A recent funny-page comic by cartoonist Tony Carillo shows a couple sitting across the table from each other, drinking coffee. “At least having anxiety made me feel special,” says the man to the woman. “Now, everybody has it.”
Indeed, coping with the Covid-19 pandemic has resulted in many of us feeling increasingly anxious. A mid- March survey of a national sampling of adults by the American Psychiatric Association found that up to 62 percent of us are experiencing some form of anxiety related to Covid-19.
If you need a respite from the anxiety-producing news, you might want to consider meditation. People who regularly meditate say it provides mental, spiritual, and physical benefits, including stress reduction and a sense of well-being. Doctors often recommend meditation as an adjunct therapy to treat ailments like chronic pain and high blood pressure, based on a growing number of studies that support its health benefits.
Meditation helps you draw attention inward and calm your mind. It comes in many forms, which typically involve combinations of postures, breathing, sound, visualizations, or movement (for example, walking meditation). Some types of meditation involve a mantra, which is a word or phrase you repeat to yourself silently.
One widely researched technique used to reduce stress is mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), which uses mindfulness meditation, among other practices. Studies have shown an association between mindfulness meditation and various positive mental and physical health effects (including decreased stress and anxiety). As a result, mindfulness meditation has become popular even outside of MBSR.
A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins Medicine analyzed 47 clinical trials involving different forms of meditation under the guidance of meditation teachers. The analysis, which involved more than 3,700 participants, found that mindfulness meditation had a moderate beneficial effect on anxiety, pain, and depression.
Mind over matter
Although meditating may seem like a new-age practice, people have been meditating for thousands of years to increase inner calm and relaxation. When undertaken to help with existing health conditions, meditation is best viewed as an enhancement to, instead of a replacement for, standard treatments. It also shouldn’t be used to replace other key components of a healthy lifestyle, such as exercise and a nutritious diet.
Meditation is generally considered safe, though some people have difficulty with practices that require movement or entail sitting in certain positions. People with balance issues should be especially cautious about movement meditations because many of them—like walking meditations—are done quite slowly, which requires having good balance.
How meditation works is not fully understood, although some research suggests that meditation induces a relaxed state, resulting from its calming effects on the nervous system, which regulates organs and muscles that control functions such as breathing, heartbeat, and sweating. It’s been shown to alter aspects of the immune and endocrine systems, as well, and produce changes in areas of the brain associated with memory, learning, and emotion.
What can meditation do for you?
Meditation may help its practitioners develop the capacity for “metacognitive awareness,” the ability to mentally step back from and observe the contents of consciousness. As a result, metacognition can help people actively control— and modify—their reflexive response to stress.
A growing body of evidence indicates that some meditation may help improve physical complaints in addition to psychological stress. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, research suggests that meditation may:
- Help people with cancer relieve stress, anxiety, and fatigue and improve mood and sleep
- Lower blood pressure
- Ease the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome
- Reduce hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms
Mindfulness refers to the state of being fully cognizant of all things in your field of awareness in the present moment—thoughts, feelings, sensations, and everyone and everything around you. You never lose touch with any of them, even when you focus on just one.
Several therapies are based on cultivating mindfulness, including MBSR and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT). MBCT is similar to MBSR but modified to focus more specifically on managing depression. One practice used in mindfulness-based therapies is mindfulness meditation, which typically starts as a breath meditation in which you focus your attention on your breathing. Eventually, the meditation practice is expanded to being aware (without judgment) of what else is present in your consciousness while retaining your main focus on the breath.
At this point, mindfulness itself has effectively become the focus of the meditation. These therapies also encourage direct practice of mindfulness during activities such as yoga, stretching, walking, and eating.
Don’t overthink it
It’s a myth that if you don’t feel serene and blissful during meditation, you haven’t really meditated. When beginners discover that those exalted states don’t necessarily materialize, at least at first, they may give up. But that’s like concluding you can’t play tennis because you can’t immediately stroke like Serena.
Meditation typically involves focusing on something (such as your breathing, a mantra, or the feel of walking). When you meditate, at some point (often quite soon) you’ll become aware of having become lost in thought. This is normal and happens to everyone many times. When it occurs, gently disengage from the thoughts without judging yourself (or the thoughts) and bring your attention back to the object of focus.
Meditating briefly—even a minute or two—can be a good way to get started, without growing bored, antsy, or anxious. Indeed, struggling to meditate for half an hour or more might increase the anxiety you’re seeking to reduce. Instead, rest content in the knowledge that whatever amount you do, regardless of length, can improve your well-being. Little by little, as you start to experience the rewards of meditation, you may want to meditate longer or more often.