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Here’s how to meditate your way to better health

Do you often worry about things beyond your control? Here’s how to take them head-on through mindfulness.

hand in meditative position
Photo by Ksenia Makagonova

By Kristie Mitchell, M.D., and Gene Gincherman, M.D.

Would you like to face fewer situations where you feel depressed, frazzled and overwhelmed? Then consider making meditation part of your wellness routine, since it can improve both your state of mind and your physical health.

In our work with patients and with colleagues, we’ve seen firsthand how regular meditation reduces anxiety and depression. Participants also see a reduction in stress-related illnesses and the degree of physical pain that they experience.

Regular meditation will also strengthen your ability to focus on what you’re doing as you live life every day. While meditating, you observe your own mind staying with or straying from a focus, such as your breath. This trains you to be mindful at other times throughout the day, and promotes mindfulness, which means being present and aware of your own thoughts, feelings and actions, whether you’re alone or with others.

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If you’re like many people who rush through the day juggling a number of stress-inducing activities, you’ll find that meditation trains you to handle setbacks without overreacting and with greater calmness than you might otherwise be able to muster. In fact, the whole purpose of having a formal meditation practice is to have an informal practice that you can employ as you move through your day.

How Meditation Works

Meditation involves a triad of intention, attention and attitude. It’s a purposeful shift that you make.

The intention involves setting a goal to make a shift of some sort with your mind or your body. Attention involves choosing a focus for your thoughts, perhaps your breath, bodily sensations or a soothing word you repeat. The attitude involves a commitment to kindness, toward yourself and all others.

This compassionate attitude is critical. We’ve found that when people are just starting out with a meditation practice, they can get frustrated trying to focus on their breathing. When they lose focus, they’ll give up and feel unhappy with themselves. It’s important to know from the start that losing focus is inevitable. Simply recognize when your mind is wandering and bring it back—but gently.

One caveat: It’s best not to start a meditation practice with the goal of feeling happier. Lifting weights at the gym can strengthen your muscles but it may involve soreness, and you can think of meditation as a similar exercise. Meditation may cause some discomfort, but ultimately it strengthens your mind, and many would say, your spirit.

Getting Started

We advise keeping the following suggestions in mind as you work to build the healthy habit of daily meditation:

  • Find a peaceful place. Choose someplace without much going on visually or sound-wise. It can be simple, like the corner of a room.
  • Get comfortable. Loosen a tight belt, take off your shoes and put yourself at ease physically, to the best extent possible. You can recline to meditate, rather than sitting.
  • Start small. Meditate for 10 minutes at first. Over time, you’ll be able to mediate for longer sessions.
  • Try a guided meditation. Guided meditations, usually recorded, provide sounds and/or images chosen by a trained meditation practitioner. Beginners may find guided meditations especially valuable.
  • Use your breath. Here’s a simple way to meditate: First, breathe in slowly, while counting to four. Then, hold your breath to the same slow count of four, and finally exhale to a slow count of eight.  Continue in the same fashion.
  • Relinquish expectations. Have a “let’s see what happens” mindset. If you find that during meditation your mind wanders to your to-do list or worries about your kids, gently return to your chosen focus. Recognizing that you were a million miles away from your focus is itself a moment of mindfulness. Over time, you will get better at noticing your mind wandering and calmly returning it to your focus.
  • Be consistent. Find a convenient time and stick with it whenever possible. Brief exercise or stretching before meditation can help make staying still easier.
  • Be flexible. When far away from your quiet corner, you can still meditate, even in public. And you need not close your eyes to do so. You can sit in a busy location, and soften and lower your gaze. The sounds around you can serve as your focus.

Benefits for Individuals

Meditation brings about positive effects that occur in the moment, when you’re actually meditating, and also has global effects that occur over time. Among other positive changes, your heart rate and blood pressure decrease. People who meditate regularly are at lower risk for heart attacks and strokes than other people, research shows.

In addition, inflammation decreases throughout your body. This change contributes to reduced pain and a better mood.

As your breathing slows, you metabolize oxygen more slowly. Your body therefore creates fewer free radicals, which over time can cause widespread physical damage. Some people compare the effects of free radicals to rust in the body.

Your nervous system achieves better balance too. One side of the human nervous system kicks in to energize us in moments of danger. The other side functions when we are resting, relaxing or growing. Meditation promotes a healthy balance between them.

When you practice meditation, your perception of the overall quality of your life is likely to improve, even if the circumstances of your life remain the same. And your overall ability to remain active and to handle the tasks of everyday living will also improve.

Benefits for Society

In communities that embrace meditation, measures of population health improve. One recent study conducted in Madison, Wisconsin, for example, examined the behavior of pre-K school children who participated in a “kindness curriculum” that included meditative breathing exercises. The children earned higher marks in academic performance measures and showed greater improvements in areas that predict future success than kids who had not. Other communities adopting mediation programs have had similar good outcomes.

To learn more about meditation and its impacts on health, visit the website of the National Center on Complementary and Integrative Health. Or read Full Catastrophe Living, a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Kristie Mitchell, M.D., is a board-certified integrative psychiatrist with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Woodbridge Medical Center.

Gene Gincherman is a board-certified emergency medicine physician with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. He sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente South Baltimore County Medical Center.

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