. Sometimes, sitting quietly with focusing on your thoughts and emotions can be a difficult, painful process causing them to experience things, like fear, anxiety, panic, numbness, or extreme sensitivity to light and sound, that they might not be prepared to confront. It’s important to note that these experiences aren’t restricted to people with “pre-existing” conditions, like trauma or mental illness, but can happen to anyone at any time.
To find the best meditation practice for you, you must ask yourself three questions. What benefits do you expect? How long do you plan on meditating each time? How often do you plan on practicing? All of these can help guide you to the form that is most suited for your needs. The first goal is to understand what you’re hoping to accomplish by meditating, as this will direct you toward which type you should select. While research has yet to figure out how much is “enough,” one thing for sure is that the more you practice, the better you’ll get at it and the benefits you experience will increase. The frequency of meditation is dependent on the level you’re practicing at. Most experts agree that daily practice is the most helpful, but it takes time to length the duration of each period. The recommended amount and length of meditation for each level are:
- Beginner–2-5 minutes every day or when under stress
- Intermediate–5-15 minutes every day, or at least four days a week
- Proficient–20-30 minutes or more seven days a week
When you’re first learning to meditate, don’t judge your skills because this can add to your stress. Meditation takes practice and it’s common for your mind to wander during it, no matter how long you’ve been practicing. If this happens, slowly return to the object, sensation, or movement you’re focusing on.
The key to meditation is consistency. It needs to become part of your daily routine for you to obtain positive gains. A big consideration is when to practice. Some individuals find that meditating in the morning before they start their day helps them to not only be consistent but allows them to start their day positively and helps them to stay focused throughout it. Typically, your mind is fresh from sleep, meaning it’s relatively clear of distractions. Others find that meditating before they go to bed each night helps them to relax by decreasing the stress they’ve built up throughout the day. This helps to promote better quality sleep. Another option is walking and meditating, which is a great way to be healthy while relaxing. It’s useful because you can use this technique anywhere. To do this effectively, slow down your walking pace so that you can focus on each movement of your legs or feet. As your concentrating on your legs and feet, repeat action words in your mind (ex. “lifting,” “moving” and “placing”) as you lift each foot, move your leg forward and place your foot on the ground. Since the primary goal of fitness is to get the mind and body function equally well, meditation helps with not only clearing limiting thoughts and self-beliefs but providing a continuous supply of motivation to the brain and body to keep going.
One of the best things about meditation is that it’s adaptable to your needs at the moment. You can practice it easily on your own because most types don’t require specialized equipment or space. It can be done in just a few minutes and you can make it as formal or informal as you like. Some individuals find that meditation courses and support groups work better for them because it can be challenging to maintain consistency with individual practice. When you meditate with others, there is a motivation to join the group on a specific time and day. Since groups have practitioners of all levels, it can help exchange feedback with each other about improvements in practice and gain valuable insight into the effects of meditation over time. This connecting to others in a group comes with some advantages because humans are social animals and isolation can result in distress. So, groups provide a way to combat this loneliness.
The benefits of meditation don’t apply to individuals alone. Leading companies, such as Google and Amazon, offer meditation courses to their employees every year. The impacts meditation has in the workplace are numerous. It coaches the mind in such a way that employees instinctively develop the urge to be mindful of their work. It allows individuals to be more connected to the present, aware of their talents and virtues, and better themselves at daily work scheduling and prioritization. Correspondingly, it helps reduce work-induced stress and promotes interpersonal connections among employees while fostering empathy and acceptance in the team. Several studies demonstrate daily meditation at work improves the general health of employees and this results in them taking fewer days off for illness, raises job satisfaction, and boost productivity. These advantages are seen regardless of company type and size.
Adults aren’t the only ones who can profit from meditation. Kids can benefit significantly, too, because it helps to sustain attention and improves academic performance. Kids’ brains can get tired after a long day of studies and other activities. Mediation can assist them in recharging and reducing stress. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents and teachers to urge children to learn and practice mindful breathing and relaxation techniques every day. If this were done, it would go a long way in sustaining a habit that they can use their entire life. Besides improving attention span, meditation has been shown to decrease reaction time, foster self-confidence/self-esteem, increase social connections/peer relationships, enhance academic goals/achievements, boost empathy/care/kindness for themselves/others, improve motivation/mood, and better health conditions/immunity. Research also shows that classroom meditation aids kids in staying more attentive, calm, and focused. For adolescents, they’re also dealing with their changing body, emotional ups and downs, identity issues, and often family discord. All of these things add stress to their lives. Studies have found that teenagers who practice meditation are better equipped to deal with stress and are less prone to substance abuse, depression, aggression, and self-harm. Some other advantages teenagers can get from it are being more self-accepting, reducing the vulnerability to eating disorders, decreasing the likelihood of committing crimes, developing strong emotional bonds with others, and building emotional resilience and coping skills.
If you’re stressed, anxious, tense, and worried, you should consider trying meditation. Just spending a few minutes each day can restore your calm and inner peace. Remember, anyone can practice meditation because there’s no right way or wrong way to do it. The key thing is that it reduces your stress and allows you to feel better overall.