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Note from Joy: I personally find yoga to be the best way for me to get calmness and centredness into my day, which is very meditative. Enjoy Dr. La's post about the many stress-busting benefits of meditation, plus a simple how to meditate.
Meditation is, in my opinion, the single best approach to managing stress available, and one of the most important and effective actions a person can take for their health!
The single most influential study on meditation as it relates to health was published by Herbert Benson, MD, a cardiologist at Harvard Medical School. His studies confirmed that meditation triggers the exact opposite physiological changes in the body that stress does.
When a person meditates, heart rate, blood pressure decrease, blood sugar and cortisol (our main stress hormone) levels decrease, digestion is promoted, and immune system activity is increased.
A recent Harvard study showed that meditation can even change the structures of the brain. This study reported participant reductions in stress and decreased gray-matter density in the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress. As you can see, meditation is powerful medicine!
Meditation is simply creating a state of “deep relaxation” in the body. You don’t need to sit in one place with your eyes closed to achieve a state of meditation; in fact, you can achieve this state through yoga, tai chi, hypnosis and other methods.
Whatever method you choose, there are three essential elements to successful meditation:
Diaphragmatic breathing is a method of breathing in which the diaphragm, the muscle that helps regulate our breathing, and muscles of the abdomen are allowed to relax when inhaling. Your belly will rise (not be “pushed out”, but simply “open up”) as you inhale. On the exhale, everything is simply allowed to release (basically “collapse” into it’s original position). This way of breathing feels unnatural at first, and will require practice for most that are new to it, but the benefits are far reaching.
The “anchor” serves to calm the mind. Many describe meditation as “clearing the mind”. This is not achieved by “pushing thoughts out” in fact, all you achieve by that is to be thinking about all the things you want to not be thinking about! Quieting the mind is achieved by bringing the attention to a single, relaxing focal point such as a sound (e.g., the sound of a seashore), and image (e.g., a flickering candle) or physiological sensation (e.g., the feeling of your chest stretching when inhaling, and shoulders dropping when exhaling).
Over years of instructing patients in meditation and relaxation training, I have learned that following a few practical tips will increase success and optimize the benefits of meditation:
When starting, use “guided meditations” as an anchor. For beginners, any relaxing narration is more effective than using an “internal” (e.g., mantra, visual image) anchor. A great option for beginners is to listen to and follow an instruction on diaphragmatic breathing.
Choose the best time of day to meditate. The “best time” of day may be either after your most stressful time of day, or when you need to feel calm and centered. For me it is after the kids have been dropped off at school, and before I begin my day of seeing patients.
Do not be frustrated when you find your mind has wandered. This is a normal part of the learning process. Your clue that you have achieved deep relaxation is that the time you spend in meditation will “disappear” – the 20 minutes will feel like an instant.
I strongly encourage everyone to give meditation a try. There is not a single person who wouldn’t benefit from mediation. It is affordable, effective, convenient and makes you feel great! In addition, the relaxation, peace, and centeredness experienced after meditation will carry into every area of your life.
How has meditation changed your life? Let us know by commenting below!
Benson H, Kipler M. The Relaxation Response. New York: William Morrow & Co; 1975.
McGreevey S. 8 Weeks to a Better Brain [Internet].
2011. Available from: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/