Stress Strikes! Part III – Meditation
Each year, the Gallup-Sharecare well-being metric interviews individuals across the United States. The well-being index is calculated on a scale of 0 to 100 (0 represents the lowest and 100 represents the highest possible well-being). Questions revolve around health, work, satisfaction, worry, etc., with the intent of measuring the “good life.” In 2017, nearly half of the states saw their well-being scores decline. Even more alarming, 2017 marked the first time that none of the states experienced a noteworthy improvement from the previous year.
Americans are stressed out more than ever before. If we’re being honest, it’s not hard to see why. We live life in the fast lane. Most people don’t stop to smell the roses, much less remember to water them. Could the age-old practice of meditation help us stop the detrimental downward slope we are sliding down?
The practice of meditation dates back to ancient times. Used for thousands of years in various forms, there is no scientific consensus on a single definition of the term. Meditations have been documented in clinical trials as providing tremendous benefits for both stress management as well as overall health. Meditating is not a ‘one size fits all’ practice. It’s important to try several different methods to find the one that suits your personality and needs best. Here are a few suggestions to get you started. Remember to practice regularly once you’ve chosen the meditation that works best for you.
This type of meditation involves focusing your mind on your emotions, thoughts, and/or feelings to experience the present moment. It can involve breathing practices, mental imagery, body/mind awareness, and muscle/body relaxation. The Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, has been increasingly used in the medical field to treat stress, pain, insomnia, and other health conditions. A few minutes each day can make a difference.
Procedure: Choose a location that is quiet and comfortable. You can sit in a chair or on the floor with your head, neck, and back straight but not stiff. Attempt to clear you mind and put aside thoughts about the past and future, allowing yourself to focus on the present. Begin by concentrating on your breathing and the sensation of air travelling in and out of your body. Feel your chest/stomach expand and compress. Notice the air coming in through your nostrils and exiting your mouth as you exhale. Focus on how one breath is different than the last. When thoughts cross your mind, do not react to them; instead, make a note of them and remain calm, then go back to focusing on your breathing. Your breathing is the anchor your mind can return to and find rest. If you realize that your thoughts have gotten away from you, acknowledge where your mind went to and simply return to focusing on your breathing. Do not see this “wander” as a break in your meditation. Being conscience of where your mind goes and returning to your anchor is success. As the time allocated comes to an end, spend a couple minutes becoming aware of where you are sitting and the surrounding area. Conclude your meditation by gradually getting up.
Incorporating music into your meditation has many benefits. Music is powerful in its ability to direct emotion and effect changes in breathing patterns. Oftentimes, music meditation can feel simpler and even less stressful if you are new to meditation. While working up to 20 minutes of meditation is a worthy goal, beginning with one song is sufficient to help reduce stress. It is important to choose music that will help you relax with a slow tempo. Lyrics should be avoided as they can be distracting and activate parts of the brain you are trying to subdue.
Procedure: First, you’ll want to get comfortable, but not so comfortable that you risk falling asleep. You can sit or lay down, cross your legs or leave them straight. Once comfortable, mentally direct your muscle groups to relax including your facial muscles. Focus your mind on the music in the present moment. Focus on the sound and the feelings evoked within your body. If you catch your mind wandering or thoughts come to mind, simply redirect your attention to the present sounds. Your aim is to quiet your inner voice and allow yourself to just ‘be.’ Explore different instrumental genres of music and begin with a few songs, building up over time.
Body Scan Meditation
Stress manifests itself in our bodies. Whether a headache, stomach in knots, or tight, contracted muscles, we often feel side effects of stress without realizing the connection to our mind and emotions. This form of meditation allows you to consciously relieve physical tension, which decreases psychological stress.
Procedure: Comfort is essential to relaxing your body. Lying down helps. Once comfortable, allow your breathing to slow and let your abdomen expand and contract with each breath. It may help to imagine a balloon inflating and deflating with each breath. Begin by taking an inventory of your body and noticing any tight muscles or feelings of pain. Then, start with the top of your head and systematically focus on each area of your body making your way down to your feet. Pay close attention to any sensations present moving from scalp, to ears, cheeks, neck, shoulders, and so forth. Initially, this may take significant time, but it will become almost effortless in time. Focus on the uncomfortable areas as you reach them. Visualize the muscles relaxing and, as you breathe, focus on the circulation needed within the muscle. At first, the feeling in the area may intensify. Visualize the tension leaving your body through your exhaled breaths. Keep your awareness focused on the area and massage it if needed. Move on when you feel ready, repeating these steps as needed wherever you find tightness, pain, or pressure. When you have scanned your entire body, your meditation has come to an end. Practice this skill often. When pressed for time, you can abbreviate the meditation by just sitting and focusing on a particular place in your body that is carrying tension. Focus, breathe, and visualize the tension leaving your body.
As a well-known meditation technique, many studies have explored the benefits of mantra meditation. It is linked to a decrease in intrusive thoughts and a reduction in stress, anxiety, and anger. Some beginners find it difficult to redirect wandering thoughts to the present moment and find it easier to focus on a specific mantra (repeated word or phrase) instead.
Procedure: Find a quiet location free from distraction. Choose the word or phrase that you will repeat to yourself. It can be a senseless sound such as ‘Om,’ or it can be a word or phrase such as, ‘peace’ or ‘I am complete.’ The mantra should be simple and easy to repeat. With eyes closed, repeat the mantra to yourself, out loud or silently, whichever you find more comfortable. Focus on nothing but the sound and feel of the mantra as you repeat it. When other thoughts come to mind, notice them, and kindly redirect your attention back to your mantra. You can start with 5 or 10 minute sessions and work up to 20 or 30 minutes. Keep in mind, any practice time is better than none.
Meditation, over time, will build your resilience to stress. This valuable tool has been used by a wide variety of people such as Clint Eastwood, Tony Robbins, LeBron James, Derek Jeter, Oprah Winfrey, and Arianna Huffington, to name a few. Incorporating meditation into your daily routine will not only improve your mental fortitude, it will also empower you mentally, physically, and spiritually. Your wellness is worth it!