If you have ever dealt with any mental health problem – anxiety, depression, difficulty concentrating – you were likely advised to try meditation or offered this advice to others. Meditation, which was once reserved for yogis and the experimental set, indicates how many people now center themselves and clear their heads. However, this cranial activity also offers a number of benefits for your body. Here is how.
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The science of meditation
“There’s a lot of research going on in mindfulness and physical health,” says Sarah Romotsky, RD, health strategist at Headspace, a meditation app with more than 20 million users. In fact, meditation has been shown to help with a range of problems, including obesity, chronic illness, pain management, and even the flu: One study compared the incidence of acute respiratory infections (ARI) in three groups of adults – a control group, One group that did moderately intense exercises and one group that received mindfulness meditation training. At eight weeks, the control group experienced 40 episodes of ARI, while both the exercise and meditation groups reported 26 and 27 ARI, respectively, confirming the effectiveness of both modalities as means of combating disease.
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The positive effects of meditation don’t stop with the runny nose, however: a systematic study published in the Journal of Alzheimer Disease found a correlation between meditation and neurodegeneration with a significant increase in gray matter volume in meditators. Another report in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that meditation was associated with a decrease in chronic pain, and a study published in the International Journal of Exercise Science showed that college students who received six weeks of meditation training experienced a significant drop in blood pressure at resting heart rate .
Fight the fight or the flight
Why does resolute cerebral meditation practice lead to physical health? The answer lies in our modern lifestyle. The amygdala, a collection of neurons in the brain, reacts to stress – traffic, work appointments, arguments with a friend – by triggering the body’s “fight or flight” response. “Our brains have been reprogrammed to respond to everyday stressors just as they would to an attack,” says Romotsky. Hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, are released into the bloodstream, causing increases in heart rate, blood pressure, and glucose levels – great when you need to fight off an attacker but aren’t that ideal in everyday life. “[Over time]This reaction also puts you at higher risk for chronic diseases like obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes, ”Romotsky adds.
By practicing mindfulness – the state of awareness and focus on the present moment – you can train your brain to better respond to stressors, which can have a profound impact on your mental and physical health. A study published in Psychiatry Research monitored hormone levels in patients who had undergone a social stress test. After that, one group was enrolled in a stress management class, while another group – made up of people with anxiety disorders – received eight weeks of meditation training. When asked to repeat the stress test, the meditation group saw a significant drop in stress hormones, while the control group actually showed an increase. The meditation group had trained their brains to better deal with stress.
According to Dr. Rex Marco, an orthopedic oncologist at the Houston Methodist Hospital in Texas, can also use meditation to manage stress for better surgical outcomes. Many of Marco’s patients have had multiple spinal operations and are struggling with chronic pain. He discovered that using meditation apps like Stop, Breathe & Think allowed some of them to come off their medication.
“Neck and back pain trigger a stress reaction in the body, which in turn leads to more pain, more stress and more pain,” he explains. “When this cycle is interrupted by activities like meditation and yoga, the higher brain – the prefrontal cortex – can make dopamine, which in turn calms the amygdala-induced stress response and makes the pain more manageable.”
Dr. Ruth Lerman, an internist specializing in breast health and disease at Beaumont Health in Michigan, has also seen the positive effects of regular meditation practice on the lives of her patients – as well as her own: A three-time cancer survivor, Lerman had to follow suit “feel safe” with their second diagnosis. She discovered a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Curriculum (MBSR) that marked a turning point in her treatment and ultimately changed the way she approached patient care. Lerman became a certified MBSR instructor and began offering mindfulness programs to patients and doctors. “I can now see when I’m stressed and immediately implement techniques to deal with it and change the way I handle the situation for the better,” says one of Lerman’s patients.
It is important to note, however, that meditation is not a substitute for supervised care and that you cannot “meditate away” on a diagnosis such as breast cancer. However, incorporating meditation into your treatment and daily life can certainly help manage your stress levels which can ultimately help you heal.
As with any habit, establishing a meditation practice takes time and patience. Some sessions appear to be less focused than others and you may not feel the benefits right away. That’s fine as long as you keep doing this, explains Romotsky: “With a little training and a kind, kind, guiding hand, the mind will come to a place of calm.”
Use these tips from Sarah Romotsky to maintain a successful meditation practice.
- Meditating in the morning sets the tone for the rest of your day. However, consistency is paramount. So find a time that is right for you if morning isn’t your jam.
- Quality is more important than quantity. Start with a shorter meditation and slowly increase the duration.
- Daily meditation is not necessary to reap the benefits. Set yourself a reasonable goal – maybe 10 minutes a day, three times a week – and build from there.
- Meditation is not about the lack of thought. So don’t let distracting thoughts frustrate you. Learn to step back from a place of calm and observe these thoughts more clearly.
There is an app for that
Are you interested in meditation but need a little guide? These apps offer a variety of guided meditation trails for beginners, beginners, and advanced.
Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk, narrates Headspace’s hundreds of guided meditations and mindfulness exercises. The approach is friendly and agnostic, and the app offers special “packs” for everything from job performance to pregnancy. Subscribers can also access children’s programs, sleep broadcasts, and certain mindful walking, commuting, cooking, and eating titles.
headspace.com, 10 day free trial, $ 12.99 / month
This app offers more than 12,000 free guided meditations, as well as affordable 10-day courses such as “How to Beat Digital Distraction” and “Your Guide to Deeper Sleep”. Subscribers can set notifications, track their activity and connect with other users.
Insighttimer.com, free with optional in-app purchases
Stop, breathe and think
With the basic subscription you get access to 20 guided meditations, while premium members can unlock more than 100 activities. Users begin each session by reporting how they are feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. The app then curates a handful of recommended activities for the individual.
stopbreathethink.com, Free Basic Subscription, $ 9.99 / month Premium Subscription