Meditation is one of the most efficient tools humans have to balance the thoughts and emotions that occasionally threaten to spin out of control.
To learn how to slow your own negative thinking and promote more positive intentions, a large body of research has established that having a regular meditation practice produces solid benefits for mental and physical health.
In a series of studies at Harvard Medical School on stress relief and meditation, participants did an eight-week mindfulness meditation program that created significant and measurable changes in their regions of the brain most associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
Experts say if you can teach yourself how to slow down, clear your thoughts and meditate alone for a few soothing minutes per day during most days of the week, you may decrease your chronic stress levels, potentially reaping some of the following benefits:
- Improve more efficient oxygen use by the body and muscles;
- Decrease anxiety, depression and insomnia;
- Lower “bad” cholesterol levels;
- Decrease your blood pressure;
- Boost your own immune function;
- Increase production of the anti-aging hormone DHEA; and
- Reduce production of “stress hormones,” including cortisol and adrenaline.
“The common denominator driving this [new meditation] research is a general recognition that chronic stress is linked to a variety of health problems, such as increased heart disease, compromised immune system and premature cellular and cognitive aging,” says mind-body expert Deepak Chopra, MD, in his guided “Meditation” seminars at the Chopra Meditation Center in Carlsbad, Calif.
Stress Relief 101
“The deep state of rest produced by daily meditation triggers the brain to release naturally occurring brain chemicals that have been linked to different aspects of happiness and well-being,” Chopra says in a webinar, released in preparation for his “21-Day Meditation Challenge” done in conjunction with Oprah Winfrey. On the other hand, low levels of these brain neurotransmitters have been linked to migraines, anxiety, fatigue and insomnia.
Chopra explains, “Brain neurotransmitters play many roles related to well-being, including decreasing feelings of pain and reducing the side effects of stress.” Meditation can also help you tap into your brain’s deepest potential to focus, learn and adapt.
One study, led jointly by Harvard University and Massachusetts General Hospital, found that after only eight weeks of meditation, participants experienced significant growth in the brain areas most associated with memory, learning, empathy, self-awareness and stress regulation. In addition, the regular meditators in the joint study reported decreased feelings of anxiety and greater feelings of calmness for hours after.
Overcome Obstacles for Meditating
Who has the time to slow down and be present anyway, much less meditate?
“In this fast-paced world, it’s hard to re-train your brain to become more calm and at peace so you can feel happier and make smarter decisions,” says Janet Shima Taylor, a meditation teacher and director of the Temple Buddhist Center in Kansas City, Mo. “Adopting a simple meditation practice as part of a new and healthy habit can accelerate your benefits so that you become even more aware of your words and actions.”
Taylor also admits that there is no one perfect way to clear your mind or slow all of your thoughts, but helps to start slowly with just a few painless minutes each day. She says you can even meditate while walking your dog or lying down in bed. “It works anywhere you can clear your mind and gently focus on the experience of breathing.” Other tips for meditation:
- Find a relaxing or private nook for your meditation practice.
- Set a positive goal or intention before you start. Taylor says it can be as simple as repeating to yourself: “I will be healthy.”
- Don comfortable clothing that won’t cause you to fidget.
- Listen to soothing or repetitive music as you try relaxing and tuning into your breathing rhythms.
- First-timers may want to splurge on a meditation seminar or a guided class. A podcast lead by a teacher or health practitioner would also be beneficial.
Meditation teachers reiterate there is no one particular correct way to meditate; rather, there are multiple types of meditation. Although techniques may vary across the world, the end-goal is the same: to quiet your mind and improve your mood, leaving you free to clear negative thoughts and stressful emotions in order to live a more balanced and enriching life.
- Don’t immediately quit and give up if you can’t field all the distractions during the first several times you try to get your “ohm” on. It takes practice and repetition, experts say.
- When you feel stuck, try tweaking your location or trying out another style of meditating that suits you better. Some examples are Taoist meditation, religious prayer and quiet reflection, Buddhist meditation and transcendental meditation. Or, if you have an interest in yoga, try renting yoga videos or using related mindfulness or meditation podcasts that allow you to be aware of your thoughts, feelings and sounds as you begin a guided journey.
- Mindful meditation is regularly prescribed by psychologists and mental health experts for patients who battle chronic cancers, uncontrolled stress and heart disease, among other conditions. “Meditation is very helpful for those patients who are increasingly depressed as they lose functionality and independence or as they grow weaker or sicker,” says Taylor.
- For patients sick and anxious at home, teaching “equanimity,” or mental calmness and composure, through daily meditation can overcome anger and feelings of helplessness. Taylor says, “When you learn to radiate joy outward, you also begin to think, feel and act in more positive and balanced ways all of the time.”