Wednesday, December 2, 2015

A Simple Form of Meditation 4 Better Mental Health

      My brain has always been set on overdrive, constantly thinking and questioning. Because of that, I used to believe that meditation was something that was outside the realm of possibility for me. I am happy to announce that I was wrong. No one needs to be a reclusive mystic to benefit from meditation. I can honestly say that using guided meditations proved to be simple. They have had an enormous, positive impact on my life over the years. No one has to take my word for it either. The science behind meditation is as strong as it is wonderful.

      I’m going to cover the science first, because if someone doesn’t believe it will work, there’s no chance he/she will even try it. There has been many high quality, reliable scientific studies done on meditation. The way I see it, two problems have arisen from all the attention researchers have paid to this topic. First, some take the science and make inflated, ridiculous claims about it, which causes many to dismiss it outright. The sad thing is, the science doesn’t need to be embellished. It is astounding on its own. The second problem is that much of the research can be confusing due to all the technical names for different areas and functions of the brain. Many people’s eyes begin to glaze over when they hear about it. I’m going to bypass those two problems by showing exactly what the science says (no exaggerated claims) and by cutting out the technical jargon so that it makes sense.  One does not have to discuss the anterior cingulate cortex, gray matter, the prefrontal cortex, neuroplasticity,  the hippocampus, the amygdala or our default mode network to get the point across.

      The most important thing to understand is that, to a certain extent, we can change our brains fundamental structure and wiring. Thank goodness! I’ll take all the rewiring I can get. All kidding aside, this is fantastic news. Dr. Britta H√∂lzel, the lead author of the study Harvard University recently published, wrote: “It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life. Other studies in different patient populations have shown that meditation can make significant improvements in a variety of symptoms, and we are now investigating the underlying mechanisms in the brain that facilitate this change.”
      Dr. Sara Lazar of the MGH Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program and a Harvard Medical School instructor in psychology was recently discussing their latest study when she said: “Although the practice of meditation is associated with a sense of peacefulness and physical relaxation, practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day. This study demonstrates that changes in brain structure may underlie some of these reported improvements and that people are not just feeling better because they are spending time relaxing.” In other words, when people are meditating they are not merely feeling better because they are participating in a relaxing activity. They are changing the way in which their brain is structured, thus improving the way in which they experience life.

      Meditation has been shown to slow thinking, ease anxiety and help relieve symptoms from depression. Racing thoughts and an overactive, wandering mind exacerbate the symptoms of many mental illnesses. Researchers at Yale showed in their study that meditating can dramatically cut those wandering, racing thoughts down. It appears that slow, steady, consistent thinking and the ability to take a step back, become more aware, more accepting, less judgmental and less reactive allows us to respond to our worlds instead of mindlessly reacting to them.

       Meditation isn’t limited to its effects on the brain. Many cardiologists have begun to prescribe meditation to their patients. Dr. Deepak Bhatt, a professor at Harvard Medical School, was speaking of meditation when he wrote: “It appears to produce changes in brain activity. It also can lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress. I do recommend it, along with diet and exercise. It can also help decrease the sense of stress and anxiety.” The fact that meditation affects the entire body, and contributes to overall health, is fantastic news. Good physical health has long been associated with better mental health.

      While no researcher or scientist has claimed to cure any mental illness with meditation, they have validated the long-standing claim that meditation can work wonders at helping to reduce symptoms and improve overall wellbeing. There is no downside here. It can be done for free (or nearly free) and, if done properly, the only side effects appear to be better mental and physical health.
      Please notice that I said the only side effects appear to be better mental and physical health if done properly. That is a big IF! For those of us who experience mental illnesses, emotional issues, or those who have traumatic memories, meditation can be harmful if done incorrectly. There are two simple ways to make sure that the experiences are beneficial. The first is to work with a well-respected, experienced meditation teacher. The other is to use guided meditation. Personally, I have always used guided meditations, because they are free/inexpensive, and I can take them with me wherever I go.

      If there is a simpler and safer version of meditation, I haven’t found it yet. Having someone guide my thoughts and breathing throughout my meditation is a must for me. I can quickly spiral into over-thinking and negative places if I try to meditate without assistance. That can leave me feeling worse than when I started. That is NOT what I am looking for from meditation. With guided meditations there is no need to practice, no skills to master, no worries about becoming bored and quitting and little chance of having a bad experience.

      I have guided meditation CDs, podcasts, playlists on my phone and videos saved on YouTube. I can’t use the excuses that I don’t know how or don’t have the time. There are millions available in varying formats ranging in areas of focus, length and breathing rates. I went digging and found the ones that I like best. It was a simple process and has paid me back in ways I could have never imagined.

      The beautiful thing is that now I have so many saved that I can quickly find the right one for whatever the occasion may call for. I have meditations that range from a few minutes to two hours. I can find a few minutes in my day to take deep breaths, refocus and improve my mental health. It’s that simple.

      Below is an example of a short guided meditation. It's three minutes long. I am not saying this is the perfect meditation for anyone. It is simply a quick and easy meditation to use as an example.

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       As always, I wish you wonderful mental health and great successes eating healthy meals. If you, or someone you love, is severely depressed or anxious, please click the link to the right and you will be directed to the International Association for Suicide Prevention. It is an excellent resource and is staffed by wonderful people.
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