Feeling stressed out? Whether it’s your job, your home life, or your bills, there’s always something. But stress doesn’t just make you feel bad and lose sleep. It can also lead to more serious health problems, such as high blood pressure or digestive troubles.
But imagine a solution that might keep you healthy and doesn’t require a costly prescription.
Meditation is a great way to ease stress, and research shows that the benefits of this simple practice extend to your physical well-being as well.
So what is meditation? In a basic sense, it’s about quietly concentrating on your breathing. It’s linked to yoga, which combines movement, breathing and mindfulness, and can improve your strength, balance and flexibility. But meditation is super convenient: It can be done sitting at your desk or lying down on your bed — anywhere, really.
Having a regular meditation practice has many benefits, says Mikell Bursky. He’s a doctoral student in clinical psychology and an adjunct instructor at Queens College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York. Positive outcomes of meditation include:
- Reducing stress and anxiety
- Pain relief
- The ability to better regulate your emotions
- Improved focus
- Increased compassion and connection to others
And meditation doesn’t just offer you a brief solution. Training your mind through meditation and mindfulness (the act of being present) can lead to changes in the brain that may provide lasting relief, says Bursky.
Here are 5 ways meditation can help your physical and mental health.
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1. Meditation can help reduce your anxiety and depression
Research shows that meditation can help calm your nerves and change how you react to stressful situations. A regular meditation practice can help you pause when something bad is happening, allowing you to respond thoughtfully instead of reactively. That helps you maintain a level of openness, love and curiosity that can make life less stressful and cause you less anxiety.
For example, mindfulness meditation, in which you notice your thoughts and emotions without judging them, can help clear your mind and reduce the type of worries associated with depression and anxiety.
When you think too deeply about a subject, you tend to repeat ideas over and over in your mind. If what you’re thinking about happens to be negative, it could put you at risk of becoming depressed. The pause between action and reaction that mindfulness meditation provides can offset that process.
A recent study that measured anxiety levels in people before and after a 7-week meditation program found that their anxiety levels decreased after regular meditation practice. The study subjects used a form of guided meditation that focused on an object for 45 minutes twice a week.
You don’t even need to have a person in the room with you guiding you through the meditation. Another great way to do it is in an online setting. In a study of more than 2,000 people from 130 countries who took a 6-week online course that included 5- to 10-minute meditation sessions, researchers saw significant improvement in participants’ perceived stress levels.
2. Meditation can help keep you and your heart healthy
Meditation can benefit both your mental and physical health. One big way is by promoting a healthy heart. Regular meditation is a great way to reduce high blood pressure (hypertension), which can be a risk factor for heart disease.
Risk factors for heart disease can also include stress, a poor diet and a lack of physical activity, among others. Research shows that meditation can help people change bad habits like those.
One study focused on reducing blood pressure and involved adults using mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). This is an 8-week program that includes 2.5 hours a week of mindfulness meditation, movement and stretching.
Researchers from the Brown University School of Public Health in Rhode Island and Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City documented the link between meditation and healthier lifestyle choices. A year after the meditation training, participants in the study reported improvements in self-awareness, physical activity and diet — as well as their ability to regulate their emotions.
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3. Meditation can help you manage chronic pain
MBSR has been around since the 1970s and has been helping people deal with chronic pain for decades. (Chronic pain is any type of pain that lasts longer than 3 months.) An estimated 1.5 billion people worldwide suffer from chronic pain. MBSR is known for its ability to help relieve fibromyalgia (a condition that causes pain all over the body), back and joint pain, and headaches. It can even be used as a replacement for some prescription medications and types of therapy.
If you suffer from chronic pain, meditation helps you understand your emotional response to it. Studies show that thoughts and emotions can increase your ability to feel pain, making the experience more uncomfortable. By teaching yourself how to be more self-aware and balance your emotions, meditation can help create more distance from those feelings of pain — and more compassion for yourself. That can help relieve the pain itself and improve your ability to deal with it.
4. Meditation can help you sleep better
Stress can also cause you to have problems with your sleep schedule. That may result in everything from brain fog and anxiety to an increased risk of heart disease.
While most people with insomnia choose prescription medications to help them sleep, research is beginning to show that mindful meditation can be a good alternative. In a recent analysis of people who have trouble sleeping, researchers from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland, and Columbia University in New York City found that mindfulness meditation can improve the quality of people’s sleep, thanks to its ability to increase self-awareness and self-compassion.
A great place to find a path to restful sleep is by using a meditation app. Researchers from Arizona State University, the University of Utah, and Harvard University studied the benefits of a meditation app. They found that meditating with the app for at least 10 minutes a day for 8 weeks reduced fatigue, physical and mental energy right before sleep, and sleep disturbances.
5. Meditation can improve your digestion
Chronic conditions involving your digestive tract, such as Crohn’s disease and inflammatory bowel disease (IBD), have also been linked to stress.
A recent study on mindfulness meditation and IBD showed that participants’ symptoms improved when mindfulness-based therapy was administered as part of their treatment. In addition to the standard clinical practice, participants followed an 8-week, in-person, online mindfulness program that included education, meditation and breathing exercises.
How to start a meditation practice for yourself
Bursky suggests starting with a guide, even if it’s just a video, book, app or podcast. This can help answer any questions that may come up. It can also help reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed, which can sometimes happen when you sit still with your thoughts and feelings for the first time.
“The path of meditation has been likened to a river,” says Bursky. “In the beginning, the water may be rough and turbulent. With continued practice, the river of your mind may begin to slow down and become more relaxed. You may begin to see your thoughts and feelings in a more spacious, nonjudgmental manner, allowing them to arise and dissolve naturally. With continued practice, this awareness can be integrated with your daily life.”
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This advertisement contains information compiled by Golden Rule Insurance Company. Golden rule Insurance Company does not represent that these are statements of fact. Please consult directly with your primary care physician if you need medical advice.
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