Empowering Your Best Self

Lifestyle , Wellness

Your Brain on Meditation

Vanessa McGrady Avatar Image Vanessa McGrady
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It’s hard for Americans to sit still and do nothing. We’re in the thick of a productivity-obsessed culture—most working Americans put in more than eight hours a day, and 55% of us don’t use all the vacation we’re allotted. According to the American Psychological Association, more than half of us suffer from stress for a variety of reasons, including the state of the nation, money, work, politics, violence and crime—even though we may not have any control over most of these issues.

Taking some quiet time for meditation can bring profound benefits to our mental state and overall health and help us better process the world around us. (One recent study found it can even be better for us than a vacation.)

Researchers have linked meditation to improvements in conditions such as:

  • High blood pressure
  • Pain
  • Irritable bowel syndrome
  • Anxiety and depression
  • Insomnia
  • Addiction
  • Menopause

Meditation and Your Brain

Even though you might not actually be able to see or feel changes as they’re happening, regular meditation can actually affect your cells and the makeup of your brain. Because your brain changes, the benefits show up when you need them most—and not just when you’re sitting still.

Research shows that being fully engaged in the present moment, or mindfulness, may actually change the brain’s density, particularly in the amygdala and hippocampus, the regions that regulate our “fight or flight” reaction and other emotional responses such as fear and stress. A UCLA study showed that the brains of people who meditated were better preserved than those who didn’t, and as they aged, they also showed improved cognitive skills such as memory, attention, verbal fluency and processing. Finally, a meditated mind is able to better tune out distractions and worry-causing thoughts, even while racing to catch a plane or giving an important presentation.

So maybe you don’t have your own personal mountaintop with endless hours to kill before you find nirvana. That’s OK—the perks of meditation can kick in after just a few minutes. If you’re a beginner, or worried about “monkey mind”—perpetual thoughts racing through your head and disturbing the peace—know that even the simple act of sitting still and closing your eyes will have benefits.

The steps to beginning a meditation practice are easy. The first: Commit to doing it one day at a time. How about today?

  • Find a space. You can meditate anywhere: on your couch or dining room chair, the floor of an unused conference room at work, in your car, on a bed or outside on a park bench are all options. While the space doesn’t have to be noise-free, it helps if you’ll be undisturbed.
  • Decide how long you’ll meditate. Starting small is easy. Set a timer for one to three minutes—then work up to longer stretches if you desire.
  • Close your eyes and start focusing on your breath, or a mantra or word in your mind. It can be as simple as “peace” or “calm,” or a more involved chant or idea. There’s no wrong answer here. Other ways you can focus are by running a string of beads through your fingers, staring at an object such as a flower or candle flame, or even walking, while paying attention to how your body moves and how it feels.
  • If you find your mind crowded with thoughts, that’s normal, even for those who have long practiced meditation. Think of them as wispy clouds that pass by—acknowledge them, then get back to focusing on your breathing.
  • When your session has ended, take a moment to soak in what you’ve accomplished. Hopefully you’ll be more relaxed, happy and organized—and if not, keep trying every day.

One helpful way to get started is through guided meditations you can do with your smart phone, tablet or computer. Headspace, specifically designed as an introduction with short meditations, gets you started with 10 free sessions and other giveaways. Tara Brach is a psychologist and meditation expert, whose donation-based podcasts vary in length and target specific topics. You can also find free, guided meditations at the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center. Prefer something in person? Look for meditation groups through local yoga studios and spiritual centers, and the MINDBODY app is an easy way to find and register for sessions near you.

Your meditation practice can be as easy as you want it to be—and it might look a little different for everyone. Ballet superstar Misty Copeland has described her meditation as going to class each morning. For others, it can be writing or prayer. Or it can be a form of doing nothing. Dick Van Dyke described it this way: “When you’re a kid, you lay in the grass and watch the clouds going over, and you literally don’t have a thought in your mind.”