What Are the Benefits of Meditation?
Stress can be described as a fire in the belly and a racetrack in the mind. Its symptoms can manifest as an upset stomach, headaches, the inability to fall asleep, or conversely, the inability to get out of bed. What’s more, 77% of people regularly experience physical symptoms caused by stress and 73% of people experience psychological effects.
But what if you could navigate those feelings of anxiety in a productive manner, thus alleviating the burdens of an overzealous mind?
This is one of the primary benefits of meditation, and why people often seek this calming practice in the first place. However, meditation benefits extend well beyond mere stress-relief.
If you’re considering incorporating meditation into your holistic health routine, you’re in the right place.
The Stress Response: Cortisol and its Effect on the Body
To understand why mitigating the stress response is such a powerful aspect of regular meditation, let’s take a closer look at the body’s natural stress response and a little stress hormone called cortisol.
Being stressed is a natural physiological reaction to pressing outside factors (picture a human being chased by a lion—stressful, right?). When we’re stressed, our bodies respond with one of two options: fight or flight. In other words, you have to fight that lion or run from it.
However, we can’t fight-or-flight out of most modern problems.
Job pressures, financial issues, and relationship troubles can feel as sharp as claws but aren’t alleviated by running away or fighting over them. Although these problems don’t put us in physical danger, our mind still responds accordingly.
This stress level response transforms into a little grey cloud that grows darker and looms larger over time. The metaphorical droplets that make up your cloud are cortisol hormones, which are continually released alongside your compounding stress.
How does cortisol affect the body? (Hint: You may recognize some of these as symptoms.)
- Weight gain (especially in the abdomen and face)
- Digestion issues (hunger, nausea, or vomiting)⁸
- Physical irregularities (muscle weakness and sleep disruption)
Meditating has been shown to both decrease levels of stress and improve ways of coping with stress. Through various techniques, you can find a method that mitigates the stress response and works with your lifestyle.
5 Health Benefits of Meditation and Techniques to Realize Them
Meditation has a long and storied history across all continents, and there are many reasons why it’s been practiced for over 5,500 years. Let’s focus on the 5 largest health benefits of meditation and the most popular ways to actualize them.
#1 Stress Reduction
As discussed above, life is full of stressors. And you don’t have to be in a jungle with lions to have a stress response. No matter where you are—stuck in traffic, waiting for a bus, or taking your dog for a walk—daily meditation can be used to calm and clear your mind. By recognizing and acknowledging that your body and mind are stressed, you can then integrate calming techniques to rebalance yourself.
In meditation lingo: Once you recognize what’s bothering you, you can choose to let it go.
- Mindfulness meditation is an excellent meditation to start with because the goal is not to think through your problems. Instead, the idea of mindful meditation is to pay attention to your thoughts as they occur. When thoughts arise, you don’t judge them, and you don’t become involved with them; let them pop up in your mind, and let them pass. This mindfulness practice is also referred to as mindfulness training.
All you have to do is observe, and notice your thought patterns. By building your awareness of the psychological, physical, and emotional effects of stress, you can combat them.
#2 Increased Pain Tolerance
A study conducted in part by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) showed that meditation helps control perceived pain levels. While meditation doesn’t take the pain away completely, especially if you have chronic pain, it serves to combat your perception of the pain and how intensely you feel it.
By owning and redirecting your focus, you can ease your pain state (similar to how you can notice stress and let it go, rather than focus on it).
- Transcendental meditation is perfect for increasing your pain tolerance. It’s similar to mindfulness meditation, but instead of allowing yourself to think and feel, you’ll instead focus on a specific repeated word or phrase (called a mantra).
This practice is customizable because you choose what word(s) to repeat, and the effortless mental repetition allows you to focus on simple sounds. To utilize this method to the fullest, try to remain aware of yourself and redirect your mind whenever you feel a flare-up or nasty thought creep in. In this way, pain can be considered physical or mental.
#3 Elevated Mental Clarity and Focus
Natural stressors in everyday life have a tendency to fog the mind, which makes it difficult to concentrate on the task at hand. Imagine you’re stressed out with all you have to do; you’re trying to work, and you feel like you’re working hard, but the quantity and quality of your work don’t reflect that.
With meditation, you elevate your mind above those problems and teach yourself to slow down. Once your mind is calm, you regain that sense of clarity.
- Focused meditation is wonderful for restoring mental clarity because you use one of your five senses, not your brain. With this meditation, your mind focuses only on whatever you choose to hold your attention. This could involve staring at a point in the room or a candle. Or it could involve listening intently to the natural noises of your environment. Sight, smell, taste, hear, and touch—any of these can be your sole focus.
This meditation works by silencing your mind completely; if you feel your mind beginning to wander, recognize that and recalibrate your attention back to the singular sense you’re using.
#4 Improved Feelings of Anxiety and Depression
Anxiety disorder and depression are related to stress; they’re the sprouted seeds of negative thinking and their roots grow fast and deep. Ruminating on these feelings can drastically decrease your happiness and quality of life, which—in a cyclical way—lead to more stress.
Meditation helps you pick yourself up and out of your emotional stew by redirecting your attention and replacing distress with a sense of calm and overall well-being.
- Vipassana meditation is, in a nutshell, the practice of breathing while labeling emotions. It works like this: if you’re observing your breath and you suddenly feel worried, say to yourself, “this is the feeling of being worried, and it will pass.” Return to the breath, and then repeat this when the next emotion arises.
While feelings seem to be spontaneous, we have control over whether we internalize them or not. Breathing while labeling and releasing negative thoughts gives you power; all you have to do is relax and breathe your worries away.
#5 Better Sleep Quality
Poor sleep is a pervasive issue. According to The Sleep Association, 35.3% of U.S. adults report less than 7 hours of sleep each night. There are many factors that play into why Americans aren’t sleeping well—high caffeine intake, lack of sleep routine, constant stress, etc.
Physical exercise and stretching are two effective ways of releasing built-up energy and tiring yourself out before you hop into bed. Thankfully, meditation and exercise are not mutually exclusive.
- Movement meditation focuses on staying active and keeping your mind in-tune with your body and surroundings. This meditation is especially helpful for people experiencing a buildup of energy with no outlet for it.
There are many different forms of movement meditation. There’s walking meditation. To do this, simply silence your mind and go for a walk. Let go of negative thoughts that pop up and observe the world around you. Alternatively, yoga, qi-gong, and tai chi get the body moving, but instead of observing your surroundings, the goal is to move with purpose and grace.
Feelings of calm are the end goal of meditation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t challenging; the core idea of meditation is to push your mental and emotional limits in order to raise those thresholds. Meditation training is all about mental-strengthening—it’s lifting heavy weights at the gym for your mind.
So go slow, be kind, and forgive yourself if your mind wanders or you feel your heart rate quicken. Do your best to focus on your chosen meditative practice technique, and always bring yourself back to the present moment.
Holistic Wellness For Your Mind and Body
While regular meditation practice can help you manage your stress symptoms, and even help those with generalized anxiety disorder cope, regular practice is only one component of a high-quality lifestyle.
If practicing meditation is for rejuvenating your mind and exercise is for strengthening your body, then probiotics are for balancing your gut. The friendly little bacteria in probiotics promote healthy microflora, which regulates gut balance and supports your digestive system—and gut health is just as important for your overall well-being as mental health.
For complete wellness, you can focus on caring for your mind through meditation, and we’ll focus on caring for your belly.
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Mead, E. B. (2020, September 1). The History and Origin of Meditation. PositivePsychology.Com. https://positivepsychology.com/history-of-meditation/
Meditation: In Depth. (2016, April). NCCIH. https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation-in-depth
ASA Authors & Reviewers Sleep Physician at American Sleep Association Reviewers and WritersBoard-certified sleep M.D. physicians, scientists, editors and writers for ASA. (2019, June 1). Sleep Statistics - Data About Sleep and Sleep Disorders. American Sleep Association. https://www.sleepassociation.org/about-sleep/sleep-statistics/
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