In humankind’s earliest days, our bodies developed a “fight-or-flight” response to stress in preparation to fight or flee, depending on the threat. Then as now, when we experience stress, our bodies release the hormone epinephrine into the bloodstream which:
- Slows the digestive system
- Increases heart and breathing rates, blood pressure, and sugar levels
- Overrides the brain’s prefrontal cortex (which controls planning, impulse control, decision-making, reasoning, and problem solving) to enable the brain’s faster-acting, more primitive parts to take over and keep you safe.
Those physiological survival mode methods are great for wilderness survival. But when that survival mode becomes the norm (because let’s face it, your body doesn’t know if you’re escaping a herd of woolly mammoths, placating an angry client or twin toddlers, or stuck in traffic for four hours) that prolonged stress can do the following:
- Puts pressure on your internal organs
- Weakens your immune system
- Wreaks havoc with your blood pressure
- Increases the risk of a stroke
- Might aggravate cancer
- Causes digestive problems
- Exacerbates anxiety and depression
- And encourages us to make unhealthy food or alcohol choices
A 2009 study published in the American Journal of Hypertension analyzed the effects of meditation on blood pressure, psychological distress, and coping in college students and concluded that meditation can reduce the risk of future development of hypertension in young adults.
Meditation Rescues Your Brain & Body from the Effects of Stress
While there’s no one thing that banishes stress and anxiety with a wave of a wand, research has shown that meditation does counteract the negative effects of our body’s responses to stress. Meditation:
- Balances the nervous system
- Balances and regulates epinephrine and other stress hormone levels
- Increases brain coherence
A 2014 study on meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being concluded that people who meditate regularly tend to experience less anxiety, stress, distress, and pain and have more positive life outlooks, a better quality of life, and feel better physically and mentally overall.
Meditation Helps With Focus & Concentrate
Meditation requires you to refocus your attention away from the jumbled stream of thoughts, ideas, worries, and distractions that build up each day and cause anxiety and stress.
Just one daily session of meditation can help to supercharge your brain. Like using “ctrl + alt + del” to reboot your computer when it needs to clear its “mind,” meditation clears out your brain’s information overload and enables you to:
- Take a deep breath, pause, and put things into perspective for better decision-making
- Focus on the present
- Increase patience and tolerance
- Reduce procrastination
- Improve problem-solving
- Increase creativity
- Cope with challenging situations
- Gain a better understanding of life
- Grow your consciousness
How Meditation Changes Your Body
Prolonged stress has negative, long-term, lasting effects on your body. Meditation produces a deep state of relaxation, which releases your body from a constant state of “fight or flight,” and leads to better overall health.
Those who meditate regularly experience a sense of calm, peace, and balance. And even if you’re a beginner, you’ll feel better emotionally and physically after your very first meditation.
Meditation Reduces Physical Discomfort and Pain
According to a 2015 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience, mindful meditation activates and deactivates different parts of the brain, especially the thalamus, which relays sensory information, including pain, to the cerebral cortex. The thalamus deactivates during meditation which, the scientists theorize, prevents pain signals from reaching the higher brain centers. The group who practiced mindful meditation experienced much lower levels of pain than the control and placebo groups.
Science really does support the benefits of meditation. If you’re curious to learn more about meditation’s effects on your physical and mental health, a team of researchers from Chemnitz University of Technology published a 2012 study in the American Psychological Association: “The Psychological Effects of Meditation: A Meta-Analysis.” The team evaluated over 160 studies that analyzed the benefits of meditation.
A 2011 study conducted by Fred Travis, Marharishi University of Management (US), Harald Harung, Oslo University College (Norway), and Yvonne Lagrosen, University West (Sweden) concluded that everything we do – including meditation – changes our brains. The team discovered that traits exhibited by musicians’ brains, including alertness, interest in learning, calm, playful, interest in the whole picture, match positive traits found in world-class athletes, top-level managers, and those who meditate.
How do I start meditating?
Like anything that’s different or new, meditation takes practice. When your mind’s full of competing ideas, thoughts, worries, and stressors, trying to build a mental wall that keeps those distractions at bay – like trying to comprehend a sentence without reading it 100 times while four different people vye for your attention – presents a challenge!
It’s also hard for a beginner to sit for hours with an “empty mind,” thinking of nothing. So start small, with concentration meditation. It begins with just one breath, one sound, one focus.
This form of meditation involves focusing on a single point. You won’t start with an hours-long meditation session. In fact, your first meditations may last only a few minutes. But as your discipline over your mind grows, you can increase the length of your sessions.
- Find a quiet place where you can lie down or sit comfortably without interruption.
- Choose something on which to focus – your breath, a candle flame, a mantra or single word, a gong, the instrumental music playing in the background, or mala (meditation) beads.
- When a random thought pops into your mind, let it go and return your focus to the item you’ve chosen.
- Gradually, with practice, you’ll increase your powers of concentration.
- Try this guided meditation: Letting Go of Thinking [EMBED: https://soundcloud.com/user-44652286]
After you’re comfortable with concentration meditation, explore some of the other meditation techniques.
Types of meditation
While “meditation” is an umbrella term that covers a myriad of techniques used to achieve a relaxed state of being, all relaxation/meditation styles share the same goal: to achieve inner peace and calm by reducing stress and anxiety.
This easy practice requires little more than a place to sit and breathe.
- After you’ve settled into a comfortable sitting position, pay attention to your breath as the air moves in and out of your lungs.
- When you find your attention wandering or thoughts intruding, refocus your attention on your breathing.
- Start meditating for 3 – 5 minutes once or twice a day. Increase the length of time and frequency as you grow more comfortable with the technique.
Transcendental Meditation (TM)
Film director David Lynch is credited with the renewed interest in transcendental meditation. It’s popular among at-risk groups, especially those suffering from PTSD. Practitioners sit in silence for 20 minutes, repeating a mantra quietly to themselves. Eventually, breathing slows, the mantra becomes less distinct, the mind stills, and calmness fills the body.
The Transcendental Meditation website provides an overview of TM including its benefits, effects on health, links to scientific studies, and detailed guidance on how to meditate.
Vipassana, which means “insight,” originated in India over 2,500 years ago. A gradual cultivation of mindfulness or awareness, Vipassana helps practitioners to grow into self-awareness and self-discovery and is believed to be the form of meditation that Buddha himself practiced and taught. It requires a long-term commitment – years of practice – for a meditator to achieve complete liberation.
A mantra is a word or phrase repeated over and over during meditation. Your mantra should have some specific meaning to you. You don’t need to use a mantra only when you’re meditating. You can use a mantra at any time when you need to center yourself or regain focus. Whether you’re taking a shower, walking the dog, filing paperwork, or standing in line at Disney World, a mantra’s effectiveness stems from regular repetition.
If you’re completely new to this method of relaxation and a little leery of trying to meditate on your own, try one or more of these guided meditations. A trained practitioner will guide you through your meditation via audio/visual media that includes music or verbal instruction, or sometimes a blend of both.
Surrender/ Letting Go
Worry, Anxiety and Urgency
How Spire Facilitates Meditation
Since Spire measures your breathing throughout the day and sends gentle reminders to stop and breathe when it senses an increase in stress, it’s the perfect partner for meditation. The breathing tracker includes a smartphone app with breathing exercises and guided mini-meditation sessions to increase mindfulness and reduce stress and anxiety.