Meditation is a relaxation technique designed to still the mind, improve your breathing, and create a sense of inner peace. By focusing your mind on a particular object, thought, or activity – you can train your attention and awareness to achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm state.
What is Meditation?
Meditation has been practised in cultures all over the world for thousands of years and stems from Eastern traditions including Ayurvedic Medicine and Traditional Chinese Medicine. Although it is often used for religious purposes, the majority of people today practice it independently from any beliefs. In recent times it has also been used as a therapeutic aid, and will likely continue to develop as researchers learn more about the benefits and applications for the practice.
Which meditation technique should I use?
There are dozens of techniques, so it can take some time until you find the one that works best for you. The most commonly used are focused attention and mindful meditation.
Focus attention is where you focus only on one thing such as your breathing, a particular object or a part of your body. When you feel your mind starts to wander you continually bring your attention and focus back to that focal point. This object may be the breath, a mantra, visualization, part of the body, external object, etc. As you advance in your practice, the ability to keep the flow of attention in the chosen object gets stronger, and distractions become less common and short-lived.
Examples of these are Chakra, Kundalini, Sound, Mantra, Pranayama, some forms of Qigong, and many more.
Open-monitored meditation is where you pay attention to all of the things happening around you. This can be the space you are in or the sounds around you at that time. In this instance, you are observing without forcing your thoughts. Instead of focusing the attention on any one object, you keep it open, monitoring all aspects of your experience, without judgment or attachment. All thoughts, feelings, memories, sounds or smells are recognized and seen for what they are. It is the process of observing without reacting or going into them.
Examples are Mindfulness, Vipassana, as well as some types of Taoist Meditation.
What is the difference between mindfulness and meditation?
You may have heard these two words before, and often talked or written about in the same context. So what is actually the difference? While mindfulness and meditation are connected, they are not the same. The easiest way to describe the difference is that mindfulness is a quality and meditation is a practice. And The goal is to achieve a state of mindfulness through a practice like meditation.
Five benefits of Meditation
Better focus and concentration
A study from Harvard Medical School (2011) found a connection between meditation and processing new information. The study showed an increase in grey matter in the part of the brain responsible for memory, emotional regulation and learning. Another study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University (2016) showed that meditation can improve decision making and overall concentration levels.
In 2013 researchers analyzed more than 200 studies on meditation, and came to the conclusion that it is an effective way to reduce stress. The stress hormones, like cortisol and adrenaline, activate our ‘sympathetic nervous system’. This in turn prepares the body for fight-or-flight scenarios by increasing the heart rate, raising blood pressure, quickening breathing, switching off digestion, and firing-up muscle cells. Meditation helps to dampen down those stress hormones and switches the body towards the ‘parasympathetic nervous system’. Also known as the rest-and-digest nervous system, as it restores relaxation, balance and harmony within the body.
Manage anxiety or depression
Mixed anxiety & depression is the most common mental disorder in Britain, with 7.8% of people meeting criteria for diagnosis. Meditation has been proven to help dissipate anxiety, worry, tension, restlessness, sleep issues and grief. Done on a regular basis, it can improve mental clarity, activate creativity and help you to focus on the present. Therefore preventing overthinking that can often lead to fuelling underlying depression and anxiety.
JAMA Internal Medicine published a study where they had found evidence that meditation helped ease depression and anxiety in participants. Another study found evidence suggesting that the practice can help people with anxiety to calm their minds and reduce symptoms of depression, including loss of appetite and trouble with sleep. At Stanford University, 14 participants with social anxiety disorder participated in a study on meditation training over the course of two months. The study showed decreased anxiety and improved self-esteem in the participants. Finally, a study by Filip Raes on 400 adolescent students in Belgium showed that when they participated in mindful meditation programs, they had a noticeable reduction in depression, negative thinking, and stress for up to six months after the training.
Meditation can help alter the brain receptors associated with addiction and reduce overall addictive behaviours. It stimulates and trains your brain to be happy and naturally “high”, without the need for addictive substances to feel good.
A study published in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation (2018) found that meditation can help prevent future relapses for people with a substance use disorder. This is because meditation stimulates and trains your brain to be happy and naturally “high” without having the need for addictive substances to feel good. It also produces a therapeutic effect that helps regulate how the brain experiences pleasure.
Overcoming substance abuse at any age requires a lot of self-control and discipline. Meditation helps in breaking the barrier of dry dependence. Research shows that implementing sessions in rehabilitation programs can help a patient with substance dependence or addiction to control impulses and reduce withdrawal symptoms.
It has also shown that substance abusers who regularly meditate, show less aggression and craving.
Meditation builds resilience to pain.
A study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) found that mindful meditation reduces pain sensations in the body without using the brain’s natural opiates. The research suggested that combining the practices with medication for treating pain conditions like osteoarthritis, headaches, and other chronic pains can be useful for providing long-term remedies.
How can I begin to meditate?
For some, it can feel like a daunting task trying to learn meditation. If you prefer to take a class or a course for a more one-to-one experience, there are plenty to choose from. A class will usually last between 30-60 minutes, you will either sit on the floor, on a chair or lay down on a mat. It is a good idea to wear something warm and comfortable. You also have other options ranging from apps dedicated to mindfulness, youtube videos and podcasts to help you familiarise yourself with the concept and the various methods of meditation.
How do I find Meditation to suit me?
It’s worth trying a few different styles in order to find the one that suits you the best. Some people find Guided Meditation a good style to start with as this helps focus the mind on a ‘journey’ towards relaxation. The more your practice the easier it gets. Once you’ve learned how to achieve ‘passive alertness’ you can use meditation as a daily tool to help improve your wellbeing.
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