The physical, mental and emotional benefits of meditation have been studied extensively in recent years. While there’s still much to uncover about its potential, the practice has proven to be an effective tool that can help to improve our quality of life – reducing stress, improving attention, enhancing self-awareness and more.
We asked Dr Elena Touroni, consultant psychologist and co-founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic; Richard Reid, psychologist, author and founder of Pinnacle Therapy; and Valerie Teh, yoga, breathwork and meditation instructor at the House of Wisdom, to share advice about establishing a regular practice to enjoy the benefits of meditation:
1. Reduces stress
When stress strikes, your body releases stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol, causing a cascade of physiological effects. Chronic stress can have a catastrophic impact on your health, causing disrupted sleep, high blood pressure and impaired concentration. Practicing meditation affects the body in the direct opposite way that stress does, by triggering the body’s relaxation response. A brief mindfulness meditation practice – just 25 minutes for three consecutive days – is enough to alleviate stress, according to research.
2. Controls anxiety
Meditation is a powerful form of anxiety management that works by quieting the mind and reducing tension in your body. In a study of 89 patients with generalised anxiety disorder – characterised by chronic and excessive worrying – those who had undertaken a mindfulness meditation course exhibited ‘sharply reduced’ stress-hormone and inflammatory responses to a stressful situation. Meanwhile, patients who took a non-meditation stress management course recorded worsened responses.
3. Improves self-image
Meditation can lead to better emotional health by boosting your self-esteem and confidence. One study observed the brain activity of participants using an MRI scanner before and after completing a two-month meditation course. The participants showed increased self-esteem, increased positive and decreased negative self-endorsement, increased activity in a brain network related to regulating attention, and reduced activity in brain systems related to self-image.
4. Enhances self-awareness
Meditation can help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to people around you. This mindful self-awareness also allows you to recognise self-defeating thought patterns, and is associated with decreased activation of brain regions linked to rumination, according to research.
5. Lengthens your attention span
Meditation heightens your attention and concentration span, and you don’t have to practice for hours upon hours to enjoy the effects. Researchers at the University of Pennsylvania reported that small doses of daily meditation enhanced performance and the ability to focus attention, even for those new to the practice. Meditation may even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind-wandering and poor attention, according to one review.
6. Improves your memory
Mindfulness meditation acts on core brain networks that play a key role in many cognitive tasks. This includes ‘working memory’, which allows the brain to hold onto information temporarily – just ten minutes a day can improve working memory by 9 per cent, one study found. It can also help to fight age-related memory loss – a review of 12 scientific studies examining the potential effects of meditation on age-related cognitive decline found that the practice increased attention, memory and mental quickness in older participants.
7. Reduces depression symptoms
As well as altering brain chemistry to promote positive thinking and optimism, meditation teaches you to pay attention to thoughts and feelings and observe them without passing judgment. For this reason, it can help to ease symptoms of depression, which include low mood, sadness and low self-esteem. Meditation therapies have been shown to reduce symptoms in patients with clinical depressive disorders, according to one analysis.
8. Supports quality sleep
A short meditation in the evening can relax your body and mind, preparing you for a better night’s sleep. In a study that assessed the value of mindfulness meditation in the treatment of insomnia, participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer than those who didn’t.
9. Promotes rationality
Meditation regulates the functioning of the lateral prefrontal cortex, which is the part of the brain that is responsible for logic, reasoning and rational thinking. By cultivating awareness of the present moment and clearing the mind of other thoughts, the practice helps us feel more in control. Just one 15-minute breathing meditation may help people make smarter choices, according to research.
10. Reduces pain
Meditation has been shown to both reduce pain sensations in the body and build resilience to it, resulting in a greater ability to cope with pain. In fact, just ten minutes of mindfulness meditation could be used as an alternative to painkillers, according to research by Leeds Beckett University, which found the practice improved pain tolerance and threshold and decreased anxiety towards pain in participants. Another study, which assessed how meditation could be used to comfort the terminally ill, found that practising may help mitigate chronic pain at the end of life.
11. Assists with addiction treatment
Meditation can help people who are undergoing treatment for addiction by improving self-regulation and willpower, cultivating better awareness and understanding of triggers, and alleviating withdrawal symptoms. A small study of 19 recovering alcoholics found that participants who received meditation training reported a reduction in the severity of relapse triggers, which included depression, anxiety, stress, and cravings.
12. Can reduce blood pressure
High blood pressure puts stress on your heart, forcing it to work harder to pump blood around your body. It can also cause hardening and thickening of the arteries, which can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Meditating lowers blood pressure by altering the expression of genes – particularly immune system-linked genes – in a select set of biological pathways, according to research by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre.
13. Increases exercise tolerance
Many of the benefits of meditation go hand-in-hand with exercise, but the practice can also benefit your workout in a variety of ways. Not only does it help to clear limiting thoughts and self-beliefs – thus boosting motivation – but research has shown that people who intentionally focus on the feeling of moving and consciously take in their surroundings report enjoying exercise more than those who don’t.
Which meditation style has the most benefits?
Choosing between a guided and unguided meditation is often the first step in starting a meditation practice. Guided meditations use various techniques to anchor your wandering mind to a chosen point of focus, Teh explains.
These include, but are not limited to:
Focused attention, usually slowing and/or deepening the breath to calm the nervous system.
Body scans, leading your awareness away from the mind and to different parts of the body.
Visualisations, guiding you to create mental images or journeys and paying attention to the sensations that arise.
Sound baths, inviting awareness while vibrations from the sound flow through the whole body.
Mantras and affirmations, focusing on a word or phrase to focus on the present moment and intention.
By contrast, unguided meditation – also known as resting awareness – ‘asks that you let go of focus and return to a state of pure awareness,’ she says. ‘Try these different methods of meditation and see which ones resonate most – our minds all wander differently, and we carry different stresses, so I believe there is no one correct or best way for all to meditate.’
When should I practice meditation?
The benefits of meditation are not pertinent to a specific time of the day, so the best time to meditate will be different for everyone. Starting the day with a short meditation is great, says Dr Touroni, ‘because it gives you a sense of what emotional state you’re in so you can plan a day that is sensitive to that.’ Meanwhile, meditating at the end of the day ‘gives you a chance to wind down,’ she says. ‘A short three-minute breathing exercise can also be really beneficial in moments of stress, helping you create distance from the situation.’
How long should I meditate for?
While a daily practice is optimal, it doesn’t need to be a structured meditation, explains Dr Touroni. ‘It can be as simple as a five-minute meditation exercise to start your day’ he says. ‘A daily practice is the kind of frequency where you’ll start to see the benefits of staying in the present moment, and the consistency will also make it easier to turn into a habit.’
Feel free to experiment with different durations, depending on your schedule. Not only is short meditation better than none at all, but once you get started, you might decide that you’d like to continue meditating for longer.
‘Start with an amount of time that feels easy to incorporate into your current routine and commitments – I like to say ‘take 10 slow breaths’ and start there as a baseline,’ says Teh. ‘Build your way up to at least 10 minutes a day, or 15 to 30 minutes a few times each week, depending on your level of stress and reactivity when you arrive at your meditation.’
How soon will I feel the benefits?
It’s different for different people, says Dr Touroni. ‘Some people see results very quickly – within a week, for instance – others take longer,’ she says. It largely comes down to whether you’re able to relax into it, and engage with the practice in a non-judgmental way. Some people find themselves making judgements on whether they’re doing it ‘right’. In these cases, it can take a bit longer to see results.’
Additionally, different types of practices work for different people, so there’s as aspect of finding your groove. ‘Some people prefer an external focus – e.g. bringing their attention to sounds in the room,’ Dr Touroni continues. ‘Other people find focusing on the breath the most grounding. It’s about working out what works for you.’
How to start a regular meditation practice
Commit to meditating each day for a week, says Teh. This could be guided, unguided or a bit of both, ‘for an amount of time that feels easily achievable to you,’ she says, ‘one minute, 10 breaths or whatever is right. It can help to add it into your daily morning routine every day, or take this time for yourself during your lunch break each day.’
And if you miss a day, ‘carry on without guilting or shaming yourself,’ Teh continues. ‘Life is busy! When you do manage to commit to a short daily practice, and feel the benefits it brings, you are more likely to make time for meditation for the rest of the month, year, or your life.’
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