Taking a few minutes to focus your mind each day can reduce stress, pain, depression, and more.
You can’t see or touch stress, but you can feel its effects on your mind and body. In the short term, stress quickens your heart rate and breathing and increases your blood pressure. When you’re constantly under stress, your adrenal glands overproduce the hormone cortisol. Overexposure to this hormone can affect the function of your brain, immune system, and other organs. Chronic stress can contribute to headaches, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and even premature death.
Though you may not be able to eradicate the roots of stress, you can minimize its effects on your body. One of the easiest and most achievable stress-relieving techniques is meditation, a program in which you focus your attention inward to induce a state of deep relaxation.
Although the practice of meditation is thousands of years old, research on its health benefits is relatively new, but promising. A research review published in JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2014 found meditation helpful for relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. For depression, meditation was about as effective as an antidepressant.
Meditation is thought to work via its effects on the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure during times of stress. Yet meditating has a ‘spiritual’ purpose, too. “True, it will help you lower your blood pressure, but so much more: it can help your creativity, your intuition, your connection with your inner self,” says Burke Lennihan, a registered nurse who teaches meditation at the Harvard University Center for Wellness.
Types of meditation
Meditation comes in many forms, including the following:
- Concentration meditation teaches you how to focus your mind. It’s the foundation for other forms of meditation.
- Loving Kindness mediation. Loving-kindness meditation focuses on developing feelings of goodwill, kindness and warmth towards others (Sharon Salzberg). Research shows that loving-kindness meditation has a tremendous number of benefits ranging from improving overall well-being, to giving relief from illness and improving emotional intelligence.
- Mindfulness meditation encourages you to focus objectively as thoughts move through your mind, so you can achieve a state of non-reactive calm.
- Tai chi is a movement form of meditation that combines physical exercise with breathing and focus.
- Transcendental Meditation is a well-known technique in which you repeat a mantra—a word, phrase, or sound—to quiet your thoughts and achieve greater awareness.
- Walking meditation turns your focus to both body and mind as you breathe in time with your footsteps.
Lennihan suggests trying different types of meditation classes to see which technique best suits you. “Meditating with a group of people is a much more powerful experience, and having a teacher talk you through the technique will make it much easier at first,” she says. Many meditation classes are free or inexpensive, which is a sign that the teacher is truly devoted to the practice.
Starting your practice
The beauty and simplicity of meditation is that you don’t need any equipment. All that’s required is a quiet space and a few minutes each day. “Start with 10 minutes, or even commit to five minutes twice a day,” Lennihan says. “Preferably meditate at the same time every morning. That way you’ll establish the habit, and pretty soon you’ll always meditate in the morning, just like brushing your teeth.”
The specifics of your practice will depend on which type of meditation you choose, but here are some general guidelines to get you started:
- Set aside a place to meditate that you will visit each time you practice. Make that place inviting for you.
- Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your back straight.
- Eyes closed or open is fine. If eyes open, let you gaze settle on one spot on the floor in front of you.
- Take the time to notice your breath. Just notice. Let it be as it is, don’t deepen it, or shorten it – just notice.
- Keep your mind focused on the object, but not too forcefully. If it wanders, gently steer it back to the breath.
- It will take a few minutes for your body to settle, and a few more minutes for your mind to settle. Don’t worry about it, it’s normal. Just notice where you mind wanders, and bring your attention back to the breath.
Within just a week or two of regular meditation (10-20mins/day), you should see a noticeable change in your mood and stress level. “People will start to feel some inner peace and inner poise, even in the midst of their busy lives,” says Lennihan.