We can all take some time to slow down and breathe, as we’ve suggested a few times here on the Good Life blog.
We tend to glorify the idea of staying busy and being on-the-go.
Research and science, however, are suggesting that the levels of stress and anxiety that we consider “normal” can have some pretty unwanted and sometimes dangerous long term effects.
“In primary care, stress-related illnesses are known drivers of healthcare resource utilization in the US,” states a recent study. “Healthcare expenditures attributable to stress-related disorders, such as, depression and anxiety, were over 80 billion dollars/year in 2012.”
Meditation isn’t a cure-all for our health issues, but there is growing evidence that dedicating more time to mindfulness and relaxation can make significant improvements in overall well-being.
1. Lower blood pressure
The American Heart Association recently wrote that a regular meditation practice can lead to lower blood pressure and risk of cardiovascular disease.
“Meditation provides a technique for reducing stress,” says Dr. Richard A. Stein, professor of medicine and director of the exercise and nutrition program at New York University’s Center for Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease.
When we experience stress, adrenaline is released — it’s our body’s natural alarm system, when we’re provoked in some way. You might know this as the “fight or flight” response.
Living in this constant state of alarm, however, can have adverse effects.
“When we were cavemen, that adrenaline helped us be ready if a tiger was going to attack,” Dr. Stein said. “Today, all the tigers are in our heads.”
Making the time to meditate regularly has shown promising results for those suffering with cardiovascular issues.
In a 2012 study, “African-Americans with heart disease who practiced Transcendental Meditation regularly were 48 percent less likely to have a heart attack or stroke or die compared with African-Americans who attended a health education class over more than five years.”
2. Better memory
In a recent study at University of California, Santa Barbara, participants who underwent a two-week mindfulness course showed improvement in their reading comprehension and their “working memory capacity.”
“Improvements in performance following mindfulness training were mediated by reduced mind wandering among participants who were prone to distraction at pretesting,” states the study.
“Our results suggest that cultivating mindfulness is an effective and efficient technique for improving cognitive function, with wide-reaching consequences.”
3. Functional connectivity in the brain
Establishing a meditation practice as a regular part of your routine can actually change how your brain works.
In one study, “participants with more meditation experience exhibited increased connectivity within attentional networks, as well as between attentional regions and medial frontal regions [of the brain]. These neural relationships may be involved in the development of cognitive skills, such as maintaining attention and disengaging from distraction, that are often reported with meditation practice.”
To sum up: practice makes perfect. Training your brain to focus and to avoid getting fully distracted (as one does during meditation) are both skills that can be improved on, and even used outside of a meditation practice.
4. Treatment of depression
A recent research study tested the effects that meditation has on depression, compared with the effects of medication on the condition. The study found that “mindfulness meditation may rival antidepressants in easing the symptoms of depression.”
“Also relevant for physicians and patients is that there is no known major harm from meditating, and meditation doesn’t come with any known side effects,” said Dr. Madhav Goyal of Johns Hopkins. “One can also practice meditation along with other treatments one is already receiving.”
It’s not entirely clear how meditation helps depression, but studies have shown that a mindfulness practice like meditation reduces activity in both the amygdala (the stress center of the brain), as well as the brain’s “default mode network.”
5. Better grades, happier students (and teachers)
Students at Visitacion Valley Middle School in San Francisco were considered “largely out of control, frequently fighting in the corridors, scrawling graffiti on the walls and cursing their teachers.”
In 2007, the school implemented their “Quiet Time” program, and it’s something they’re still practicing today.
Twice a day, students settle into 10 minutes of quiet reflection. A gong sounds, and the students at Visitacion Valley sit still and try to clear their minds. (Yeah, middle school kids. Sitting still.)
Since 2007, other schools in the area have adopted Quiet Time.
“On the California Achievement Test, twice as many students in Quiet Time schools have become proficient in English, compared with students in similar schools where the program doesn’t exist, and the gap is even bigger in math,” reports the San Francisco Chronicle.
And the program isn’t just helping the students. “Teachers report they’re less emotionally exhausted and more resilient.”
Okay, so where do you start, if you’re new to meditation?
We don’t all have to be monks or live in a pastoral setting, in order to practice or benefit from meditation.
“Find what works for you,” says Dr. Stein from NYU. “Maybe it’s just listening to your favorite music while you walk at a moderate pace.”
And thankfully, you don’t need anything but your brain and your breath to meditate. There are a number of mobile apps and video tutorials on meditation, so you might look around to find something that makes sense for your own meditative needs.
I’ve listed a few helpful online guides below, as well.
What other ways do you practice mindfulness? Do you have a meditation practice? Feel free to comment below!
Need some relaxing inspiration? Here are a few of our favorite Soap Hope items!