Life is busier than ever. Demanding jobs and over-packed schedules. Raising kids and caring for aging parents. The constant interruptions of devices and the stream of worrisome news in the media. It’s no wonder you’re stressed out and just plain tired. Over time, that constant state-of-being can have a negative impact on your health.
Here’s the good news, spending as little as 10 minutes a day in meditation (or mindfulness, as it’s sometimes called) can help relieve stress and dramatically improve your mental and physical wellbeing.
What is meditation and how does it work?
As you move through your day, it can feel like your brain is on a treadmill. Sometimes the pace speeds up; sometimes it slows down, but as long as your brain is on that treadmill, it’s constantly moving. Meditation gives your brain and body permission to step off the treadmill and catch your breath—it lets you pause and helps focus your mind.
At its most basic, mindfulness is the practice of being present in the moment. You’re not running down your to-do list (or your haven’t-done list); you’re not remembering an argument or worrying about bills. Instead, you’re training yourself to focus on one specific thing. It may be the rhythm of your breathing, a sensation in your body, or the sounds around you. That doesn’t mean those interrupting, noisy thoughts won’t pop up. They will. Your goal is to simply acknowledge them and let them pass without engaging, returning to your point of focus as often as you need.
Some days, that’s easier said than done, and that’s ok. It’s called “practice” for a reason.
Is meditation right for you?
The answer for most people, is yes, whether or not they know it.
Those who are unfamiliar with the practice of mindfulness often think it “won’t work” for them—they’re simply not able to sit still for that long. Or they’re simply not interested in “navel-gazing.”
Like learning anything new, meditation takes a willingness to try and patience to learn. With practice, it becomes easier and more comfortable. As you start to experience the benefits, you’ll understand why time spent meditating may be one of the best things you can do for yourself. Here are just a few reasons.
1. Reduces Stress
When bodies experience stress, they react in that “fight-or-flight” mode—an important response when in danger. But when stress becomes an everyday presence in your life over time, it can cause physical damage.
Meditation has the opposite effect in that it restores the mind to calmness and brings the body to a more physically relaxed state. The benefits can be immediate, but studies are also showing that a regular practice can help reduce stress and provide emotional and physical resilience over time.
2. Improves Heart Health
According to a 2017 statement published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, the practice of meditation may play a role in reducing the risk of heart disease. In one study, experts found that, on average, meditation lowered systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 4.7 milligrams of mercury and diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) by 3.2 mm Hg.
In a study published in the journal Stroke, 60 African-Americans with heart disease practiced meditation for 6-9 months. The meditators showed a significant decrease in the thickness of their artery walls, while those who didn’t meditate actually showed an increase. The result for the meditators is important in that it could potentially bring an 11 percent decrease in the risk of heart attack and an 8-15 percent reduction in the risk of stroke.
3. Helps Control Anxiety
A study published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that a mindfulness-based stress reduction program helps calm anxiety symptoms in people with general anxiety disorder. People with this condition live with hard-to-control worries, and experience general irritability and poor sleep. Speaking of poor sleep, mindfulness can also help with that.
4. Improves Sleep
For people who live with insomnia or other sleep issues, doing meditation before bedtime or when trying to fall asleep can make the mind calmer and relax muscles, which makes the body more receptive to sleep.
5. May Reduce Age-Related Memory Loss
Various studies have found that people who practice meditation (and yoga, but that’s a topic for another day) show less atrophy in the hippocampus. This is the part of the brain that becomes shrunken in people with Alzheimer’s.
Other studies have shown that meditation increases the brain’s cortical thickness (associated with memory and decision-making) as well as gray matter, which otherwise tends to shrink with age.
Speaking of memory—know how we just talked about how meditation reduces stress? Turns out an abundance of the stress hormone, cortisol, has been shown to increase the risk of developing dementia.
How to Start a Meditation Practice
The best thing about meditation is it’s totally yours. You decide when and where and how long works best for you. It doesn’t require any special equipment or a gym membership, but classes and support groups are widely available. You can give it a try with a simple search for “Beginner Meditation.” Plus there are apps (paid and free) you can add to your phone for greater flexibility.
But given all the proven health benefits—not to mention offering yourself a pause in your busy life—isn’t it worth giving meditation a try?
Written by Amy Klinger for Matcha in partnership with Blue Cross Blue Shield of AL and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.