Over this last year or so, I’ve been trying to practice meditation – it has been a bit of a struggle for me, making time to do it, feeling resistant towards it, falling asleep while doing it, and generally questioning what I’m doing.
Although these practices have been around literally forever, meditation and mindfulness are big right now in the health and wellness, and looking-after-yourself industries. More and more studies show that it relieves stress by encouraging the ‘rest and digest’ part of our nervous system and down-regulating the ‘fight and flight’ part. In doing so, this helps to encourage healing within the body – regulating blood pressure, improving heart rate variability and decreasing inflammation. Other benefits include increasing energy, clarity and focus, healthier emotions, less cravings and addictive tendencies, reducing anxieties and better sleep patterns.
Research is increasingly exploring how meditation changes the brain:
- preserving your grey matter as you age,
- decreasing activity in the default mode network (DMN), the brain network responsible for mind-wandering and self-referential thoughts, and
- increasing the cortical thickness in the hippocampus, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory, and in some areas of the brain that play roles in emotion regulation and self-referential processing. There were also decreases in brain cell volume in the amygdala, which is responsible for fear, anxiety, and stress
According to Deepak Chopra, there’s are number of experiences that you can have during meditation:
- Falling asleep – a sign that you need more sleep
- Restlessness – the releasing of stress from your body – this is a good thing
- Peace and quietening of the mind – also a good thing
- Transcendence or pure consciousness – which seems to be the Holy Grail of meditation and mindfulness practice
I seem to oscillate between the first 2 and look forward to experiencing the second 2. It seems I have a way to go yet.
While the popularity of meditation practices has come about as a way to deal with our busy lives, once we get this under control, the greater benefits of meditation (that is, self-awareness, perspective and calm) are the real prizes. For many of us, I suspect the ability to handle stress better and the health benefits of this could be enough.
I’m not an expert but a few simple pointers can get you started on meditation for stress relief:
- Find a quiet place away from distractions and make sure you’re wearing something comfortable
- Find a comfortable position – it could be sitting on the floor or chair or lying down
- Close your eyes and take a deep breath. As you do so, relax your body and imagine stress leaving your body each time you breathe out. Breathe slowly and imagine your heart rate and blood flow slowing down.
- Focus on your breath to clear your mind and try to avoid distractions
- Set a timer so you can relax into the process without worrying about the time
If you find this difficult to do on your own, download an app:
- Headspace – meditation basics are covered in the initial free Take10 programme in 10minutes over 10 days
- Take a Break or Relax and Rest – guided meditations from 5minutes to 24minutes
- Omvana – lots of free guided meditations and even more options in the store. You can mix background sounds and vocals, which is pretty fun
- Calm – 7 Days of Calm is a free mindfulness meditation programme covering the basics. Pretty pictures and soothing sounds