How Meditation Improves Your Physical Health
It’s well known that meditation has psychological benefits, but how can practicing mindfulness also help your physical health? Stress management is the key. Stress can be very hard on the body, especially when muscles are tensed and taut for long periods of time. This includes all types of muscles, from your cardiovascular system to your digestive tract. Meditation can ease our natural struggle against stress and, in turn, improve health issues like high blood pressure, asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, insomnia and migraines. And best of all, it costs nothing, nearly everyone can do it, and it’s easy to add to your daily routine.
Meditation takes many forms: sitting quietly alone, practicing with a group or even walking meditation. Some people incorporate a variety of meditation types into their practice, depending on their mood and how much time they have to meditate that day. No matter your meditation style, here are three simple steps for creating a peaceful practice.
- Sit, lie down or move comfortably.
- Focus on your breath and possibly a mantra.
- Bring your mind’s attention to the present and allow past or future concerns to drift by.
Medical studies are starting to prove that a regular meditation practice doesn’t just make you feel great, it actually changes the way your body behaves. Here are a few examples of how meditation can have a positive impact on your brain, stress response system, and pain management.
Bigger and better brains. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, was one of the first to test the benefits of meditation. By studying the brain scans of experienced and novice meditators, she learned that people who practice meditation increase their amount of gray matter in key regions that control learning, memory, emotional control and compassion. She also saw a decrease in the areas that spark anxiety, fear and stress. Based on the study, Lazar believes you can transform your brain into a high-powered stress-busting machine with just 8 weeks of regular meditation practice.
Superior stress management. Once your brain starts changing and you get practice controlling your breathing and focusing on the present, you get better at managing stress. Instead of immediately reacting to your natural fight-or-flight response, you now have the tools to slow down and handle difficult situations more calmly. Repeating positive affirmations, along with deep breathing, helps lower your stress level when it’s triggered. For example, breathe in thinking “I calm my body” and breathe out thinking “I smile.”
Positive pain perception. Meditation also incorporates body scanning and an improved awareness of physical sensations. This can help improve your perception of pain and connect it to positive imagery and attitudes. According to the Arthritis Foundation, the reaction to pain is often what makes it worse. A meditation practice helps you to reduce anger and frustration towards pain and allows you stay open to positive emotions about the way your body is feeling.
If you can sit, stand or lie still, you’re ready to start meditating. It’s kind of like exercising: a little is better than none at all. Most meditation coaches recommend 30 to 40 minutes every day, but even 5 minutes will help your body get better at handling stress and its physical effects. Try it for 8 weeks and see if you notice a change. Not sure where to start? Talk to your doctor, who may be able to suggest meditation exercises or recommend a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in your area.