Meditation – its benefits and how to get into it

Meditation

Thousands of studies now show that meditation can benefit our mental and physical health, but what does it involve, and how might it help us in our daily lives? Read on to find out how mediation promotes a healthy lifestyle and how to get started.

From celebrities to CEOs, everybody seems to be meditating as part of their daily routines. Over the past few years, meditation apps, books and videos have taken the world by storm; but is this just another wellness fad or is mediation here to stay?

Whilst meditation is an ancient practice in the East spanning over thousands of years, the popularity in the West is a relatively new phenomenon. Researchers are discovering that meditating for a few minutes a day not only can help with your mental health, focus, mindfulness and perspective of the world but can also support conditions from pain management, chronic disease, weight loss and sleep.

Furthermore, through using methods such as MRI scans, scientists are observing not only an increased sense of wellbeing in patients but also a physiological positive change to the brain. The results show evidence of enhanced connectivity between the brain’s regions with long term effects of actually preserving the ageing brain.

In this article we take a closer look at the science backed benefits to meditation and how you can start to make it part of a daily practice.

Reduces Stress

Stress reduction is a common reason people seek meditation in the first place.

Not only does the act of meditation encourage you to calm down and breathe, but the benefits of a regular practice also mitigate the effect of stress on the body. Mental and physical stress causes a rise in cortisol, the stress hormone. Too much of this over time has harmful effects including depression or anxiety, poor sleep, high blood pressure and even inflammation which leads to various chronic diseases.

However, a recent study found that ‘mindfulness meditation’ over just 8 weeks reduced inflammation caused by stress. Other reviews have also shown positive benefits of meditation on stress related conditions such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, Fibromyalgia and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder.

Increases Attention Span and Focus

The act of meditation involves strengthening your ability to direct your concentration. This ranges from concentrating your mind for a few seconds up to many minutes at a time. Repeating this action daily is like a workout for your attention span. The more you practise this, the stronger your focus and endurance become.

One study concluded that people who regularly practised meditation had greater attention and an increased performance on visual tasks than those who did not meditate.

It may not even take a long time to achieve these benefits. Another study found that meditating for a short period of time, just thirteen minutes enhanced memory and attention after only 8 weeks.

Improves Sleep

Sleep issues for individuals have increased drastically within the past year. Studies have found that people's sleep has been significantly impacted by the current climate, with the number of men experiencing poor sleep rising from 11.9% to 16.5%, and the increase among women jumping from 18.9% to 31.8%.

A recent study put mindfulness meditation to the test to support older adults who had trouble sleeping. By the end of the research project, those who meditated had less insomnia, fatigue, and depression at the end of only six sessions.

Promotes Emotional Wellbeing

Meditation comes in many forms and some methods are focused on supporting your own self-image and emotional wellbeing. By performing regular meditation practices, people have found they experience fewer negative thoughts, with some people finding improved symptoms of depression.

New research is now pointing to inflammation as a common feature in mental health issues. Reviews into mediation also show an ability to reduce depression by decreasing levels of inflammatory chemicals.

Helps to reduce pain

When you are in pain, it is easy to feel stressed and irritable. However, the impact of these negative feelings releases more stress hormones, which cause further inflammation and pain, especially in the joints. Meditation can be used here to shift your attention and ease the feelings of arthritis pain, for example. Furthermore, meditation has been shown to help your brain release endorphins, a natural pain reliever. This allows your muscles and tissues around joints to relax.

A study which used meditation and yoga, another mindful activity, showed this combination to be more effective than drugs and surgery for alleviating chronic low-back pain.

Alleviates digestive issues

Mediation and mindfulness practices such as mindful eating have been shown to significantly ease symptoms of IBS, maintain a healthy gut barrier and improve nutrient absorption.

Our digestive system is closely connected to our nervous system via the vagus nerve and consists of a network of over 600 million neurons. These neurons are responsible for overseeing functions in the gut, including absorption, motility and blood flow. When we are relaxed, we activate the ‘parasympathetic’ or ‘rest and digest’ response, allowing our gut to relax and work optimally. However, under stress, we experience a ‘sympathetic’ or ‘fight and flight’ response. This can produce IBS symptoms such as diarrhoea or constipation and increase the likelihood of intestinal permeability, inflammation and an overgrowth of bad bacteria.

How to get started

There are many forms of meditation practice, but all of them share the goal of a state of inner peace. Finding the right method for you is important. Just like a pair of shoes, one method will suit you more than others, so it is worth trying different types.

Ways to meditate can include:

Guided vs Unguided Meditation.

Choosing between guided or unguided meditation is usually the first step into starting a practice. In a guided meditation, a teacher or narrator will take you through a step-by-step session explaining how the mind behaves, leading you through a particular technique and then giving suggestions on how you can integrate this in your daily life. This type of meditation is great for beginners, as tweaking your technique can help you achieve results faster.

An unguided meditation allows you to meditate alone, often in silence. This may involve sitting in a quiet space and paying attention to the sensations of the body, breath and allowing thoughts to pass by without focusing on them.

Mindfulness Meditation

This type of meditation requires you to be mindful and have an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment, rather than let your thoughts drift into the future or hang in the past.

In a mindfulness meditation, you focus on what you are experiencing in the present moment during that session, such as the flow of your breath or sensations in your body. You can observe your thoughts and emotions as they come and go but let them pass without judgment.

Visualisation Meditation

In this type of mediation, you use mental images to focus your attention. This might be a place or situation that helps you to relax or an object to direct your thoughts to. For example, in a ‘compassion’ meditation, you may picture a person you want to direct kind and loving thoughts towards.

Mantra Meditation

This technique is a type of focused attention meditation, however rather than focusing on the breath to quiet the mind, you focus on a mantra. This can be a simple sound, syllable, word or even a phrase. Repeating the mantra when you find your focus drifting, allows you to bring your attention back to your meditation. It is also believed that the subtle vibrations associated with the repeated mantra can incite a positive change, which may help you enter an even deeper state of meditation.

Transcendental Meditation (TM)

This program of meditation is specifically taught by a one-to-one instructor trained by the Maharishi Foundation and made famous by celebrities like Ellen Degeneres and Jennifer Aniston who have claimed to use it.  It involves meditating for 20 minutes twice a day in an ‘effortless’ manner, without using mindfulness or controlling the mind.

These different forms of mediation seem to point to the same outcome, the idea of ‘inner peace’. However, the expectation of leaving a meditation session completely relaxed is a misnomer. Sometimes you will feel a sense of inner peace however, other times you may feel frustrated with your lack of concentration in that particular session. Often this leads to people giving up and claiming meditation isn’t for them, but this misses the point.

Meditation is a practice – therefore takes practice. When you are starting out, remember that each session may not be easy! Don’t worry about how you’re doing. When you notice your mind has wandered, simply take a deep breath and gently return your attention to your chosen focus.

So, now you feel ready to buckle down and start, where do you begin? A mediation app is a great way to start. They help you meditate regularly, anytime, anywhere, putting the power of mindfulness in the palm of your hand. Popular meditation apps include the Headspace app or Calm app both of which offer endless guided meditations suited to different health issues or situations.

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