Why You Should Give It a Try.
Meditation has earned its spot as a buzzword in modern society—though it’s a practice that originated about 5,000 years ago. You may associate meditation with spiritual traditions including Buddhism and Hinduism, but this ancient practice has now made its way into the secular realm and is considered a complementary health practice with verified physical and emotional benefits including reduced stress, better sleep, lower anxiety and an increased attention span.
According to a Centers for Disease Control report on 2017 data, meditation is one of the most popular complementary health practices in our country (yoga and chiropractic are the others): More than 14% of Americans reporting they’ve tried meditation at least once in the past year. That’s a 10% increase in people in the U.S. who meditate in just five years. With 35 million Americans at least trying meditation, it’s worth a deeper dive.
Even if you’re a skeptic, the number of highly successful people who meditate regularly is enough reason to check out the ancient practice: Clint Eastwood, Lena Dunham, Jerry Seinfeld, Oprah Winfrey and Kobe Bryant—and the list goes on.
What do all of these people have in common? They lead action-packed, successful, but stressful lives—and have learned that by using meditation as a tool, they can focus and accomplish more in their day with lower stress levels.
Couldn’t we all benefit from a tool that helps us focus and get more done with a lower level of stress in the 24 hours we have each day?
The Mental Benefits of Meditation
By definition, meditation is “the act of giving your attention to a single thing, either as a religious practice or as a method to become calm or relaxed.” That one thing you give attention to can be the breath moving in and out of your body, a mantra you repeat, or even the voice from a guided meditation leading you into stillness.
By eliminating the stimuli we’re accustomed to, the brain enjoys a welcome break from micromanaging trivial information it’s bombarded with so often. With this purposeful lapse in stimuli, the brain can become more efficient in processing weightier thoughts, and as a result, your focus sharpens and attention span increases.
By quieting the mind, brain function improves. People with a regular meditation practice report improved memory and reaction time, coupled with lower stress and anxiety. An overall decrease in worry is another positive benefit, likely brought on by a focus on being present in the moment during meditation that carries over into other areas of life.
There is scientific evidence that meditation can play a role in slowing the effects of Alzheimer’s Disease and can even lower your risk of developing age-related dementia.
As stressors decrease, compassion and kindness often increase, leading to healthier, more satisfying relationships. The result: a happier, more contented “you.”
Physical Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is known to have positive benefits on the cardiovascular system because it lowers blood pressure, lowers cortisol levels and can reduce the risk of hypertension. The practice can have a positive impact on your immune system and can help your body increase its ability to heal itself.
The Mayo Clinic cites the following as conditions or symptoms that meditation may help manage:
- High blood pressure
- Cardiovascular disease
- Sleep problems
- Tension headaches
- Chronic pain
How Meditation Reduces Stress
The Mayo Clinic promotes meditation as “a simple, fast way to reduce stress” and attain a level of inner peace. By clearing away information overload that is a result of daily life, meditation can help you focus on the present, find new ways of perceiving stressful situations, and increase your level of patience and tolerance for uncomfortable situations.
When your body is stressed, blood pressure increases and your heart beats faster, increasing your rate of breathing and the blood flow to muscles in what is typically known as the “fight or flight response.” That stress response doesn’t serve us well and can have dramatically adverse effects on health.
Meditating produces a relaxation response. By sitting quietly and breathing deeply for 10 to 20 minutes, the body and mind relax—blood pressure lowers, our pulse rate calms and we achieve a state of peace. According to WebMD, even practicing meditation for just 10 minutes each day can have positive benefits for health including decreased anxiety, improved cardiovascular health and an increased ability to relax.
The Mind as a Muscle
So—what if you’ve tried meditation once or twice but found that you’re just not any good at it?
Just as we typically practice distraction in our everyday lives, we can intentionally practice focusing our minds and start to regain the power of concentration.
When you first sit down to meditate, you’ll likely have lots of intruding thoughts. Things you need to do, something you forgot, an idea about a project you’re involved with. And that’s ok. Acknowledge those thoughts and let them go—picture them floating by on a cloud that drifts right out of your mind. Then, gently and intentionally draw your attention back to your breathing, or your mantra, or the voice on your guided meditation. Each time the mind wanders, acknowledge it, and then draw it back into focus. By repeating this process again and again, your mind will gradually increase its power of focus and your ability to meditate and sit in stillness will increase to 5, 10, 15—even 20 minutes.
Remember: Meditation is a practice, not a skill. But with practice, your ability to meditate will improve. You will start to notice benefits when you practice meditation for just 10 or 15 minutes daily or a few times a week. Go ahead and give it a try—you’ll never know what benefits you’re missing until you do!