Meditation continues to increase in popularity as more and more people discover its many physical and mental health benefits. While it might appear that meditation is no more than sitting on a cushion with your eyes closed, science is discovering that this centuries-old practice can actually create significant changes in the brain. So, what exactly is meditation, what benefits does it offer, and how do you get started? You’ve come to the right place—I’ll be answering all of those questions today.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mind-body practice that’s intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness and focused attention. It’s been practiced in cultures all over the world for thousands of years in the name of religion, spirituality, well-being and health.
Many people think that meditation is about turning off thoughts or feelings. That’s actually not accurate at all. Rather, meditation is about training your awareness and learning to observe uncomfortable thoughts, emotions and sensations without reacting to or judging them.
What are the benefits of meditation?
As more research is conducted on the effects of meditation, more benefits are being discovered. Here are a few science-backed benefits that we’re currently aware of:
1. Improves attention span
Researchers have found that meditation helps to counter habituation—the tendency to stop paying attention to new information in our environment. Other studies have found that meditation can reduce mind-wandering and improve our ability to solve problems.
2. Increases resiliency to stress
Long-term meditators who practice on a consistent basis have been found to bounce back from stress and stressful situations much better than those who don’t. One study showed that mindfulness meditation dampens activity in our amygdala—the part of the brain responsible for triggering our fight-or-flight response. This causes us to be less reactive to stressors and to recover better from stress when we experience it.
3. Improves physical health
Practicing meditation has been shown to lessen the inflammatory response in people exposed to psychological stressors, particularly in long-term meditators. Another study showed that meditators have increased activity of telomerase, an enzyme connected to longer cell life (longevity). Some research also suggests that practicing meditation may reduce blood pressure, symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, depression and insomnia.
4. Reduces anxiety
A meta-analysis including nearly 1,300 adults found that transcendental meditation may decrease anxiety. This effect was strongest in those with the highest levels of anxiety. Another study found that an eight-week meditation program helped reduce anxiety symptoms in people with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). In reducing your anxiety, your sleep, stress levels and mood are also likely to improve.
5. Helps reduce chronic pain
A study of 47 people with chronic pain found that completing an eight-week meditation program led to noticeable improvements in depression, anxiety and pain over the course of a year. Unlike some chronic pain treatments, meditation is completely non-invasive and doesn’t come with any negative side effects—just positive ones!
How to get started with meditation
There are several types of meditation including focused attention, body scan, noting, visualization, loving-kindness, skillful compassion, and resting awareness, just to name a few. There is no one type of meditation that is the most effective. That’s because everyone is different and what works for one person might not work as well for another. Experiment with different types and see which ones feel best to you. There are a number of guided meditation websites/apps that are a great place to start. Take a look at Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer. Calm and Headspace require a paid subscription, while Insight Timer is free. Roy Masters offers a Be Still and Know meditation that focusses on moving the energy downwards in the body which can be very physically grounding and healing.
Start with a ten-minute meditation once or twice a day and work your way up from there. Some people like shorter meditations while others enjoy longer ones. The most important thing is to practice regularly, as that’s what builds new neural connections in the brain.
The bottom line
Meditation can have a range of positive effects on your overall health. Learning to meditate is a skill, just like learning to ride a bike. You can’t expect to reap the benefits right off the bat—it’s a process of learning and growing. Set a schedule, start slow, and don’t expect too much too quickly. Treat it as part of your self-care routine and enjoy the process. With patience, practice and consistency you’ll start to notice changes in your everyday thought and behavioral patterns and overall well-being that will make it all worthwhile.
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