What if you could influence the health of your body simply by calming your mind? That’s the essence of meditation, a mind and body practice dating back many centuries.
When stress becomes long-term or chronic, it can worsen and contribute to emotional and physical ailments, including increasing your risk of depression, diabetes and heart disease. Practicing meditation helps you tune out and manage daily stress. Meditation can also physically change our brain, including stalling or reversing the signs of normal brain aging and increasing our ability to process information.
You don’t have to be religious or spiritual to practice meditation. Today, meditation is being increasingly incorporated into health and wellness plans, both by average people and health care providers.
Physical and emotional benefits of meditation
So far, the most promising research shows that meditation can be effective for managing anxiety and depression. Additional health effects of meditation aren’t conclusive, but meditation does look promising for many health conditions as a complementary therapy—that is, in addition to, not instead of, traditional treatment. Meditation plays a role in decreasing the risk of heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. The American Cancer Society suggests meditation can help improve emotional and physical side effects of a cancer diagnosis and treatment, including anxiety, depression and fatigue.
Even if you don’t have a health condition, meditation can be part of an overall wellness plan. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH), meditation may provide numerous possible health benefits, including:
- Lowering systolic and diastolic blood pressure
- Decreasing insulin resistance
- Managing chronic pain
- Reducing the incidence of cardiac events in those with coronary heart disease
- Improving symptoms related to irritable bowel syndrome and ulcerative colitis
- Helping to get better sleep and reducing insomnia
- Reducing menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes, mood disturbances, and muscle and joint pain
- Helping to quit smoking
Choose a meditation that suits you
If you can’t sit cross-legged on the floor, don’t worry. There are many types of meditation. With some forms, such as Transcendental Meditation, you can sit in a chair, or anywhere else you feel comfortable sitting with your eyes closed. For others, you don’t need to sit, or even be still. Yoga, tai chi and qi gong are all forms of meditation in motion. Alternatively, you could find a local doctor or mental health professional who offers the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, an eight-week program developed by UMass Medical School that teaches you how to cope with stress and improve emotional resilience. There are also online MBSR programs and even free mindfulness meditation apps to help you de-stress.
If you choose to practice at home, you’ll need the following: a quiet, distraction-free location; a comfortable posture; something to focus your attention on, such as a specific word, phrase, object or breathing technique; and an open attitude and willingness to suspend judgement. Yoga Journal offers a beginner’s guide to meditation to get you started. If you have a specific health condition you hope to target, your doctor can help you choose an appropriate meditation.
Since meditation is low cost and relatively risk free, it’s worth a try. Chanting “Om” is optional.