Just Breathe: How to Use Meditation to Manage Stress
Many of us use exercise to improve the health of our bodies. But what about using meditation to improve the health of our minds?
Just as jogging tones the leg muscles and push-ups strengthen the arms, meditation has been found to change the physical structure of the brain and even change the expression of our genes, leading to an increased sense of well-being, better memory, and a more robust immune system. Meditation, which effectively decreases the stress hormone cortisol, has even been introduced to the US Marines to help soldiers combat anxiety, insomnia, and depression.
Meditation is found in spiritual traditions worldwide—Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam—but at its heart it is a non-religious practice that doesn't ask you to believe in any higher power or engage in spiritual thinking. All it asks is that you focus—on your breath, on your thoughts, or on any problems you might be having.
Never meditated before? It's easy to get started. First, find a quiet corner in your house where you can sit without being interrupted. Decide on a time period in which to meditate—five or ten minutes is plenty when beginning—and set a timer for yourself. Choose a posture that's comfortable for you: sitting cross-legged on the floor on a pillow, kneeling on the floor with a pillow between your legs, or simply sitting on a chair. Rest your hands in your lap or on your knees. Regardless of the posture you choose, it's important to keep the spine straight and to wear loose clothing, especially around the knees, so you don't cut off your circulation. Keep your eyes slightly open—closing them tends to promote sleepiness—and focus on a spot on the ground just in front of you.
There are literally scores of different types of meditations to choose from, but these four basic non-secular types are perfect for beginners:
This type of meditation allows you to focus on a single subject—usually the breath—so that all other thoughts fall away and your mind becomes clear. Sitting in concentrative meditation is like hitting a "reset" button in your brain, allowing you to return refreshed to your responsibilities. This is especially beneficial in our fast-paced, attention-deficit, overly busy world.
After getting into your meditation posture, simply focus on the sensation of breath entering and leaving your nostrils. If you feel your focus drifting, just bring it back to the breath. It may be helpful to count your breaths in cycles of five to keep your attention from wandering. Remember that the mind will wander—this is what the mind does. When it wanders, don't get discouraged—just bring the mind back to the breath. Concentrating fully on even a single inhale and exhale is an accomplishment.
Mindfulness meditation allows you to calmly observe your thoughts and uncover the negative thought patterns that your mind tends to fall into.
Begin by focusing on the breath. When thoughts arise, do not force them away. Instead, detach yourself from them, thinking of them as neither right nor wrong, and simply observe them as they come and go, like clouds in the sky or a twig in a stream. It may be helpful to label your thoughts into categories—such as "memory" or "planning" or "worries"—so that you can see where your mind tends to wander. This simple practice of observation and acceptance helps to cultivate an open, nonjudgmental attitude toward yourself and toward others in your life.
In a guided meditation, you follow the instructions of an experienced meditator to explore a topic that's been bothering you and work toward resolving it. Guided meditation asks you to focus on and think through a difficulty—such as interpersonal problems, anxiety, or anger—so that you can view it objectively and eventually lessen its impact on your mind.
This type of meditation doesn't require sitting and can be done at any time: while walking down the street, chopping vegetables for dinner, or getting ready in the morning. All it requires is a moment-to-moment mindfulness of whatever you are doing. When you are chopping vegetables, concentrate on chopping vegetables; when you are eating lunch, concentrate on eating lunch; when you are cleaning the kitchen, focus on every little movement that you do while cleaning the kitchen. This practice helps you stay in the moment, preventing your mind from wandering into the past, into the future, or into speculation. By focusing and clearing the mind, it helps reduce stress, worries, and other mental clutter
Interested in learning more about meditation? UCLA Health offers a selection of free guided meditations on its website. Other non-secular resources for meditation include: actionforhappiness.org, acem.com, and meditationfoundation.org.