We’ve all heard sleeping, eating and exercising well keeps us flourishing, but it’s a daily challenge. What if adding one small thing would make all of these things easier? Research points to the benefits of meditation in improving every aspect of your health. Renown Clinical Psychologist Mikaela Hildebrandt, Ph.D., explains the powerful benefits of meditation and gives us tips on how to start.
When life overwhelms, meditation helps. “Patients show improvements in their mood or ability to cope with daily stressors,” Dr. Hildebrandt says. “They also find more engagement in other meaningful areas of their lives. In fact, they report success with lifestyle changes such as: healthier eating and engaging in more physical activity.”
Additionally, Dr. Hildebrandt has seen the benefits of meditation in patients with a terminal diagnosis. “I have worked with oncology patients, and mindfulness has been shown to improve end-of-life quality. Especially with regard to relationship satisfaction and finding meaning.”
What is Meditation?
Meditation begins by taking the focus off of the external world. The goal is to focus on your breath for a certain amount of time, allowing your mind to rest.
Meditation is not the same as relaxation. While meditation can make you feel relaxed, it is not simply relaxing. Meditating starts with intention. The goal is to ‘not think,’ which is harder than it sounds. Our brains are constantly working and jumping from thought to thought creating “monkey mind.”
The rhythm of your breath is key to meditation. Although breathing is automatic, when you’re stressed you may unknowingly hold your breath, breathe shallowly or even hyperventilate (breathing at an abnormally rapid rate).
Benefits of Meditation
Whenever we consciously change our breathing, it interrupts our stress responses, allowing us to control our nervous system. The nervous system has two parts:
- Sympathetic nervous system – speeds up your body
- Parasympathetic nervous system – slows down your body
When you activate these parts in a consistent pattern, you can enter into “coherence.” This promotes the ultimate trifecta of mental benefits: clarity, focus and concentration. Conversely, stress revs you up – your heart rate, thoughts, speech and even movements.
So how do you begin a meditation practice?
First, there is no right, or wrong, way to meditate. It begins with the simple act of closing your eyes, getting in a comfortable position (sitting or lying down) and focusing on your breath. Second, Hildebrandt suggests beginning by setting a timer for five minutes. You can then slowly increase the time, minute by minute, week by week, until you feel at a comfort level with your results. Third, when thoughts begin to enter your mind – and they will – put the focus back on your breath. “Let the thoughts pass through,” she recommends. Lastly, some people find it helpful to say a word like “peace” silently to themselves, or even out loud, to help maintain their focus.
At the beginning of the meditation notice the quality of your breath and any tension you have. When you finish your mediation, again note any difference in your breathing or tension in your body. You many feel focused, relaxed, energized or nothing at all. Remember there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to mediate – it is individual to you.
Hildebrandt understands beginning a meditation practice can be challenging. “As far as starting a meditation practice, I personally like to prepare folks by letting them know that it may seem worse before it gets better.” In other words, you may notice how ‘mind-less’ you are as you begin practicing mindfulness.
“While this part of the process is normal, it is an important opportunity to practice self-compassion from the standpoint of being a non-judgmental observer,” Hildebrandt adds. Studies have shown the shape of brain changes after only eight weeks of regular meditation.
Meditation Lowers Blood Pressure
Studies also show meditation effectively lowers blood pressure – with no adverse side effects. Compared to control subjects only participating in lifestyle education, those with a regular meditation practice (three months) were successful in greatly lowering their blood pressure. Men in the study lowered their systolic blood pressure (SBP), the first number of blood pressure, by 12 points. Their diastolic blood pressure (DBP), the second number of blood pressure, by 8 points. Women also saw a measured reduction – 10 points SBP and nearly 6 points in DBP.
If you feel you need more help with life issues than meditation provides, perhaps it’s time to discuss your concerns with a doctor.