by Dr. Thomas K. Lo, Advanced Chiropractic & Nutritional Healing Center
Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being. Mind and body practices focus on the interactions among the brain, mind, body, and behavior.
Many studies have looked at how meditation may be helpful for a variety of conditions, such as high blood pressure, stress, certain psychological disorders, and pain. A number of studies also have helped researchers learn how meditation may work and how it affects the brain.
While there are many definitions of mindfulness, one that encompasses the basic idea is “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment.” Being present involves acknowledging and accepting your feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, while not being overly reactive or overwhelmed by them.
What Is the Difference Between Mindfulness and Meditation?
Meditation is an ancient practice, and there are many ways to meditate—mindfulness being one of them.
There are usually four elements in common with all meditative practices. The first is being in a quiet location with as few distractions as possible. The second is being in a specific, comfortable posture (sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions). The third is focusing your attention (a specially chosen word or set of words, an object, or the sensations of the breath). The fourth practice is having an open attitude (letting distractions come and go naturally without judging them).
What Science Studies are Finding About the Effectiveness of Meditation?
Many studies have investigated meditation for different conditions. There is evidence that it reduces blood pressure, as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It also is helpful for symptoms of anxiety and depression and for helping people with insomnia.
In a 2016 NCCIH-funded study, adults ages 20 to 70 who had chronic low-back pain received one of the following treatments: either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), or traditional care. The MBSR and CBT participants had a similar level of improvement, and it was greater than those who got traditional care, including long after the training ended.
Results of a 2009 NCCIH-funded trial involving 298 university students suggest that practicing Transcendental Meditation lowers the blood pressure of people at increased risk of developing high blood pressure.
The findings also suggested that practicing meditation helps with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping ability.
A 2014 literature review of 47 trials of 3,515 participants suggested that mindfulness meditation programs show evidence of improving anxiety and depression. A 2012 review of 36 trials found that 25 of them reported better outcomes for symptoms of anxiety in the meditation groups compared to control groups.
In a small, NCCIH-funded study, 54 adults with chronic insomnia learned mindfulness-based stress reduction, showing a significantly greater reduction in insomnia severity compared with non-meditative procedures.
A 2014 research review suggested that mind and body practices, including meditation, reduce chemical identifiers of inflammation and show promise in helping to regulate the immune system.
Results from a 2013 NCCIH-supported study involving 49 adults suggest that eight weeks of mindfulness training may reduce stress-induced inflammation better than a health program that includes physical activity, education about diet, and music therapy.
Some research has also suggested that meditation may physically change the brain and body and could potentially help to improve many health problems and promote healthy behaviors.
In a 2012 study, researchers compared brain images from 50 adults who meditate and 50 adults who do not meditate. Results suggested that people who practiced meditation for many years have more folds in the outer layer of the brain. This may increase the brain’s ability to process information.
In addition, a 2013 review of three studies suggests that meditation may slow, stall, or even reverse changes that take place in the brain due to normal aging.
What Are the Basics of Mindfulness Meditation?
People practice mindfulness meditation in order to become intentional and aware of their thoughts and surroundings. While mindfulness meditation can be a formal practice in which you sit down in silence with your eyes closed, you can also practice in many other ways, such as paying closer attention to the things you do each day, rather than multitasking or being distracted.
Here is what you can expect when practicing mindfulness:
Rather than completing tasks while “going through the motions,” daydreaming or zoning out, instead you practice focusing on what you are actually doing and feeling. You notice your thoughts and emotions, rather than letting your mind wander.
The idea is to be aware of what you are experiencing right now, rather than reviewing the past or planning for future events.
During guided mindfulness meditation, you typically keep your focus on something constant, such as your breath or sounds in your environment. Your exact focal point varies depending on the meditation techniques you are using.
You may choose to focus on a prayer, chant, or an image in your mind, a candle flame or a religious image. For example, in transcendental meditation, you repeat a mantra to yourself silently, which serves as your focal point, while in Vipassana meditation (one of the oldest Buddhist meditation practices), you usually fixate your attention on your breath.
While trying to pay attention to the object in focus, you listen to your own thoughts without being caught up in them. You notice how thoughts continuously pop up but then leave or change if you do not follow them.
You use the practice to gain self-awareness. Rather than trying to stop your thoughts or judge them, you approach them with curiosity and compassion.
How To Start
Here is how to practice mindfulness if you are a beginner, using a basic meditation technique that focuses your awareness on your breath:
Start by deciding how long you want to practice. In the beginning, it is recommended that you stick to short but consistent sessions, such as 5 or 10 minutes per day, in order to build a habit. As you advance, you may want to meditate for as long as 20 to 60 minutes daily.
Choose a location where you are comfortable and undistracted.
Decide which posture works best for you, choosing one that allows you to feel comfortable but alert. You may want to sit with crossed legs and a straight spine or lay down, but keep in mind that the goal is not to fall asleep. You can also use a chair, a meditation cushion, bolster, blanket, etc.
Keep your body relaxed, eyes either closed or slightly open but soft, and arms loosely dangled by your side. Try to relax your muscles but not to hunch or stiffen your back or neck.
Bring your attention to your breath, focusing on the sounds, feelings in your body, or anything else that grabs your attention regarding your breath.
This is when your mind will start to wander, which is expected and normal. Gently return your attention to your breath. Your mind will likely keep generating thoughts that distract you, but the whole point of the meditation is to practice observing your thoughts without needing to react.
No matter how much your attention keeps drifting away from your breath, try not to judge yourself or give up. When time is up, take a moment to notice how your body feels and any change in your emotions. Pause for a few moments and notice if you feel any more clarity or calmness.
If you are struggling with health issues, call the Advanced Chiropractic & Nutritional Healing Center at 240-651-1650 for a free consultation. Dr. Lo will demonstrate Nutritional Response Testing® to analyze the body and determine the underlying causes of ill or non-optimum health.
The office is located at 7310 Grove Road #107, Frederick, MD. Check out the website at www.doctorlo.com.