What if I told you I had one tool that would improve almost every area of your life without you even having to leave your couch or spend a dime?
Meditation is exactly that tool! Meditation has numerous benefits for both physical and emotional well-being. Meditation is very impactful because it directly operates on centers of the brain that manage the stress response. In case you hadn’t noticed, stress wreaks havoc on our emotions and on our bodies. This is particularly important since stress also weakens the immune system- something at the forefront of everyone’s mind these days.
Meditation is an excellent way to reduce the stress so many of us are feeling right now. In addition to making us feel calmer and better equipped to weather challenges, meditation also has many direct health benefits. A daily meditation practice will transform your ability to cope with everyday stress and challenges. Listed below are four ways that meditation helps improve health.
Stress plays a major role in the daily lives of Americans and during this pandemic, even more so. Unfortunately, stress is an important factor in determining whether or not your immune system will be strong enough to fight off even the common cold. Chronic stress releases cortisol, which reduces white blood cells that are essential for protecting you against infection. At a time when we need our immune system in top shape, we are almost in a 24-hour cycle of stressors that weaken our immunity. Meditation, on the other hand, reduces cortisol levels and in turn, boosts the immune system. Studies show that meditation results in an immediate reduction in cortisol levels (1). Just ten to fifteen minutes of meditation three times a week can help “keep the doctor away.” This may actually be one of the easiest ways to “flatten the curve!”
The way we perceive pain is connected to our state of mind and more specifically, is linked to pain control centers in the brain that are positively impacted by meditation. One study showed that patients who had spent four days meditating prior to the experiment and then given a pain stimulus reported less pain and had more activity in the pain control centers of the brain compared to non-meditating patients. Don’t worry, you don’t need to meditate for four days straight! This is just one example of how powerful meditation is. Simply meditating for a short period of time daily for eight weeks has proven to significantly reduce complaints of pain in patients.
I know personally that my MS pain was horrendous. Painkillers did nothing for me and despite often crying in bed from the pain, I got to the point where I didn’t bother taking something since it wouldn’t even take the edge off. And by the way, I have a very high tolerance for pain – I’ve broken major bones before and not even noticed for hours. I haven’t had MS pain in years and am not even on treatment today. I have seen similar results in my clients who report reduced pain after just a week or so of meditation. The mind is very powerful when you know how to activate the right centers. So take it from me, if you are in pain, please start a meditation practice immediately!
Studies show that meditating once a day improves sleep quality and shortens the time it takes to fall asleep. Sleep is when our body can repair and rejuvenate. Ironically, despite those of us with chronic illness needing more than the average healthy person, I find that my clients with chronic illness have a lot of difficulty sleeping. I was the same way when I had MS symptoms. Whether it be from muscle pain or anxiety, symptoms of chronic illness can keep you up at night. While there are effective approaches such as medication to help you sleep, they rarely provide quality sleep and oftentimes, you may end up still feeling fatigued after waking up. Even if you think you are already sleeping well, it is a great idea to begin meditating. You might just discover that you didn’t even know how good your sleep could get!
Regulated Blood Pressure
Meditation impacts blood pressure by calming down the amygdala which controls the “fight or flight” response. The “fight or flight” response, controlled by the sympathetic nervous system, increases alertness when we are in danger, which in turn, increases blood pressure. Meditation activates the parasympathetic response, which lowers blood pressure and slows heart rate- allowing you to calm down. Countless studies indicate that meditation reduces blood pressure by several points. This effect happens in real time, so when done consistently, the long term effect can be very powerful. Even taking ten slow deep breaths can help your body achieve the needed benefit of meditation to reduce blood pressure.
The best way to begin a meditation practice is to start small for a few minutes a day and work your way up from there. The ideal amount of time is between fifteen to sixty minutes a day. Another important tool is guided rather than silent meditation. This will help you get used to the experience until you feel ready to meditate silently. There are many types of meditation and I encourage you to find what works for you. In my FREE online support group (facebook.com/groups/stayingcentered), you will find several guided meditations from my co-facilitator Rabbi Ariel Sholklapper who runs a meditation center in Houston, Texas. For first time meditators, I also recommend downloading an app to guide you such as Insight Timer or Headspace.