Would you like to know a simple method for lowering your stress, managing your emotions, learning to be kinder and more compassionate, feeling more confident, and even working more productively?
Humans have been practicing it for thousands of years. It’s called meditation.
Meditation can help significantly lower your stress levels and improve your health – which, in turn, can help save you thousands of dollars on medical costs, both in the short and long term. It can also give you the awareness and confidence you need to pursue the career of your dreams, ask for a raise, or work successfully with difficult colleagues.
You don’t need a lot of time to experience the benefits of meditation; research shows that just 10 minutes a day is all you need to improve your focus, health, concentration, and performance. However, you do need consistency to make it work.
Here’s a look at what meditation is, the science behind the many benefits of this practice, and how you can start meditating.
Why We Need Meditation More Than Ever
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), Americans are more stressed out now than ever before. The APA considers chronic stress – defined as stress levels that interfere with a person’s ability to function – to be at “crisis levels.” Their Stress in America survey found that most Americans are suffering from moderate to high stress levels, and that 44% of respondents say their stress has increased over the past five years. And the younger you are, the more stress you’re likely feeling. The APA reports that 90% of Gen Z respondents (those aged 15 to 21) said they were feeling stress.
Financial anxiety continues to be the biggest source of stress. Job stress is also significant. However, different generations are stressing over different things, and even our children aren’t immune. One-third of kids surveyed admitted they had felt symptoms associated with stress in the past month.
As Buddha is purported to have said. “Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own thoughts, unguarded.” Stress, especially chronic stress, is incredibly damaging to your physical, mental, and emotional health. According to the Mayo Clinic, stress has been linked to:
- Anxiety and depression
- Irritability and anger
- Muscle tension
- Lack of motivation and focus
- Chest pain
- Drug and alcohol abuse
- Feeling overwhelmed
- Social withdrawal
- Overeating or undereating
- Digestive problems
- Chest pain
- Exercising less frequently
Stress has also been linked to many long-term health conditions, such as heart attacks, fertility problems, a depressed immune system, circulatory problems, and even cancer.
All this stress is costing us a lot of money. According to Forbes, workplace environments in the United States account for about $180 billion in additional health care costs. The APA puts this number at $300 billion, in large part due to absenteeism, turnover, diminished productivity, and medical bills.
There’s no doubt that we need to do something about our stress levels. A daily meditation practice can help.
What Is Meditation?
The human race has practiced meditation for thousands of years. The practice originated in India, where records mentioning meditation go back to 1500 BCE. Meditation was also practiced in China as early as the sixth century. Nearly every religion in the world has some form of meditative practice. However, you don’t need to be religious or spiritual to meditate.
So what is meditation? The answer varies depending on who you ask. Put simply, meditation is the practice of using a specific technique or approach to help you focus and still your mind, relax, feel calm, and achieve a heightened state of awareness.
Many people who have never meditated before think it means sitting down, emptying your mind, and not thinking about anything at all for an hour or two. However, this isn’t the goal of meditation. As some Buddhists quip, “The goal of meditation is that there is no goal.”
Think of it this way: Meditation trains your mind to observe your thoughts without getting involved with or responding to them. It’s a skill you get better at with consistent practice. Over time, meditation can help you realize that you are not your thoughts or emotions, that the “internal conversation” that’s always running in your mind is not who you really are.
This awareness can be incredibly transformative and lead to greater emotional control, more mindfulness, a better ability to manage stress, and greater peace in life. It can help improve your relationships with your partner, family, friends, and colleagues. It can help reduce emotional outbursts, especially those that stem from anger, and help you feel more compassion, less anxiety, and less worry.
Meditation is also used to help manage health conditions such as chronic pain, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and cancer.
Of course, there are as many different types of meditation as there are people practicing meditation. And there is no “right” way to go about it. Different types of meditation have different aims; below are two of the most common practices.
In concentrative meditation, you put your entire focus on a single object while tuning everything else out, including your thoughts. You might focus on your breath, a candle flame, or even a specific word, such as “peace.” When you notice your mind start to wander, you gently let go of those thoughts and refocus on the object.
In mindfulness meditation, you observe the thoughts that run through your mind without getting involved with, judging, or reacting to them. There’s no central focus as there is in concentrative meditation; you simply watch your thoughts come and go. Over time, observing your thoughts in this way can help you see patterns, better manage your emotions, and live more mindfully.
Mindful living means being fully aware of what’s happening in the present and not running on autopilot all the time or constantly focusing on the past or future.
The Many Benefits of Meditation
Meditation can transform your life and improve your physical and mental health in a number of important ways. And there’s plenty of research to back that up. Here are some of the many benefits of practicing meditation.
1. It Lowers Stress Levels
One of the most significant benefits of meditation is its ability to lower stress levels in a short amount of time. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) found that the stress hormone cortisol was significantly lower in participants after just five days of meditative practice at 20 minutes a day. Participants also scored better on conflict tests and experienced lower anxiety, depression, anger, and fatigue than a control group that was given only relaxation training.
2. It Boosts the Immune System
Another benefit of meditation is that it can help boost your immune system, making it a good natural remedy to help fight off colds and flu. A study published in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine studied two groups for eight weeks. One group meditated daily, while the other did not. After eight weeks, both groups received the influenza vaccine. According to the findings, the volunteers who meditated daily had a stronger antibody response to the flu vaccine than the non-meditators.
Additionally, researchers measured volunteers’ brain activity before the study began and immediately after it finished. The meditators had significantly greater activity in the left anterior region of the brain, the region that controls emotion and intellectual activities.
3. It Changes Brain Structure & Decreases the Effects of Aging
A study published in the journal Neuroreport found that consistent meditation changes the structure of brain areas associated with sensory, cognitive, and emotional processing. The findings also suggest that meditation may affect the decline in cortical structure as we age. In other words, meditation helps keep our brains pliable and sharp as we grow older.
Another study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, had similar findings: Long-term meditators had better, more robust aging brains than non-meditators. That’s good news for our aging population, especially those at risk for dementia. Starting a meditation practice now could help you retain better brain functioning as you grow older.
4. It Might Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, cardiovascular disease is America’s biggest health problem and its leading cause of death. Over 84 million people in the United States suffer from some form of cardiovascular disease, and one person dies from the disease every 40 seconds.
In 2017, the American Heart Association (AHA) released a statement about meditation, saying that it may help reduce the risk of heart disease. Daily meditation, along with a healthy diet and consistent exercise such as yoga, can help improve overall health and reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
5. It Can Help Manage Chronic Pain
Lower back pain is the leading cause of disability in the United States. However, many people suffer from chronic pain, whether it’s in their back, legs, neck, or other regions of the body. And when it comes to managing chronic pain, many people turn to painkillers, especially opioids, which have a high rate of addiction and overdose.
Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) Network found that meditation helped improve symptoms in people suffering from lower back pain. Another study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found that mindfulness meditation helped reduce pain intensity by using different pathways in the body than opioid painkillers.
6. It Can Help You Develop Focus
We have an astonishingly high number of thoughts during the day – around 50,000 to 70,000, according to some sources. Most of these thoughts are negative; the vast majority are flighty, fanciful, critical, confused, repetitive, irrational, fearful, and indecisive.
Buddhists call this our “monkey mind.” If these thousands of thoughts are like branches in a tree, then most of us are monkeys, spending our days swinging from branch to branch and chattering nonstop. This constant mind-wandering is exhausting. And, according to research published in Science Magazine, it’s also been linked to unhappiness.
Meditation can help quiet your mind and develop more focus so you’re better able to concentrate on what you’re doing at the moment. It can also help you stop worrying about the past or the future so much and get better at “snapping out of it” when you do.
You’ll also develop a greater ability to pay attention, which can have many positive benefits in your career. A study published in the journal Consciousness and Cognition found that meditators performed significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention and cognitive flexibility.
7. It Might Help Prevent Cancer & Other Disease
Research has shown that meditation can help change how we think and how we feel. It can also change our bodies on a cellular level.
A study published in the journal Cancer examined how breast cancer patients responded to mindfulness meditation and gentle yoga. They discovered that after three months, the group practicing meditation and yoga had telomeres – the protein caps at the end of DNA strands that help protect chromosomes – that stayed the same length compared with the group of non-meditators, whose telomeres were shorter.
Scientists are still researching how telomere length affects our health, but they believe that longer telomeres help protect the body against disease. According to the study, “Telomere dysfunction and the loss of telomere integrity may result in DNA damage or cell death.” Shorter telomeres have been implicated in several other diseases, including cardiovascular disease and diabetes. They can also predict early mortality in patients with leukemia and breast cancer.
8. It Can Help Improve Sleep
If you’re not sleeping well, you’re not alone. NPR reports that insomnia plagues around 60 million Americans each year, which costs the U.S. workforce 11.2 days of work, or $2,280, per year, according to the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. But meditation might be able to help you get a better night’s rest.
Research published in the JAMA Network found that older adults who participated in mindful meditation practices experienced an immediate improvement in their sleep compared with participants who only received sleep hygiene education.
9. It Helps Kids Learn to Focus
Increasingly, parents are discovering that children, even those younger than 5, can experience the positive benefits of meditation.
Teaching children how to meditate and helping them practice daily can improve their sleep and their ability to focus. It can also teach them how to manage big emotions such as anger, fear, and frustration, how to have more self-control, how to be more kind and compassionate, and how to be alone with their thoughts.
Meditation can be especially helpful for kids with ADHD, for whom studying is often a major stressor. (This infographic from IvyPanda explores the root causes of study-related stress.) One 2004 study found that kids diagnosed with ADHD who learned meditation with their parents did better in school, had less anxiety and better sleep, and were better able to focus than those who did not. Another study, published in 2013, found that boys with ADHD had decreased hyperactive behaviors and a greater ability to focus after eight weeks of daily meditation.
What Is Meditation Like?
Sitting down for your first meditation session can feel strange if you’ve never done it before. After all, in our daily lives, we rarely spend time alone with our thoughts. For people used to spending every moment distracted, the thought of just being alone with your mind, without anything else to focus on, can cause a certain amount of anxiety. However, that’s why it’s so important to get started.
Headspace, an app created for guided meditations, has a useful video that describes what meditation is like for some beginners: Imagine that you’re sitting on the side of a busy road. The cars and trucks roar past constantly, and each one of them represents a thought or feeling.
In meditation, the idea is to simply sit and watch these vehicles go past. When you start to feel restless, you might be tempted to run out into the road to stop the cars and trucks. You chase after one, then another, trying to slow them down. Eventually, you’ll feel mentally and emotionally exhausted because the thoughts don’t end.
As you get more experienced with meditation, you’ll spend longer amounts of time sitting on the side of the road, not getting involved with the traffic going past. Meditation changes your relationship with your thoughts and feelings, allowing you to develop distance from them and giving you more control.
How to Start Meditating
The great thing about meditation is that it doesn’t cost anything to get started. You don’t need any special equipment, books, or props; you just need yourself and a quiet place for a few minutes a day.
Start with small, manageable steps you can take every day. It’s far better to meditate for 3 minutes a day, every day, than for 60 minutes once a week. Here’s how to get started.
1. Choose a Time
Pick a time of day when it will be easy for you to sit down quietly for a few minutes. It might be first thing in the morning or right before you go to bed at night. It’s important to stay consistent with meditation so that it becomes a habit.
2. Choose a Place to Sit
Choose a comfortable chair, bench, cushion, or spot on the floor. You can even invest in a meditation cushion later on if you keep meditating so that you can sit comfortably for longer periods. Where and how you sit isn’t that important; just sit in a comfortable position that helps you focus. Try to maintain good posture, with a straight but relaxed back.
3. Set a Timer
Set a timer on your phone for two to five minutes. Keep it short at first; two minutes of meditation every day makes it easier to get into the habit. As you practice more, you can extend the time, depending on how comfortable you feel. If you want to sit for 10 to 20 minutes or longer after a while, go for it.
Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Count each breath as it goes in and out. Focus on the physical sensation of breathing.
When your mind starts to wander, gently put your focus back on your breath. Don’t worry or beat yourself up if you lose focus; simply being aware that you lost it is a huge first step. That awareness is what you’re building and strengthening with meditation.
5. Don’t Judge
You might sit there for a few minutes and feel bored, restless, or like you’re wasting your time. You might feel anxious that you’re “not doing it right” or discouraged that nothing is happening.
These feelings are OK. Feel what you’re feeling, and don’t judge what’s happening – or not happening. Meditation is a journey, a practice, of developing relaxed focus. At first, you’ll likely be very distracted by your thoughts, and you might not feel that you’re aware of what’s happening. Stick with it, and that will change. You’ll be less distracted, and more aware, the more you meditate.
Keep in mind that your mind won’t magically stop thinking. Your mind exists to think; that’s its job. Through meditation, you’ll learn how to step back from this process and observe what’s happening, but it won’t happen overnight. Accept this instead of fighting against it.
As you meditate regularly, you’ll begin to develop a deeper sense of who you are and how your mind works. Be kind to yourself and, again, don’t judge the thoughts and emotions you encounter during meditation. These are part of you, although they don’t make up everything you are. Be friendly with and curious about yourself.
Resources to Help
There are plenty of websites, books, videos, apps, bells, chimes, and everything else you can imagine to help you develop a meditation practice. Some of these things are useful, while others are unnecessary. Here are the most useful resources.
Using a meditation app can be a great way to get into the practice and develop it into a daily habit. These apps provide guided meditations for goals like lowering stress, getting better sleep, lowering anxiety, improving focus, and working more productively. Some even have customized guided meditations specifically for kids.
Check out these popular apps to get started:
- Headspace: iOS and Android (awarded Apple’s Best App of the Year for 2018)
- Calm: iOS and Android (awarded Google Play Editor’s Choice Award for 2018)
- The Mindfulness App: iOS and Android
Websites & Videos
There are tons of websites and videos that offer more information about how to meditate and guide you through the process of meditation. Consider these:
- The Mindfulness Solution
- Guided Meditations from the Chopra Center
- The Free Mindfulness Project
- Free Guided Meditations from UCLA
As you might imagine, there are also plenty of books on the subject of meditation. Check out the titles below or see what your local library has to offer.
- “Practical Meditation for Beginners” by Benjamin Decker
- “5-Minute Daily Meditations” by Sah D’Simone
- “Practicing Mindfulness” by Matthew Sockolov
Developing a daily meditation practice can transform your life in a myriad of ways. It can help you build better relationships with your family and friends. It can help you develop the presence of mind to react calmly in stressful situations, whether they’re at work or at home taking care of your kids. It can give you the awareness and confidence you need to ask for a raise, pursue an important project, or even change careers.
It can also help you live a healthier life by better managing stress and reducing or eliminating some health conditions and symptoms.
The most important part of meditation is consistency, and the key to making it work is finding the best time to sit so you can make it a habit. Even five minutes per day will make a positive difference in your life. Consider meditating right before bed or right when you get up in the morning; those transition times are often easier when you first start meditating.
Do you practice meditation? If so, what helps you make it a consistent habit? If not, what questions do you have about getting started?