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How meditation can calm your brain
Learn how this ancient practice can have modern-day cognitive benefits.
Even in retirement, you can have a lot on your plate. Maybe your schedule is full of doctor appointments and family visits. Or, you have a busy calendar of social meetups and exercise classes. Do you feel like you’re constantly on the go and never have a chance to just breathe? Maybe the ancient practice of meditation could be right for you.
If you’re curious about what meditation is and how to do it, read on. Keep in mind that you don’t have to devote a lot of time and energy to learning it or even doing it. But the health benefits are big, both for your brain and your overall physical health.
Here’s what you need to know about meditation and how to get started.
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What is meditation, and how do I do it?
Rooted in Eastern religions such as Buddhism, meditation is a practice that seeks to sharpen your awareness and concentration. And that begins and ends with your breath. “The goal is to calm your mind and relax your body,” says licensed acupuncturist Tom Ingegno, D.A.C.M. He is the owner of Charm City Integrative Health in Baltimore.
Here are some places you can meditate:
- Lying down in bed or on the couch
- Sitting in a lotus position on the floor
- Sitting in a parked car or on the subway
- While you’re walking your dog
Some people like to close their eyes while they meditate. But you can certainly keep your eyes open (that can come in handy when you’re walking your dog!).
And there are a lot of different styles, too. That type you may have seen where someone sits cross-legged with eyes closed while chanting “om” is called mantra meditation. Other forms include:
- Loving-kindness meditation
- Tai chi
- Walking meditation
You can meditate in a group, with a coach, or by yourself.
You also may have seen the word “mindfulness” used when talking about meditation. That simply means your ability to focus on what’s happening in this exact moment without any judgment. And while meditation is a practice, like brain training, mindfulness is just a way of being.
“You’re more focused on what you’re feeling and what you’re thinking in the moment without the judgment piece of it,” says Jameca W. Cooper, Ph.D. She is president and clinical director of Emergence Psychological Services in St. Louis.
What are the health benefits of meditation?
Some studies have shown that meditation can help with a range of health issues, including:
- Anxiety and depression
- Chronic pain
- Insomnia and sleep quality
- Post-traumatic stress disorder
- Substance use disorders
- Weight management
In one study, participants did a 10-minute guided meditation session, five days per week for four weeks. Afterwards, researchers reported increased levels of self-compassion and decreased levels of depression.
In another study, which involved people with systemic lupus erythematosus (an autoimmune disease), a six-month program of mindfulness-based stress reduction led to improvements in quality of life, pain tolerance, illness perception, and depression.
Keep in mind that you won’t experience the long-term brain health benefits from just a few meditation sessions. Just like you won’t build muscle after just a few trips to the gym.
“There’s so many benefits, but unfortunately, they reveal themselves over time,” says Ingegno. “You don’t get them all right up front.” In fact, he points out, it took him a few years before meditation became a daily habit.
Ingegno also explains that consistency is more important than duration. “Have some compassion, some tenderness for yourself,” he advises. That could mean starting by meditating for just two minutes and working your way up. Don’t get down on yourself if it feels like nothing. Think of your practice as a work in progress.
How can I use meditation to fight stress?
A major benefit of meditation is that it can help reduce stress. Even a quick breathing exercise, Ingegno says, might be able to get your body out of fight-or-flight mode. That’s the reaction it has when your brain perceives you’re in danger.
But if you’re stressed all the time, your body’s constantly in fight-or-flight mode and that can be bad for your health. Chronic stress increases your risk of developing:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Skin problems
“If you can reverse any of the damage that has been incurred as a result of chronic stress, that’s huge,” says Cooper.
Chronic stress can also affect your brain health. It can cause it to change, eventually leading to problems with memory. It can also put you at higher risk of brain-related conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.
Mediation can act as a way to de-stress by quieting the mind, says Ingegno. Imagine mediation as a way to sweep away chaotic thoughts from your brain and lead you to a more calming way of thinking.
How do I start meditating?
It may sound backwards, but using your smartphone is a great way to start learning how to meditate. Both Cooper and Ingegno recommend apps such as Calm and Headspace, which offer short, guided meditations on a range of topics. For example, U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, M.D., worked with Calm on creating a free five-part series of guided meditations.
Other tips for finding meditation resources include:
- Do a quick search for “meditation” or “meditation classes” on the web.
- Browse Netflix (where Headspace has a series).
- Check your community’s website or social media page for in-person classes, guided meditations, or talks.
- Check the self-help or spirituality sections at your local bookstore.
- Explore YouTube.
While many of those resources will focus on a particular form of meditation, Ingegno emphasizes that there’s no one right way to do it. “Whatever gets you to that calm relaxed state is going to work,” he says.
Ultimately, the best way to reap the rewards is by devoting consistent time to self-care through meditation. “It’s just so hard for people to carve out time for themselves,” says Cooper. “If I can get individuals to do even 10 minutes a day — or 10 minutes a few times a week — I call that a success.”
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Meditation and mindfulness: National Institutes of Health
Health benefits of meditation: National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health
Psychological effects: JMIR Formative Research
Meditation and stress: Journal of Clinical Medicine
Cognition and older adults: National Institute on Aging