Depression and anxiety are increasingly common in our society, and many of us are trying to find ways to cope. For some, self-care habits are tremendously helpful. Meditation is one of the most impactful self-care habits for managing depression, anxiety and for physical health. Although it isn’t a cure-all, there are several potential benefits of daily meditation.
What is meditation?
Meditation is a practice that involves focusing attention on the present moment. Our minds are constantly wandering; we spend so much of our days thinking about what we need to do or what we wish we would have done. In meditation, the goal isn’t to stop yourself from thinking, but to acknowledge and release your thoughts and to bring your attention back to the here and now.
What are the benefits of daily meditation?
Research has shown that meditation can help to reduce levels of depression and anxiety. One study, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, of people with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) found that participants who completed at least one session of a mindfulness-based stress reduction (MSBR) program had a significantly greater reduction in anxiety than those who received stress-management education.
Meditation doesn’t solely affect mental health; it can affect physical health as well.
“There are two divisions of the autonomic (automatic) nervous system: the sympathetic (fight or flight) and the parasympathetic (rest and digest),” explains Brian Asbill, MD, Mission Heart. “Most of us in today’s society are terribly imbalanced and our sympathetic system is chronically activated and dominant leading to high levels of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This has a number of deleterious effects on the body such as high blood pressure and heart rate as well as increased cholesterol and blood sugar and also leads to psychological issues such as chronic anxiety and depression, said Asbill. “Meditation activates the parasympathetic nervous system which establishes balance by decreasing these effects of a chronically hyperstimulated sympathetic nervous system. Studies have shown that meditation reduces heart rate and blood pressure and lowers the workload on the heart.”
How can meditation help relieve depression and anxiety?
One way meditation can help relieve depression and anxiety is by changing your way of thinking. During meditation, it’s natural for your thoughts to wander, and sometimes those thoughts can be negative. As you meditate, you may notice these thoughts, but recognize that you don’t need to act or dwell on them. By focusing on your breathing or repeating a simple mantra, you can create distance between yourself and those negative thoughts.
Meditation can also change your brain. Studies have shown that meditation can increase gray matter in certain parts of the brain. Gray matter is where information is processed, and it makes up about 40% of the human brain. Meditation can increase the amount of gray matter in the area of the brain that regulates learning, memory and emotions.
“People who are experiencing depression and anxiety have higher levels of the stress hormones listed above and an overactive sympathetic nervous system, said Asbill. “Studies have shown that they are statistically more likely to develop cardiac events such as heart attack, stroke and congestive heart failure. And the stress caused by having a cardiac event can exacerbate the situation leading to more stress, further activation of the sympathetic system and then higher risk again.”
Tips for getting started with meditation
The good thing about meditation is that you don’t need anything to get started. If you can carve out a couple of minutes a day or more, you can start meditating. Here are some tips to help you get started:
- Pick a time. To make meditation part of your daily routine, it can be helpful to pick a time for meditating that you can commit to each day. Many people choose to meditate in the morning before starting their day. However, you can choose to meditate at night before going to bed, during your lunch break or after getting home from work. Sticking with a certain time each day can make it easier for meditation to become a habit.
- Pick a spot. Choose a spot where you will be comfortable and that has minimal distractions. Although you might feel more comfortable on your bed, you may run the risk of getting too comfortable and falling asleep. It may be helpful to sit on the floor or a chair instead.
- Pick a practice. There are many different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, transcendental meditation, sound bath meditation and more. There are also apps and guided meditations that can help you get started if you’re having trouble meditating on your own.
There is no one-size-fits-all practice that works for everyone. Finding the right meditation practice for you might take some time, but it’s important to give yourself enough time to try a technique before moving on to another one.
The benefits of daily meditation cannot be understated, but it’s OK if you need more than meditation to manage your mental health.
“Take a moment to check in with yourself and see how you feel. We get so busy that we forget to even pay attention to our mental health. If you are dealing with what feels like chronic anxiety or depressive symptoms, talk with someone about it, said Asbill. “Simply talking about it has been shown to have a beneficial effect on lowering levels of adrenaline or cortisol in the system. Prioritize things that activate the parasympathetic system to reestablish balance. Eat a more nutritious diet, spend some time getting physical activity (preferably outside in nature and sunlight), avoid things like tobacco and alcohol to “manage” the stress, get more and better sleep and spend time doing something you love (with someone you love for bonus points), Asbill said.
If you’re feeling overwhelmed or having thoughts about self-harm, speak to a mental health professional. Call 828-213-3222 or click here for an appointment with your Mission Health primary care provider.