While there are hundreds of ways to cope, there is only one way to keep going—tough times or not. The answer is simple: keep breathing.
But the human spirit wants more than mere existence, we want to feel good; we want to be happy. While most of us can “soldier on,” sometimes life makes every bit of that march pure torture.
When my husband died, my marching halted altogether and a friend suggested I meditate. I complied; not because I expected a new-age, guru woo-woo thingy would make me feel better. I mean, come on…nothing had helped. Not counseling, not exercise, and not even that pint of Ben & Jerry’s I consumed every night. I tried meditation only because I hoped I’d go into some kind of trance and maybe have an hour where I didn’t have to feel.
Imagine my surprise to find out sitting quietly and focusing on my breathing actually helped (the fact that moi could actually sit quietly was amazing in itself). My first inclination was to believe the passage of time was responsible for my improved mood, but there hadn’t been that much passage. There were other changes, too. Not only had my grief fog started to pass, my overall focus was better than it had been in years, maybe ever. The constant ache in every muscle in my body started to vanish. Being the logic-driven geek I am, I couldn’t accept that something so hokey as mediation could actually help, so I began to do research to see if my brain improvements were…well, all in my head.
Another surprise. Over 3,000 studies had been conducted on the benefits of mediation, all with a consistent theme: significant improvement in the human mind and body. MRI scans showed that the human “Fight or Flight” impulse actually shrank after only eight weeks of a mediation activity. The pre-frontal cortex responsible for Fight/Flight is also responsible for awareness, concentration and decision-making—enough said.
Without going into a lot of brain science, which makes my head hurt, here are just some of the many improvements scientist say occur as a result of mindful activity (aka meditation):
- Reduced Stress – One study of nearly 1,300 adults showed that meditation not only decreases stress, but the effect was greatest in those who were the most stressed. Research has also concluded that meditation may also improve symptoms stress-related conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.
- Controls Anxiety – If you’re less stressed, you’re likely to be less anxious (well, duh), but a study of 2,466 participants showed a signficant reduction in their anxiety. Symptoms of anxiety disorders (social anxiety, phobias, anxiety attacks) were also reduced. Another study in a group of nurses showed meditation may also reduce job-related anxiety.
- Improved Attention Span – While my own experience confirms this finding, I was pleased to see that perhaps it wasn’t my just my imagination (now that Temptations song is in your head, right? 😊). One study that examined the effects of an eight-week meditation course concurred: participants had a better ability to maintain their attention. Workers remembered task details better than their peers who did not practice meditation. Another review concluded that meditation (even meditating as little as four days) may reverse patterns in the brain which contribute to mind-wandering, worrying and poor attention.
- Reduction in Age-Related Memory Loss – A review of twelve studies found meditation increased attention, memory and mental quickness in older volunteers. I bet I have your attention now.😊 Meditation can also partially improve memory in patients with dementia and can certainly help with the stress of caring for family members with dementia.
- Improved Sleep – One study compared one group that practiced meditation and another that didn't. The meditation group fell asleep faster and stayed asleep longer. Meditation also helps control “racing” thoughts which tend to keep a person awake.
- Pain Control – One study used an MRI to watch brain activity as participants experienced a painful stimulus. The participants who had gone through four days of mindfulness meditation training prior to the study showed increased activity in the brain centers known to control pain and reported less sensitivity to pain. Another study researched the effects of habitual meditation in 3,500 participants and concluded meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain.
- Decreased Blood Pressure -- A study of 996 volunteers who used a silent mantra (repeated, non-vocalized word) while mediating reduced blood pressure by about five points, on average. Meditation seems to relax the nerve signals that coordinate heart function and tension in blood vessels, thus lowering the pressure.
- The best part… Meditation is free, requires no special equipment, and can be done almost anywhere. Trying it certainly won’t hurt anything, right? And just a few minutes each day (or even a few days each week) should do the trick. Don’t expect major improvements after one session though. Give it a couple weeks minimum. You will get the instant effects of relaxation during the actual session.
So how do you meditate? That’s a subject for another blog since there are a variety of methods for achieving Zen. Personally, I’ve had really good luck with the guided meditations available on YouTube. You will want to google mediation methods and find the specific type that’s right for you.
Let me know how you do. Peace be with you. 😊