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Meditation and mental health

Meditation has many benefits, and it’s growing ever more popular as we all explore options for self-care in the approach to mental health. So how does it really measure up? Quite well. But it can seem intimidating, involved, and possibly complicated. After all, the idea of “clearing the mind” seems rather daunting, especially when most of us could feel like we are a computer running with fifty tabs open at once.  If these thoughts have kept you away from meditation, or if you’re exploring your self-care options and considering meditation techniques, we’ll cover some great ways to simplify it a bit, along with three benefits to mental health as added incentive to give it a try.  And when managing a busy Bay Area lifestyle, dealing with work stress and struggling to find balance with mental health at work and beyond, meditation is an excellent option to consider.  There are many different types of meditation, but they all share the same objective – prompting a relaxation response. This is a deeply serene state, induced by the release of calming hormones. In a quiet setting, by focusing your attention on a single object, a person receives immense benefit. The mind grows still, muscles relax, and blood pressure gradually drops. Breathing and heart rate slow. Neurons in the brain forge new connections.  For simplicity’s sake, we’ll be referring to Mindfulness Meditation, but note that other types of meditation - Trancendental, Guided, Vipassana, Zazen and more - share the core purpose of prompting the body’s relaxation response, albeit in different ways. The practice of Mindfulness Meditation involves sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing, and then bringing your mind’s attention to the present without drifting into concerns about the past or future. Sessions can be quite short (even five minutes works great) or longer if you are able to do so - but the beauty of meditation as a practice is that it does not require any special equipment, can be done anywhere, and with a bit of practice, can easily become a hugely valuable tool in your self-care and stress management toolkit. 

Addressing mental health, the relaxation that comes from a meditation session has proven benefits. Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD sifted through nearly 19,000 meditation studies. Their findings, published in JAMA Internal Medicine, suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain. ​But it doesn’t just begin and end with relaxation. Here’s a look at three ways that meditation can benefit other areas of your mental health: 

Reduce stress

Healthline reports that stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation. One study including over 3,500 adults showed that it lives up to its reputation for stress reduction. Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines. These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.

​In an eight-week study, mindfulness meditation reduced the inflammation response caused by stress. Notably, this effect was strongest in individuals with the highest levels of stress. Research has shown that meditation may also improve symptoms of stress-related conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.

Controls anxiety

Habitual meditation helps reduce anxiety and anxiety-related mental health issues like social anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Meditation may also help control job-related anxiety in high-pressure work environments.

​For example, an eight-week study of mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce their anxiety. It also reduced symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and panic attacks (9). Another study followed up with 18 volunteers three years after they had completed an eight-week meditation program. Most volunteers had continued practicing regular meditation and maintained lower anxiety levels over the long term (10).

A larger study in 2,466 participants also showed that a variety of different meditation strategies may reduce anxiety levels (11).

Improves sleep

Meditation can help you relax and control the runaway thoughts that can interfere with sleep. This can shorten the time it takes to fall asleep and increase sleep quality. Becoming skilled in meditation may help you control or redirect the racing or complicated thoughts that often lead to insomnia. Additionally, it can help relax your body, releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state in which you're more likely to fall asleep.

​One study compared two mindfulness-based meditation programs by randomly assigning participants to one of two groups. One group practiced meditation, while the other didn't. Participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer, compared to those who didn't meditate.

Promotes emotional health

Some forms of meditation can improve depression and create a more positive outlook on life. Meditation can also lead to an improved self-image and more positive outlook on life. Research shows that maintaining an ongoing habit of meditation may help you maintain these benefits long term.

​Two studies (1, 2) of mindfulness meditation found decreased depression in over 4,600 adults. One study followed 18 volunteers as they practiced meditation over three years. The study found that participants experienced long-term decreases in depression.

Another controlled study compared electrical activity between the brains of people who practiced mindfulness meditation and the brains of others who did not. Those who meditated showed measurable changes in activity in areas related to positive thinking and optimism.

A simple method

Let’s explore a simple method for meditation that can be used to get started. Plan for five minutes and sit in a comfortable spot, either indoors or outdoors. Close your eyes, and release your shoulders if they are clenched up towards your head. Relax your hands, rest them in your lap. Imagine that your head is the sky, your thoughts are clouds that are rolling by. Take an observant view of your thoughts and let them glide. Do not attach thoughts or emotions, merely observe. It helps to have a visual point, such as a candle or a plant - this helps to calm the mind. In his book Being Peace, Thich Nhat Hahn offers this short mindful meditation “Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I smile. Dwelling in the present moment, I know this is a wonderful moment.” Gracefully end your meditation session with a small nod to yourself, take a moment of quiet and then return to your day.

Trying out a style of meditation suited to your goals is a great way to improve your quality of life, even if you only have a few minutes to do it each day. In addition to meditation, we believe that everyone can benefit from having someone to talk to. A trusted mental health professional can offer an outside perspective and help you sort through any difficult areas of your life.

In the Bay Area and looking for a quality therapist? Look to reflect to find the right match for you - we use a data-driven algorithm that matches therapists near you that are well-suited to your own unique needs. 90% of those who try reflect find a therapist they like - and 80% of reflect clients notice a meaningful change in their lives after six sessions. Click here to start the matching process.


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