To keep our bodies healthy, we often discuss the importance of going to regular doctor and dental visits, exercising, and eating right. But what about your mental health? As of 2017, one in five Americans are living with a mental illness and an estimated 31.3% of US adults will experience an anxiety disorder during their lifetime. At the same time, about 17.3 million (or 7.1%) of American adults have had at least one major depressive episode.
With the prevalence of mental health issues, and our ever-increasing daily stress, meditation has become a popular respite from the hustle and bustle of everyday life. Although this ancient practice has been around for over 5,000 years, we’re taking a modern look at meditation to explain what it is, why it’s beneficial, and how you can start meditating.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that focuses your mind. In modern times, meditation is used as a tool to help you understand your emotions, increase mindfulness, and become more present. Although meditation is typically practiced in a seated position with your eyes closed, practitioners aren’t “doing nothing” - they’re actively concentrating on a single object, training their awareness, or following their breath.
Benefits of Meditation
One of the most immediate and well-known benefits of meditation is the calming effect it provides. However, in recent years, more and more scientific studies have been conducted to understand the benefits of this ancient practice. Current research suggests meditation can improve your relationships, reduce aggression,and increase your resilience to stress. Meditation can also help:
Reduce Symptoms Of Anxiety: In a 2014 study, researchers found that meditation had a moderate effect on improving anxiety. While this result doesn’t prove that meditation can take the place of anxiety medication or other more traditional treatments, it does show that meditation can play a role in supporting mental health and can contribute to reducing psychological stress. Plus, the anxiety-reducing benefit of meditation can last for years!
Reduce Distracting Thoughts & Improve Working Memory: Mindfulness meditation requires you to focus on the present, and with practice, you can train your brain to stop wandering both during and after meditation sessions. One study showed that after just 2 weeks of mindfulness training, participants improved their working memory while simultaneously reducing distracting thoughts.
Increase Gray Matter In Your Brain: Another fascinating study found that regular meditation can actually affect the structure of the brain. After 8 weeks of regular meditation, participants’ brains were inspected using an MRI. Results showed an increased thickness in the hippocampus, which is responsible for learning and memory. At the same time, there was a decrease in volume of the amygdala, which is responsible for stress, fear, and anxiety.
How To Start Meditating
“Meditation” is an umbrella term that describes many types of practices, such as mindfulness meditation, mantra meditation, focused meditation, and many others. If you’re completely new to meditation, try out a few different types to see what you like best. Apps like Headspace, Calm, or The Mindfulness App have a variety of meditation options with varying lengths so you can find what works for you and build up to longer sessions. If you want a more guided approach to meditation, check out meditation classes in your area or find a teacher that offers one-on-one practices. Just make sure you check the times when you sign up - some classes can last up to 45 minutes, which may be too much if you’re just getting started.
Our minds are so used to jumping from one thing to the next that learning to be mindful is much more difficult than it sounds, and you’ll need consistent practice to fully reap the benefits of meditation. However, meditation, just like a healthy diet and exercise, is a great way to improve your overall health and strengthen your mental well-being.