The research on meditation has grown staggeringly and the health benefits that come from this daily practice have become indisputable. While meditation comes easily to some of us, I feel many others struggle to get into a meditation groove, and others still do not even understand what all the excitement is about.
If you are already meditating, that’s great for you. If you are questioning why you should even begin or are confused about how to do so, this blog is for you. There are countless health benefits that come with a daily meditation, but the short of the long is that meditation greatly reduces your stress response, creating an internal terrain that supports healing on all levels.
I have seen statistics that 60% of doctor visits are for symptoms related to your body’s stress response; this includes all cardiovascular and diabetes related issues. If you go the CDC website, you will find that 1 in 3 adults in the USA have some type of cardiovascular disease which annually contributes to more than $320 billion in healthcare costs and lost productivity. Similarly, diabetes carries an annual burden of about $250 billion.
Both cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are well-understood to be lifestyle diseases; they are mutable and correctable with changes in diet, physical activity, environment and stress level.
Imagine if all those doctor visits could be avoided by something as simple, accessible and free as meditation. Imagine if you could dramatically improve your health with minimal pharmaceutical intervention. Imagine if as a nation, instead of spending $570 billion to treat lifestyle-influenced diseases, we used that money to create educational, environmental, food justice and stress management programs that actually foster better lifestyles.
This is a gross over-simplification of a very complex issue, and I am obviously not saying that meditation is the answer to all that ails us as a society. However, if in 10 minutes a day you could cut your risk of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and auto-immune disorders, would you do it? If it meant saving billions of dollars in health care costs and taking an enormous burden off an already strained health care system, would you be interested?
The Healing Benefits of Meditation
This is the idea that our genes are not nearly as determinant of our health as we once believed; that lifestyle habits can upregulate our beneficial genes and downregulate our unfavorable ones. Meditation is one of those key lifestyle habits that has been shown to downregulate inflammatory genes and improve cellular inflammation. This benefit has been shown most powerfully in studies where patients, using meditation as one of their daily habits, have exhibited huge improvements in (and even full remissions from) their cancers and auto-immune disorders.
Named by Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School, the relaxation response is basically the opposite of the stress response. It embodies all the beneficial physiological reactions that counteract the effects of too much cortisol in the system. One of the most effective ways to elicit a relaxation response is through meditation. Some of the benefits include:
- Decreased blood pressure
- Improved digestion
- Improved blood glucose levels
- Improved sleep
- Improved immune function
- Improved metabolic function
- Decreased pain
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved mood
- Improved appearance
- Improved libido
- General sense of well-being
Telomeres are “caps” on the ends of our chromosomes, designed to protect our genetic information during cell replication. Each replication shortens the telomeres, consequently shortening the life of the cell. This gradual shortening is associated with aging and eventual death.
Stress has been shown to accelerate the telomere shortening, hence accelerating the aging process. Meditation, through its ability to reduce stress, has been shown to increase telomerase; an enzyme that not only prevents telomere shortening, but that can even lengthen it. The implication is a deceleration in the aging process and a potentially longer lifespan.
Regular meditation has been shown to preserve the white and grey matter of the brain, undeniably reducing the neural degeneration that typically comes with age. Meditation can also create new neural pathways. Trials have shown that, in as short as 8 weeks, meditators can increase the density of the pre-frontal cortex (involved in decision-making, attention and emotional regulation) and decrease the density of the amygdala; greatly reducing the “fight or flight” response in the body.
How to Meditate
For those of you who close your eyes to meditate, only to be assaulted with an endless flow of thoughts and worries (which is most of us, by the way), a mantra may be a very useful tool.
A mantra is a word, sound or phrase that acts as a focal point in order to occlude your compulsive thinking and transcend into inner silence.
I find mantras most useful when they are sound-based, as they are less likely to fire multiple synapses of association in my brain that then reignite the compulsive thinking. However, you can choose any word or sound that feels appropriate to you. Some examples are “om”, “so hum”, “one”, “peace”, “love”, etc.
- This week, try putting aside just 5 minutes per day; this can be in the morning upon waking, in the afternoon on a lunch break or just before bed.
- Set your timer, get into a comfortable position and choose a mantra to repeat silently to yourself.
- Allow all other thoughts to pass through your mind without judgment or attachment.
You may find that the mantra transforms the more your repeat it; getting louder and stronger or even diminishing to a whisper. There is no wrong way to experience your mantra; just repeat it and see what happens.
You may struggle at first, but keep with it and take note of the effect of this practice after one week.
DR. BENSON’S SIMPLIFIED ELICITATION OF THE RELAXATION RESPONSE
After years of research on multiple populations, Dr. Benson got his strategy for eliciting the relaxation response down to 2 steps:
- Repeat a word, sound, phrase or prayer
- Passively disregard all thoughts that inevitably come to your mind and return to your repetition
This does not need to be done in a sacred way; it can be done anywhere, at any time, even while engaging in other activities. 10-20 minutes per day is optimal.
If you are still struggling to sit with eyes closed for any period of time, you can try taking purposeful pauses during your day, as a way to halt the stress response from precipitating throughout your body. When met with a stressful or emotionally charged situation, remember the acronym STOP:
- Take 3 belly breaths, in and out through your nose
- Observe what is happening for you and those around you
- Proceed in a way that is supportive to you and those around you
While this is slightly different than meditation, this practice still greatly controls the stress response and encourages a more empathetic and compassionate environment.
MOVING MEDITATION (yoga, qi gong, tai chi, hiking, etc.)
Instead of using a mantra, you can use fluid, slow and/or repetitive movements as an anchor against the flood of mental chatter. Syncing your breath to your movement, being in nature and also utilizing movements that teach you to generate and control internal energy are all amazing ways of controlling the stress response in your body.
Tips to Make it a Habit
IDENTIFY YOUR WHY
As with any habit, meditation will stick easier if you have a strong “why”. Why do you want to meditate and what do you hope to get out of the practice? If you are clear on your goals, the benefits will be more apparent.
While 20 minutes per day is optimal, don’t defeat yourself before you even begin; a few minutes of meditation per day is more effective than 45 minutes, once per week.
Set a goal of 2-5 minutes per day for one week. If that feels doable, gradually increase your meditation time by one minute per week, until you reach your ultimate goal of 20 minutes per day.
PICK A MODALITY
There are countless ways to meditate and you should not feel pressured to stick to a form of meditation that is not working for you. Find a style with which you resonate and try committing to it for 30 days; the optimal amount of time for creating a new, healthy habit.
STICK TO IT
Consistency is key. New habits form best if you engage in them for a few minutes every day, until they become second nature. Remember, 5 minutes per day is better than 45 minutes, once per week. Make it manageable, make it fun, make it easy to fit into your schedule and just do it.