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The surprising health benefits of meditation

By Gwyneth McCawley, M.D.

Pardee Neurology Associates

If you’re like a lot of the patients that I see, you’re dealing with a significant amount of stress these days. From worrying about COVID to working from home to just all around life changes, we’re all experiencing more stress than usual. Research tells us that chronic stress may increase the risk of many physical and mental health conditions, including heart disease, depression, anxiety, diabetes and high blood pressure. Stress can also trigger digestive problems, headaches, sadness, anger, irritability and sleep disturbances.

Meditation and stress

While it’s impossible to get rid of stress completely, one helpful way to manage it is through meditation. You’ve probably heard about meditation, but if you haven’t tried it yet, you may be unsure what to expect, if it’s right for you and if it can actually improve your health. You also may be pleasantly surprised once you try it!

What is meditation?

For centuries, meditation has been practiced to enhance overall well-being, increase physical relaxation, improve mental focus and cope with illness. There are numerous types of meditation, but most all contain the following components: a quiet, low-distraction environment; a comfortable posture (such as sitting, lying down or walking); focused attention (such as your breath, a word or phrase); and an open, non-judgmental attitude toward your thoughts and distractions.

Anyone can practice meditation, even if you have a hard time sitting still and focusing. It’s not about emptying your mind or transcending levels of consciousness. Rather, it is a practice - meaning you’re always learning. Over time, as you notice your distractions and thoughts, you will more easily be able to return to a focus point, like your breath.

The health benefits of meditation

Meditation has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce symptoms of insomnia, depression, anxiety and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Researchers are also conducting studies to see how meditation might impact pain management and smoking cessation.

Studies also show that meditation may actually change the physical structure of the brain. One study found that people who practiced meditation for years had more folds on the outer layer of their brains, which may indicate an improved ability to process information. A review of three studies suggested that meditation may slow or even reverse normal, aging-related changes in the brain. People with cancer who practiced meditation found that it relieves fatigue, anxiety, stress and sleep disturbances. Meditation may also help manage menopause-related symptoms like hot flashes, muscle and joint pain, mood and sleep disturbances, and stress.

The mental and emotional benefits of meditation

Each day, we’re bombarded with information. Meditation can help you process your thoughts and emotions—and you’ll carry that sense of calm with you even after you’ve finished your session. It may also help you be more creative, less stressed, more patient and more self-aware.

Getting started with meditation

If you’re new to meditation, there are easily accessible options that you can find in the palm of your hand - literally from your smartphone. Apps like Calm or Headspace offer free and paid options. If you want to give it a try on your own, keep in mind that meditation involves sitting or lying in a quiet place, focusing your attention on something (like your breath or a word or phrase), breathing, and as your attention drifts, bringing it back to your breath, word or phrase.

You can also practice a body scan, where you take deep breaths and mentally “scan” your body from head to toe. Notice what sensations you feel. Are your shoulders tense? Do your legs feel relaxed? This helps bring awareness to your body and the present moment. Even just five minutes a day can yield benefits.

Is meditation right for you?

Meditation is generally safe for healthy people. It’s also free or inexpensive and doesn’t require any equipment.

Meditation isn’t a replacement for regular medical care or other healthy lifestyle practices, like exercising, eating a healthy diet, getting enough sleep and seeing your primary care provider for a yearly physical. If you have an existing mental health condition, talk to your health care provider before starting a meditation practice.

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