Health and Wellness: What is meditation, and how can you harness it to live your best life?
Like so many other pop culture buzzwords, the terms meditation and mindfulness feel like they have lost all meaning. Once favored primarily by spiritual practitioners, meditation has been co-opted by tech CEOs and productivity gurus.
It’s hard to not be wary of any trend hyped up by the productivity world. But what if meditation really does have the power to change your life dramatically?
First, it is essential to acknowledge that meditation is an umbrella term that encompasses hundreds of practices and techniques. While there is no “correct” way to define meditation, researchers have identified seven main areas of meditation that are most commonly practiced: (1) body-centered meditation, (2) mindful observation, (3) contemplation, (4) mantra meditation, (5) visual concentration, (6) affect-centered meditation and (7) meditation with movement. Each form focuses on a specific aspect of experience, including emotions, bodily sensations, thoughts, or physical senses. All of these forms of meditation emphasize the importance of mindfully paying attention.
If you’ve never meditated before or are new to it, you may be wondering if it’s worth the effort or how to make sure you’re doing it right. Let’s take some time to review the benefits of regular meditation and how to take your first steps toward your best life.
How meditation improves your lives
The different forms of meditation are variations on the larger theme of mindful awareness and involve a unique set of practices. Despite these slight differences, the benefits of meditation are largely the same regardless of the type of meditation practiced. Meditative practices often emphasize the integration of the mind and body, so it should come as no surprise that meditation offers many physical and mental benefits.
Probably the most studied and well-known benefit of meditation is its ability to reduce stress levels. People who meditate frequently report lower daily stress levels and deal with life stressors better. Stress reduction in itself should be enough incentive for people to take the benefits of meditation seriously. Who in their right mind would pass up an opportunity to feel less stressed, especially in today’s turbulent world?
However, the stress-reducing benefits of meditation extend further than simple self-report. Many studies have also found that frequent meditation can reduce stress hormones, such as cortisol, in your body. This is crucial, as chronic high levels of stress hormones can lead to many mental and physical health problems. So, frequent meditation decreases how stressed you feel, reduces the stress hormones in your body and improves how well you deal with stress. With all that in mind, meditation can be your secret weapon for dealing with the daily stresses of life.
Alleviates depression and anxiety
Preventative measures to maintain good mental health are especially important, with an increasing worldwide prevalence of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Fortunately, meditating daily has been shown to help reduce both depression and anxiety.
You may be tempted to think that the benefits of meditation come mostly from having time to relax and recharge. However, studies have shown that people who meditate have fewer depressive symptoms and better mental health and cognitive functioning than those who only relaxed. Meditation not only reduces self-reported depressive symptoms but also influences physiological markers of depression, such as telomerase activity.
Many studies have found that meditation is also very effective in reducing symptoms of anxiety. Meditation is even as effective as alternative therapies, such as music therapy and exercise, in reducing symptoms of anxiety. If you are struggling with depression or anxiety, or just want an extra boost to your mental health, consider giving meditation a try.
Bolsters cardiovascular health
Surprisingly, meditation offers huge benefits for cardiovascular health. It has been shown to significantly reduce both blood pressure and resting heart rate, both of which are key signals of improved cardiovascular health. Since cardiovascular health has such a large effect on our overall health, a daily meditation practice may be one of the best ways to ensure health and longevity.
In addition to improving cardiovascular health, meditation also reduces the intensity of physical and psychological pain.
One study found that, when subject to thermally induced pain, frequent meditators report experiencing less pain than healthy control subjects who do not meditate. Some may think that this simply has to do with experienced meditators having increased mental control and ability to regulate their response to pain. Granted, this view may explain why meditators experience reduced psychological pain. However, it cannot explain the fact that the pain-related brain areas of experienced meditators show significantly less activation than nonmeditators when exposed to pain. In fact, meditation has been so successful in reducing pain that it is now a frontline practice for patients experiencing chronic pain.
Finally, meditation improves sleep quality, especially for sleep-disturbed individuals. Sleep disturbance affects an estimated 10% to 25% of the U.S. population, so effective methods for improving sleep quality are absolutely paramount for physical and mental health. If you find that you frequently wake up without feeling rested, consider incorporating a nighttime meditation session into your routine.
How to start your personal meditation routine
If meditation improves physical and mental health so drastically, why do so few people have a meditation routine? The reason most frequently offered is a lack of time. In our hustle-and-bustle culture, it feels as though there is barely enough time to get everything done as it is. How could people possibly be expected to add another thing to their to-do list?
Longtime practitioners of meditation consider their daily practice as an essential reason that they are able to be so focused with their time and attention. Mahatma Gandhi was famously quoted as saying, “I have so much to accomplish today that I must meditate for two hours instead of one.” Clearly a busy person, he seemed to believe that his daily meditation was well worth the time.
However, you don’t need to meditate for two hours like Gandhi to enjoy all of the benefits. Many studies have found the minimum effective dose to be as little as 10 minutes a day! So don’t fret if you think you don’t have the time to meditate; start small and build yourself up to 10-15 minutes a day. It will be well worth your time.
Another impeding factor for many people is a lack of knowledge about what meditation is or how to do it effectively. Luckily, with meditation becoming more mainstream, a number of fantastic resources have been developed in recent years to help people begin their journey. It is often recommended that people just beginning their meditation practice start by following along with a guided meditation and then meditate on their own once they are comfortable. Here are a few great resources to help you start your daily meditation practice:
- Meditation for beginners (guided)
- Mindfulness meditation for pain (self-guided)
- Mindfulness meditation: Be present (guided)
- Mindfulness meditation: Letting go (guided)
Remember, meditation is a skill that you will get better at with time. Don’t worry if it is difficult for you at first. Stay the course and it will get easier. A tranquil, happy and healthy future version of you will be grateful that you decided to begin your journey into meditation.
Jacob Bingham is a project manager at Stage Marketing, a full-service content marketing agency based in Provo.