It’s nearly holiday season, and for many people living lives with the volume turned to 11, this is not necessarily good tidings. The additional stressors and obligations of the holidays can threaten the delicate emotional balance they strive to maintain.
At this time of year especially, giving yourself the gift of a calm, tranquil mind brought about through the deep state of relaxation found in meditation can make all the difference in physical health and emotional well-being. This gift is free, simple, customizable, and portable -- and can be enjoyed with just a five-minute time investment.
Emotional benefits of meditation
Dedicating a daily chunk of time to stilling the mind, setting aside the information and sensory overload, quieting the incessant stream of ruminations and worries, and focusing attention elsewhere cuts down on stress levels. Results can include:
- Reducing negative emotions
- Managing anxiety disorders
- Relieving depression
- Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
- Building resiliency skills to manage daily challenges
- Increasing self-awareness and self-acceptance
- Focusing on the present, spending less time regretting the past or fearing the future
Physical health benefits of meditation
The indisputable link between chronic stress and physical illness is well established. The toll that chronic stress takes on the immune system over time can ultimately manifest an illness. Chronic stress:
- Suppresses the immune system and raises the risk of viral infection.
- Leads to the release of histamine, which can trigger severe constriction in the lung airways of asthmatics.
- Increases the risk for diabetes mellitus, especially in overweight individuals, by altering insulin levels.
- Affects the acid concentration in the stomach, which can lead to ulcers or ulcerative colitis.
- Encourages plaque buildup in the arteries, predisposing a person to stroke or heart disease.
Research suggests that meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and high blood pressure as well as offering a significant boost to the immune system, helping to ward off infections.
Cardiologist Herbert Benson, MD, founder of the Mind/Body Institute at Harvard Medical School's Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, attributes meditation’s potent ability to decrease stress and improve physical health to the relaxation response the body receives that “helps decrease metabolism, lowers blood pressure, and improves heart rate, breathing, and brain waves".
Other conditions helped by meditation include:
- Pain -- meditation therapy is very effective for both reducing the experience of pain and helping people manage the stress that comes with chronic pain.
- Premenstrual syndrome, infertility problems, and even breastfeeding can be improved when women meditate regularly, reports WebMD.
- Insomnia and sleep disturbances such as the inability to fall asleep or stay asleep.
Long-lasting benefits of meditation
The calming, balancing benefits of meditation don't end when your session ends. Studies on Buddhist monks reveal that “meditation produces long-lasting changes in the brain activity in areas involved in attention, working memory, learning, and conscious perception”. The monks who practiced Buddhist meditation also showed higher activity in areas associated with positive emotions such as happiness.
Keep it simple
There’s an oft-quoted old Zen adage: “You should sit in meditation for 20 minutes every day – unless you’re too busy; then you should sit for an hour.”
“But I can’t sit still for even 5 minutes,” you say? Meditate while you walk. Or use other forms of movement meditation, like qigong, tai chi, or yoga.
If one meditation method doesn't work for you, keep experimenting until you find your own sweet stress-relief spot. There is no "right" way to meditate, and there is no “best” place to drop in for a few minutes of sanity-restoring tranquility. Adapt meditation to your needs at the moment. If all you have is one spare minute, use it to breathe slowly and deeply from your stomach, and you’ll notice a significant calming and mind-clearing effect.
Check out our list of great apps that can help you learn how to reduce stress with mindfulness and meditation techniques in just minutes a day.