Health professionals are keen to point out the benefits of keeping your body healthy. But what about your mind? These days, it’s accepted that the two are linked (to name one example, exercise is believed to help reduce the symptoms of stress, anxiety and depression). So can a practice that primarily involves the mind be good for your physical health too?
That practice, say many experts, is meditation. No longer associated exclusively with spirituality seekers and New Agers, meditation is seen as an effective stress-reduction tool with a range of health benefits, and even adopted by forward-thinking businesses as a means of increasing productivity.
So what is meditation exactly? It’s really not that complicated. You could say it just means anything you set out to do that helps to clear your mind. You don’t have to sit cross-legged in an incense-filled room. In fact, you could argue that listening to music is a type of meditation, as is playing sport (or, if you’re an enthusiastic fan, watching it), exercising, saying a prayer or reading a book.
Perhaps the most well-known type of meditation right now is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness simply means being aware – or, as some experts describe it, being present in the moment.
Mindfulness meditation can be an informal practice, such as being absorbed in eating to the extent that your mind is completely focused on your food, and being aware of the experience of eating – the tastes, the textures, the smells and so on. Or it could be a formal one, where you use a specific technique, such as using your breath or a body scan.
Whenever you meditate, it leads to changes in your body, including reduced heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, perspiration and muscle tension. In other words, you relax. This alone may explain why meditation can be good for you.
Health benefits of meditation
Here are just some of the many ways meditation could affect your emotional and physical wellbeing:
If you’re feeling overwhelmed because of pressure at work, home or elsewhere, a few minutes of meditation could leave you feeling calm and restored. For instance, researchers writing in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology found all it takes to reduce psychological stress is 25 minutes of mindfulness meditation training a day for three days.
There are many studies that have produced similar findings. Experts writing in Health Psychology suggest mindfulness – focusing on the present – helps to lower the level of cortisol, a stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland. And a particular style of meditation, called Transcendental Meditation, has also been found to reduce anxiety – a stress-related condition – significantly.
More grey matter
As life expectancy improves, the incidence of mental illness and neurodegenerative diseases increases. But according to a report in Frontiers in Psychology, UCLA researchers, meditation may help to preserve the grey matter in the brain, helping to keep the brain younger for longer. By looking at people who had been meditating for years and comparing their brains with others who had never meditated, the researchers discovered the volume of grey matter had not declined as much in the meditators compared with the non-meditators.
Several studies suggest meditation may help alleviate depression. But a report in the Archives of General Psychiatry claims meditation and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy are as effective as taking antidepressants such as Prozac, which may be good news for anyone who is worried about the side effects of antidepressant medicines.
Alternative painkiller Meditating may also be as effective – or even more effective – as painkillers, say experts writing in the Journal of Neuroscience. Using a technique called focus attention – a common meditation tool that involves concentrating on your breathing patterns and letting go of all thoughts and distractions – volunteers were subjected to pain tests. Some didn’t meditate, but were given painkillers. When a hot probe was pressed against their leg, the volunteers taking painkillers said the pain was reduced by 25 percent. But those who had been meditating said the pain was 40 percent less painful while they were meditating.
One of the most widely studied areas of meditation is how it may affect the human heart. Meditating on a regular basis has been shown to reduce blood pressure in people with hypertension (high blood pressure) and to lower the incidence of irregular heartbeats. Even people having heart surgery who used meditation were found to have significantly less anxiety, pain and a need for medication during and after their operation.
Trials also suggest that people who meditate have a higher percentage of immune cells that trigger the immune system into action, called T-helper cells, which may help them to resist disease-carrying bacteria and viruses. Elsewhere, studies involving older adults suggest meditation may reduce the expression of genes involved in the immune response that activate inflammation.
Other research suggests meditation may help you to manage a range of other conditions, including asthma, sleep problems, psoriasis, arthritis, infertility and digestive problems such as irritable bowel syndrome.
How to meditate
There are dozens of meditation techniques you can try. Here’s an easy one to get you started:
Choose a time and place with as few distractions as possible, the sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed or gazing at an object in front of you.
Bring your attention to your breath. With each out-breath, count one, then two and all the way up to 10. Every time your mind wanders, go back to one. When you get to 10 breaths, start again at one. Continue for a minute or two.
Then instead of counting on the out-breath, count just before the in-breath, counting from one to 10 as before. Don’t worry if you lose count, just start again from one. Continue for another minute or two.
Stop counting and shift your focus to the breath coming in and going out. Continue for a while, then narrow your attention to the breath as it enters and leaves your nose. The entire meditation should take about five minutes if you’re a beginner (extend each stage a little longer as you get more experienced).
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