Meditation: The Mind & Body Benefits
Without a doubt, most of us lead very busy lives. Often, we depend on our electronic devices to keep tabs on our schedules and to stay current on the ever-changing daily news. This cycle of distractions, hectic daily routines, and continual stress and worry has a domino effect on our health, putting us at risk for chronic diseases and health conditions such as high blood pressure, heart disease, anxiety, and depression. Yet there is a very simple practice that allows for a mind and body refresh, one that encourages a positive state of mind to help improve overall health. This practice is meditation: the mind-and-body connection that allows you to quiet your mind and get back into the present.
The science behind a person’s psychological state of mind and its positive or negative impact on the body is strong. Research shows that chronic stress causes our bodies to stay in a constant state of fight-or-flight, triggering the adrenal glands to release the stress hormone called cortisol. Cortisol levels increase in our blood, leading to a host of health problems including heart disease, high blood pressure, inflammation and a weakened immune system, cognitive and memory issues, insomnia, weight gain, depression, among many others.
What’s even more interesting is the science behind meditation, which reveals that we can positively influence our minds in order to control our health. We now know that meditative practices actually change the way in which our brains function, even changing the density of gray matter in the hippocampus — the area of the brain associated with emotional and cognitive behaviors. In one study, three groups of participants practiced different meditation forms, with each form focusing on attention, empathy, or self-awareness. Researchers collected MRI data as participants performed targeted mental training. The participants’ brain scans revealed something quite interesting: the various forms of meditation changed the brain by increasing volume in corresponding parts of the brain responsible for attention, empathy, and self-awareness. Another study on meditation showed that the long-term effects of consistent daily meditation and relaxation techniques included improved immune function and decreased stress and depression, thus further supporting the link between the mind and the body.
If you think of your brain as a muscle, one that you can exercise and control, then you can use meditation to:
- Manage stress and anxiety
- Lower blood pressure
- Strengthen the immune system
- Decrease pain and inflammation
- Improve sleep
- Increase happiness
- Create positive emotions that override emotions such as fear
- Sharpen and hone work efficiency in work and school studies
- Train the mind to focus
Though there are many forms of meditation, one of the most useful tools is guided meditation. Because minds tend to wander, guided meditation essentially guides or leads you to a calm and relaxed state. It’s meditation on training wheels with a coach, one who teaches you how to gain control of your thoughts and bring your attention back inward. The Headspace app and Waking Up app, which can both be downloaded to a smartphone, are excellent guided meditation resources that provide easy-to-follow lessons and techniques. The lessons are flexible and focus on various themes such as anxiety and motivation. The Calm app is another great downloadable tool that provides guided meditation for all learners and has unique features focused on mindfulness, meditation, sleep, and relaxation. From our experience, we found Waking Up to be extremely informative and one of the most complete guides for exploring not only meditation but also our connection to the world around us. You can download Waking Up for free and take the Introductory Series but will need to purchase a subscription to get all of the lessons. Meditation can be accomplished in 5–15 minutes, even in the midst of a hectic day, and it can be done anywhere, anytime as long as you tune in and focus on your thoughts and breathing.
WFP’s Take-Home Advice
- Look at the full picture and identify when you are not being present. This is the time to look inward; it’s when we practice being mindful.
- Think of meditation as a necessary element to train the mind, to quiet it, and to strengthen the mind. Look at the mind as a muscle that you can control.
- Use guided meditation, such as the Waking Up app, Calm app and Headspace app, to teach you the basics of mindful meditation and to help improve your health and overall well-being. Though guided meditation is one of the most helpful ways to learn how to meditate, it’s not the only way to get into a quiet space. Meditation is an individual practice; however, the key is to leave behind any distractions. Find a place that allows you to redirect your thoughts back to yourself. Focus on your breathing while you bring your mind back into the present. This can be done anywhere, anytime. You can get into a meditative state while hiking, spending quiet time with your partner, taking a walk outside, or even before you fall asleep at night. Try to incorporate the outdoors into your meditation routine whenever possible. Nature is quiet, calm, and still, which helps to facilitate the mind-and-body connection. Use the natural elements around you to help reconnect with your thoughts. Get comfortable when meditating: find a relaxing place to sit, take your shoes off, and let your bare feet touch the ground.
- Make it a routine or habit to set aside a few minutes each day to sit quietly without interruption, where you can pause, reflect, and check in with yourself.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on January 3, 2018 and has since been updated.
Sources and References:
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Valk, S.L., et al. (2017, October 04) Structural plasticity of the social brain: Differential change after socio-affective and cognitive mental training. advances.sciencemag.org. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/10/e1700489
WHY MEDITATE? 18 ways how meditating can really change one’s life. (2016, January 02). tmhome.com. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from https://tmhome.com/benefits/why-meditate-meditation-reasons/
Piper, R. (2013, August 15). 10 Reasons Why Every Athlete in the World Should Meditate. huffingtonpost.com. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/robert-piper/meditation-athletes_b_3398745.html
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McGreevey, S. (2011, January 21). Eight Weeks to a Better Brain: Meditation study shows changes associated with awareness, stress. news.harvard.edu. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/01/eight-weeks-to-a-better-brain/.
Bergland, C. (2013, January 22). Cortisol: Why the “Stress Hormone” is Public Enemy No. 1. psychologytoday. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-athletes-way/201301/cortisol-why-the-stress-hormone-is-public-enemy-no-1
Tello, M. (2016, October 27). Regular Meditation More Beneficial Than Vacation. health.harvard.edu. Retrieved December 19, 2017 from https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/relaxation-benefits-meditation-stronger-relaxation-benefits-taking-vacation-2016102710532
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