The use of meditation to calm the body, center thoughts, and reduce stress has been in practice for centuries in many of the Eastern cultures. Here, in the United States, the use of meditation is a newer benefit of healthy living, which can have a positive effect on your sleep. Let’s explore what meditation actually does for the mind and body. If you are interested in trying some simple meditation techniques, I will be exploring several well-rated meditation phone applications in my next article.
After a recent sleep apnea patient stressed what a positive impact that his meditation app had on his sleep problems, I decided it was time to get clear and share some information on the topic of meditation.
I’ll be the first to admit that trying and learning how to meditate can be a daunting task. I’m known for often being on the run and a little on the “type A’ side:-). Over the last several years, the powerful benefits of meditation is a repeated topic in my quest for health and sleep improvement tips. Although I am not a meditation expert, let’s start with the basics that I have uncovered.
What is meditation?
According to Merriam-Webster, meditation is “to engage in contemplation or reflection” or “to engage in mental exercise (such as concentration on one’s breathing or repetition of a mantra) for the purpose of reaching a heightened level of spiritual awareness”. For each person that meditates, it can mean something slightly different in the way they carry out the process of meditating. However, the common goal is to calm and relax the mind and body to focus on one thing.
Meditation can be used by itself or with other practices that use meditation and movement to achieve a reduction in stress and pain. It can also be used in the form of guided or unguided and depends on your access to guided sessions and personal preferences. Some of the most common meditation techniques used today include:
This is the most popular form of meditation used in Western cultures and has its roots in Buddhist teachings. The goal of mindfulness is described as a way of directing your attention by focusing on the self at that particular moment in time (whether it be positive or negative) and what you are experiencing. This is done by being nonjudgmental and accepting of yourself and working to eliminate external forces that we as humans typically focus on.
Mindfulness is especially helpful when trying to reduce pain sensation. Research conducted by Zeidan and Vago (2016), revealed that this technique could significantly reduce pain in different settings for individuals that are experiencing from chronic pain. For most, the idea of focusing on the pain that they are experiencing seems counterintuitive. However, mindfulness uses a process of body scanning to identify where the pain is located and what it feels like. Then, through focused breathing, the pain is released, and the individual moves onto the next part of their body.
This form of meditation involves gentle movement that guides the mind and allows the individual to relax. For some people, the physical actions involved in yoga, tai chi, gardening, or walking in a quiet natural setting enables the mind to wander and find peace. This form of meditation is the opposite of focused or mindfulness meditation: in that, you are allowing the mind to wander without focusing on one specific thing.
The spiritual form of meditation tends to be concentrated in Eastern religious practices that include Hinduism and Daoism, and Christianity. This type of meditation allows the individual or group to develop a deeper spiritual connection through worship at home or in a place of worship. It is similar to prayer; in that, it is practiced in silence and allows the individual to reflect. It may also include the use of burning incense or heating essential oils (sage, cedar, frankincense, myrrh, sandalwood) to heighten the sense of spiritual experience.
This is an excellent option for individuals that are trying to improve focus in their personal or professional life. For many people, it is difficult to practice this form of meditation for an extended period. It takes real practice and involves using one of the five senses as your focus. You can listen to a single chime or note that is repeated at set intervals or focus on the sound of your own breathing. Some practice by staring at a dim light or flame of a candle, while others hold beads and count them (mala beads). Whatever the choice, it is essential to maintain the focus and return to it (refocus) when you feel yourself drifting away.
Mantra meditation utilizes a repetitive sound to clear the mind and focus. The mantra can be a phrase, word, or sound and can be spoken quietly to oneself or out loud. The goal is that by chanting a mantra, you become more alert and aware of your surroundings and environment. Chanting allows you to develop a deeper level of awareness and understanding. This type of meditation allows you to relax the body by decreasing your heart rate, blood pressure, and breaths per minute. Some studies have even shown that the sound or tone produced can directly affect brain wave activity resulting in a “soothing or calming” (Balaji, 2017) (Chamoli et al., 2019).
Transcendental meditation is the most popular form of meditation around the world and has been studied the most. This form of meditation also uses a mantra as the focus. However, the word or phrase that is used not randomly chosen and has a specific meaning to that individual. The use of transcendental meditation has reportedly helped improve the mental and physical quality of life and reducing stress among individuals that practice it regularly.
Why Should You Try Meditation?
Our bodies are designed to maintain balance. This is called homeostasis. When the body detects a threat (real or perceived), it reacts to provide protection. This can be demonstrated when you are frightened by something. Your heart races, you breathe faster, and your pupils dilate. These are just some of the physical changes that we experience as part of our “fight or flight” response.
This response is a natural occurrence that we have little control over, but if we are repeatedly exposed to stress, the body is in a constant state of “fight or flight,” where it does not have a chance to return to normal or a state of homeostasis (balanced). When this occurs, there are specific hormones that continue to be released and circulated throughout the body. The continued presence of these hormones can lead to additional health risks like high blood pressure, heart disease, obesity, sleep disturbances, and more.
So, if you feel that you are exposed to chronic (long term) stress in your life, you need to be able to do something to help your mind and body return to a balanced and relaxed state. This is where medication can help!
The relaxation response with meditation can help reduce many stress-related ailments, including high blood pressure, depression, and pain.
For many people, sleep disorders are closely related to stress, and the use of meditation has been shown to be effective. According to an article published in JAMA (2015), clinical trials using meditation with older adults clearly improved in sleep quality and decreased in daytime impairment.
For many individuals, relaxing through meditation first involves learning to use proper breathing techniques.
The majority of all types of meditation involve the use of deep breathing, focused breathing, or cleansing breaths. Many times, we will hear someone say, “take a deep breath and relax.” Unfortunately, this action doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone.
When focusing on breathing as part of meditation, it involves a process of breathing from the abdomen (or belly) instead of the chest. This allows for a deeper, more oxygen-rich breath that involves breathing in through the nose for a specific number of seconds and then exhaling through the mouth for the same amount of seconds. It difficult at first for beginners to regulate your breathing without guidance. This video by Dr. Allson, a licensed clinical psychologist, can be helpful with learning mindful deep breathing.
In my next article, I will review several of the best-rated meditation phone applications that can improve your health (and sleep) by incorporating meditation in easy, clear ways.
Other Articles of Interest:
Balaji, D. P. V. (2017). Stress management for mantra techniques. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy, 2(2), 42-43.
Black, D.S., O’Reilly, G.A., Olmstead, R., Breen, E.C., & Irwin, M.R. (2015). Mindfulness Meditation and Improvement in Sleep Quality and Daytime Impairment Among Older Adults With Sleep Disturbances: A Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Internal Medicine, 175(4), 494–501.
Chamoli, D., Kumar, R., Singh, A., & Kobrin, N. (2017). The effect of mantra chanting on the performance IQ of children. Indian Journal of Positive Psychology, 8(3), 288-290.
Chrousos, G. P. (2009). Stress and disorders of the stress system. Nature Reviews Endocrinology, 5(7), 374.
Micozzi, M. S. (2018). Mind–Body Therapies Part 1: Stress Reduction, Relaxation, Mindfulness, and. Fundamentals of Complementary, Alternative, and Integrative Medicine-E-Book, 136-37.
Russell, T. A., & Arcuri, S. M. (2015). A neurophysiological and neuropsychological consideration of mindful movement: clinical and research implications. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 9, 282.
Vgontzas, A. N., Lin, H. M., Papaliaga, M., Calhoun, S., Vela-Bueno, A., Chrousos, G. P., & Bixler, E. O. (2008). Short sleep duration and obesity: the role of emotional stress and sleep disturbances. International Journal of Obesity, 32(5), 801.Zeidan, F., & Vago, D. R. (2016). Mindfulness meditation-based pain relief: a mechanistic account. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1373(1), 114–127.