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Meditation 101

Why Is Meditation Good For You?

Are you anxious? Depressed? Suffer from chronic pain? Do you have trouble sleeping? Do you have an overactive mind that you struggle to control?

When someone tells you that you should meditate, do you know what its purpose or goal is? If you already dabble in meditation, do you ever wonder if you are doing it “right,” and do you find yourself frustrated with the process?

With meditation becoming more popular in mainstream culture, you may be wondering how it might be helpful for you. After all, meditation is for those new age people right? If these thoughts have ever crossed your mind, you are certainly not alone. Meditation brings us to the unfamiliar and unknown, which is why most people become uncomfortable when they first begin their practice. 

What Is Meditation?

The Tibetan word for meditation literally means: to become familiar with. So when we sit to meditate, we are becoming familiar with ourselves. 

We are finding our authentic and true selves beneath all of the busyness, distractions, anxieties, anger, sadness, or whatever else we are working so hard to avoid. It is the exercise of finding the real you beneath all that stuff

The Benefits Are Real

The effects of meditation are a hot area of current research. A recent study by El Morr, C., et. al. (2020) concluded, “significantly reduced depression and anxiety symptoms” at post study follow up for those who participated in a meditation study. 

Meditation is also helpful for those who suffer from chronic pain. Specifically in regard to fibromyalgia, a systematic review by Pardos-Gascon, E., et. al. (2021) revealed “significant improvements have been found in the pain interference, self-efficacy in pain control, acceptance, reduction of catastrophizing and decrease of daily pain peaks.”

In simpler terms, meditation helps you better manage your pain and reduce catastrophic thoughts when living in pain. If you find yourself unable to control your thoughts, are anxious or depressed, have chronic pain, difficulty sleeping, or an overactive mind, please consider meditation.

How Meditation Works

When we meditate, a biological change happens. You may have heard of the autonomic nervous system (ANS). It is made up of the sympathetic nervous system, and the parasympathetic nervous system. 

The sympathetic nervous system kicks in as a response to danger. Think about it like the accelerator in your car. Whether it is a tiger running towards you, or a boss, spouse, friend, peer, or teacher upsetting you in some way, all threats are treated the same way within your body, it prepares you to fight or flee fast.

The sympathetic nervous system causes blood to rush to your extremities to prepare for a fight, dramatically slowing digestion, increasing blood pressure, and rushes stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline to your whole body. Even a simple argument with someone will cause your body to think it is in danger. These hormones are not good for your long-term physical or mental health. The sympathetic nervous system is built-in protection, even when you do not necessarily need protection, such as when you are experiencing road rage, or reacting to someone in an argument. Some people live a majority of their lives in this fight or flight state.

The parasympathetic nervous system, however, calms your entire system by slowing your heart rate, reducing your blood pressure, increasing digestion, slowing your respiration, and puts your body into a state of relaxation. 

The parasympathetic nervous system is the brake on your car. It significantly slows down your mind, allowing healing of both the mind and the body. When in fight or flight, the body is unable to heal, and is of increased risk of dis-ease. So, this is the purpose of meditation, to engage the parasympathetic nervous system to control your mind, for improved health and contentment.

As your system is soothed, your thoughts ease, and your over-active mind begins to slow down. You relax, and you simply feel better, and your body can heal. The next time you are upset, try to notice how shallowly you are likely breathing. You might even be holding your breath.

Why It Can Feel Challenging

Instead of being human BE-ings, we generally live our lives as human DO-ings, rarely taking the time for intentional relaxation. We stay constantly busy and distracted with our cell phones, social media, video games, and television, and while we may feel that these are relaxing, the nervous system is actually stimulated when we participate in these activities.

So when we stop to do NO-thing, our minds and bodies confront us with the fact that we have stopped DO-ing. When you sit to meditate, you may find that your mind begins to race, perhaps with thoughts you constantly try to avoid around things you do not want to face or think about. 

These thoughts might have to do with anxiety or depression about challenging relationships in your personal, professional, or school life. Unresolved trauma, guilt, or shame can also trigger these thoughts. Just the thought of sitting down to try meditating might give you anxiety!

But strange that I was told

That the brain can hold

In a tiny ivory cell

God’s heaven or hell.

~ Oscar Wilde

There Is No Wrong Way to Meditate

There is no “bad” meditation. Go into it without expectation. Just sitting down to do it is a victory. The more you do it, the easier it becomes, even though there will be “easier” days and “harder” days. Expect that. Slowly increase your time of sitting–you are not doing it wrong. 

When your mind and body confronts and challenges you (as they certainly will), and you feel frustrated, that actually means you are doing it right. You will naturally have thoughts like, “I can’t do this! I can’t sit this long! My mind will not stop!” These are the moments to overcome. Work to settle your body back down and continue on with your meditation, without judgment. Ride that wave. This is the real change.

Each time you overcome these waves of discomfort and want to get up, you are literally rewiring the neural pathways in your brain. Over time, this becomes real, long-lasting change–not just coping skills. 

Tips For Beginners and Final Thoughts

When you sit down to meditate, it is important to sit with a straight spine. It can be very helpful to cover your eyes with an eye mask to block out light and use headphones to reduce distractions. 

There are thousands of guided meditations online and on many different apps, such as Insight Timer, Calm, and Simple Habit, as ways to start. There are also many options on YouTube. Explore, and try several of them until you find one that connects with you. 

Meditation is the ultimate in self-care. The hardest part of meditation is taking the time to do it. By learning to manage our mind, we can manage our emotions, reduce anxiety and depressive symptoms, as well as manage chronic pain, allowing ourselves to feel an overall state of well-being. Now breathe…

 

References

El Morr, C., Ritvo, P., Ahmad, F., Moineddin, R., & MVC Team. (2020). Effectiveness of an 8-week web-based mindfulness virtual community intervention for university students on symptoms of stress, anxiety, and depression: randomized controlled trial. JMIR Publications, Advancing Digital Health & Open Science. 7 (7):e18595, doi: 10.2196/18595

Pardos-Gascon, E., Narambuena, L., Leal-Costa, C., & van-der Hofstadt-Roman, C. (2021). Differential efficacy between cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based therapies for chronic pain: systemic review. International Journal of Clinical and Health Psychology. 21 (1) https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijchp.2020.08.001

 

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Elizabeth Haines, LCPC, FMCHC, YACEP

Elizabeth is a Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor. She values a strong therapeutic alliance and believes that a supportive and collaborative working relationship is instrumental in helping clients improve their overall quality of life. She uses her expertise in yoga and mindfulness to assist clients in learning to calm and relax the stressed body and mind.

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