Last week, we discussed a four-pronged approach to combating stress. After identifying what causes you stress, eliminating what you can, and altering how you respond to what you can’t eliminate, the final step in the process is to train your brain to better handle everything that’s left.
This week, we’re going a little deeper into that discussion of meditation: What it is (and isn’t), how it works, and how to do it.
What Meditation Actually Is
Many people view meditation as an out-there, hippy-dippy practice of “clearing your mind” and finding yourself in a state of complete relaxation and blankness. Others equate meditation with relaxation or stress relief, saying things like “Yoga [running, washing dishes, hiking, etc.] is my meditation.”
While those activities can help relieve immediate stress, neither is meditation.
Think of meditation as exercise for your brain. Much like physical exercise, meditation is an active process that prepares you to better handle tough situations in the future. While exercising your body will make it easier to lift your suitcase into the overhead compartment, meditation will make it easier to deal with the screaming baby throughout the whole flight (it’s not his fault, anyway, guys…).
Yes, you may have routines and hobbies that relax you and reduce stress, and those are great! Keep ‘em up. But having them doesn’t mean you don’t also need a meditation practice.
How Meditation Works
In a general sense, meditation helps separate you from your thoughts (and, thus, their emotional hold on you). Though the action is not “clearing your mind,” so to speak, the result actually is in a way. With continued practice, meditation allows you to simply let go of and not dwell on unpleasant, unhelpful, and damaging thoughts.
A 2010 study published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science used an interesting real-time surveying method to gather data about what people were doing, what they were thinking about while doing it, and how they felt at the time. They found, among other things, that “people’s minds wandered frequently, regardless of what they were doing,” that they “were less happy when their minds were wandering than when they were not,” and that “what people were thinking was a better predictor of their happiness than was what they were doing.”
Our minds wander. There’s really no way around it. But if left unchecked, this wandering can (and very easily does) lead to some pretty unpleasant outcomes. This is not to say that you will eventually think yourself into a teary-eyed, useless mess rocking back-and-forth on the floor; rather, it means that the consistent—if not constant—impact of stressful thoughts can have some very real consequences on both your emotional and physical well-being.
Stress is not just “all in your head.” As my high school psychology teacher (Hi, Ms. Shelnutt!) was fond of saying, “Everything psychological is simultaneously biological.” In other words, there is no feeling without a corresponding physical process occurring in the brain.
Take stress, for example.
It has long been established that stress triggers the release of cortisol, and that elevated cortisol is associated with excess belly fat. This is not a very controversial fact. When studying the effects of stress on belly fat levels, the authors of this study found that women with a high Waist-to-Hip Ratio “were characterized by poorer coping skills” than their low WHR counterparts. Poorer coping skills, eh? Sounds like a stress management issue to me...
Meditation isn’t “all in your head,” either. Research continues to show that a meditation practice makes actual, physical changes to the brain (changes that can help keep your brain healthy as you age).
How to Meditate
There are myriad methods and philosophies for practicing meditation. I have not studied up on them all, and I really don’t see a need to: if you find one that works for you, great! I cannot speak to the efficacy every different method, but I can tell you one thing: in my opinion, meditation apps can be a good start, but they should not wholly comprise your practice.
Give this a try…
Find a quiet, dark place. It doesn’t need to be pitch black, but some darkness helps. Sit up tall in a chair with your back unsupported (it can be argued that you can really do this from any position, but supporting your own back forces you to focus rather than to relax). Set a timer for three minutes, close your eyes, and focus on your breathing. Don’t change your breathing. Don’t try to control or manipulate it. Just focus on it. Notice it. Be aware of it. In. Out.
Now here’s the thing: your mind IS going to wander. It just is. And it’s fine because that’s not the point. Every time your mind wanders, simply notice that you’ve wandered and bring your focus back to your breathing.
The point is not to stop your mind from wandering—that’s impossible. The point is to bring it back when it does wander. In fact, that, specifically, is where the benefit of meditation comes from: noticing you’ve wandered and bringing your focus back. That is also why I don’t believe that apps should do all the work: if the app is doing all of the attention-focusing for you, then your brain isn’t really getting the full benefit of the workout.
The effects of a consistent meditation practice can be felt rather quickly. While meditating, you’re learning how to stop thoughts in their tracks and refocus on what you’re doing. In life, this translates to catching yourself holding onto stressful thoughts or heading down an unpleasant thought-train...
“My boss hates me and I’m going to get fired and then I’ll lose my house and we’ll have to move back in with my parents and my kids will have to leave their school and they’ll end up resenting me and they’ll never talk to me and when they have kids I’ll never get to see them and oh, God!, I’m too young to be a grandparent but actually I’m not getting any younger and…”
We’ve all been there. The what ifs and the should’ves and the how could theys are an ever present part of modern human life, but they don’t have to control you. They don’t have to have any power over you, actually. They’re not helpful. They’re not effective. They stress you out. And as we’ve seen, this stress has both emotional and physical effects.
So give it a shot. Issue yourself a challenge, even, and try working a quick, three-minute meditation into your day for two weeks straight. Eventually, we’ll increase that a little bit—never beyond 10 minutes, if even that—but a short, consistent practice is really all it takes.
Other than a few minutes (a few minutes you won’t miss and will be glad you took), what have you got to lose? And I can tell you, there’s a LOT to gain.