Can Meditation Really Improve Your Mental Health?
During a recent family vacation to Canada, my husband commented that my energy was unusually calm and peaceful. He asked if I knew what was creating this change. I tend to be a Type A person who constantly has thoughts running through her head and can have difficulty relaxing when there are tasks to be done. So this calmer, more centered approach to life is new for me.
“I think it’s the meditation,” I replied.
“Whatever it is,” he said, “I like it! This version of you is more pleasant to be around.”
I recently began a daily meditation practice. I had no choice, really; I had a stroke, and following a device implantation in my heart, I suddenly began having severe atrial fibrillation, a dangerous heart arrhythmia. For years, I had read and heard about the benefits of meditation, but could never quiet my thinking enough to sit still and meditate. This time, I forced myself to do it—and began experiencing tremendous benefits within just a few days.
How Meditation Improves Mental Health
Numerous studies have found that practicing meditation yields a number of benefits for mental, emotional, and physical health. For example, John Hopkins University recently published a meta-analysis (Goyal et al., 2014), a review of 47 studies, which found that meditation can reduce depression and anxiety symptoms.
Research (NCCIH, 2015) also suggests that meditation leads to physical changes in the brain and body that can help improve a variety of conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, high blood pressure, and heart disease (Heart.org, 2015). Meditation can even help you sleep better and stop smoking (NCCIH, 2015).
Why (and How) Meditation Works
Last night, I was walking with my family in Quebec City, overlooking the famous Saint Lawrence River. I was explaining to my son that you can tell which direction the ocean is by looking at the strong current of the river. “The river flows into the ocean,” I said. As soon as I said that, I realized that this is exactly what meditation does and why it works. Meditation realigns our minds and bodies to flow in the proper direction.
Meditation realigns our minds and bodies to flow in the proper direction.
First, it syncs our minds with our bodies so that we activate a feedback loop, in which well-being in one enhances well-being in the other. Secondly, it aligns our being with the flow of the universe and our natural rhythms in a way that our daily lives and tasks become easier to complete and more effective. This reminds me of a quote from Lao Tzu: “Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” Meditation is a lot like that; it makes you feel less hurried or tense on the inside, yet you are able to accomplish more on the outside—in all areas of your life, including work and relationships.
Scientifically, one of the ways mediation is believed to work is by shrinking the amygdala, the brain’s fear center. In one study (Taren, Creswell, & Gianaros, 2013), researchers found smaller amygdalae with MRI brain imaging in individuals who scored higher on a measure of mindfulness than in average individuals. This makes perfect sense to a (mostly) cognitive behavioral therapist like me. Our anxious thoughts often lead to feelings of anxiety, worry, fear, and depression. By reducing the activity of the brain’s fear center, meditation results in a better mood and more balanced emotional states.
3 Simple Steps to Get Started
It may seem scary or overwhelming to begin a meditation practice, especially if this type of activity is new to you. But it’s really quite simple. I think you’ll be surprised how easy and non-time-consuming it is. Here are my suggestions for getting started:
All you need is five minutes to start. Really, that’s it! How easy is that? Find a quiet place where you will not be disturbed. (I like parks and walk-in closets.) Set a timer on your phone for five minutes. (I suggest looking for a free app with timed meditation bells so that you are not disturbed by the sound of a loud alarm clock.) Begin by closing your eyes and taking three VERY SLOW, deep breaths—in through the nose and out through the mouth. Make the exhale as slow as you can. Then, shift to breathing in and out through the nose only, but maintain that slow pace. Focus your attention on noticing your in-breath and your out-breath. When your mind wanders (it will, and that’s normal), or when you hear noises or feel sensations in your body, simply return your attention to noticing your in-breath and your out-breath. That’s it! You’re meditating! Continue until your five-minute bell rings. Do this once a day (morning or midday is best to start) for two weeks, then go to step two.
Increase your morning meditation to 10 minutes, and add an evening guided meditation or visualization to help with sleep and relaxation. For now, I suggest nothing longer than 20 minutes (anything between 10 to 20 minutes will work). You can find guided meditations and visualizations in many places online, on CDs, and at your local library. The one I recommend most often is called “A Trip to the Beach” by Steven Halpern, but anything you enjoy is fine. Continue this routine: 10-minute morning meditation and 10- to 20-minute evening guided meditation for the next two weeks.
Congratulations! You are now an experienced meditator. As you realize the benefits of meditation and want to expand your practice, there are numerous apps, meditation retreats, local classes, and books to help you on your journey. Experiment, enjoy, and have fun! But most importantly, meditate every day, even if only for five or 10 minutes.
Combining Meditation and Psychotherapy
I recently read an article by Dr. Deepak Chopra that implied traditional psychotherapy is not as good as meditation and regular meditation can completely eliminate the need for psychotherapy. As you might imagine, since I am a psychotherapist, I was taken aback by this comment. On second thought, however, I think there’s a lot of truth to that statement. While meditation may not help you identify, understand, and dispute your irrational thoughts, it is very likely to naturally help you let go of them.
We often hear that the combination of medication and psychotherapy is more effective in resolving mental health issues than either treatment alone. I wonder what research results we would get by looking at the combination of meditation and psychotherapy. My hunch is we would find it more effective than many other treatments.
Concluding Thoughts: Emotional Wellness from the Inside Out
In my health journey this year, I came across an Ayurvedic saying about physical health: “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use. When diet is right, medicine is of no need.” I suspect the same is true for mental health and wellness; when we feed our mind in healthy ways, wellness occurs naturally. Meditation feeds your mind peace and joy.
Goyal, M., Singh, S., Sibinga, E., Gould, N., Rowland-Seymour, A., & Sharma, R. et al. (2014). Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being. JAMA Internal Medicine, 174(3), 357. doi:10.1001/jamainternmed.2013.13018
Heart.org. (2015). Meditation and Heart Health. Retrieved from http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/More/MyHeartandStrokeNews/Meditation-and-Heart-Disease-Stroke_UCM_452930_Article.jsp
NCCIH. (2015). Meditation: What You Need To Know. Retrieved from https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm#hed3
Taren, A., Creswell, J., & Gianaros, P. (2013). Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. Plos ONE, 8(5), e64574. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
© Copyright 2015 by Chantal Marie Gagnon, PhD, LMHC, CAP, SAP, therapist in Plantation, Florida. All Rights Reserved.