Updated: Sep 4
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There are many different strategies that therapists and patients use to treat anxiety and depression. For some, cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective way of helping patients change their thought patterns and rid themselves of negative behaviors. For others, medication is utilized in order to regulate brain chemistry in a way that stimulates a more positive state of mind. There are those too who find that holistic approaches are helpful when used in conjunction with standard treatments. One way to help decrease anxiety and induce relaxation is through meditation. Here’s what to know about meditation-and how it can be used to improve mental health.
What is Meditation?
When we think of meditation, we might conjure up an image of sitting cross-legged in a room amongst a group of people. Perhaps our arms are out to our sides while we chant in unison with the rest of the group. Though some meditations are performed like this, many modern- day ones are not. Meditation is simply the process of utilizing a specific technique, such as mindfulness or focusing on a particular object, in order to achieve an emotionally calm state. It’s been practiced in one form or another since the year 1500 BCE, with its origin primarily in the Hindu religion.
How Does Meditation Affect Our Brains?
Scientists have developed a more thorough understanding of how meditation affects our brain. When we meditate over a long period of time, our brains stop processing information as quickly as we usually do. Even after one single 20-minute meditation, scientists have assessed that our beta waves are reduced. Beta waves are the mechanism within us that helps us to understand and analyze information.
Moreover, the frontal lobe, which is responsible for planning, emotions, and self-consciousness, tends to become less “awake” during the meditation process. The parietal lobe, or part of the brain that processes sensory information, slows down as well. Meditation slows the flow of new information. Therefore, new data trickles, rather than pours, into our brains. In short, a brief meditation can momentarily slow down and shut off the parts of our brain that lead to excessive stress.
Benefits of Meditation
We live in a busy world where sensory overload is the norm. Between our computers, phones, work, children, television, and 24-hour news cycles, there’s enough information to make a normally calm person feel on edge. With anxiety disorders on the rise all over the country, psychologists have correlated much of it directly to this sensory overload. Other than taking a break from modern life, there’s not always much we can do to avoid this type of stress. Meditation is a great way for our brains to take a break from the constant sensory overload that we have to process. A few other benefits include:
Meditations help improve our focus because it requires us to put all of our attention on one object or image for an extended period of time. This can be difficult at first, so many highly anxious individuals become frustrated when their minds tend to drift. But with practice, meditation can actually improve our focus in everyday life because we become more aware of the present moment. We learn how to tune out thoughts that are future or past driven.
When we meditate, we loosen the connections of particular neural pathways in our brains. Normally our pathways are very strong, and when we experience a moment of fear, it’s because the triggering event is overwhelming our pathways and shooting straight to the medial prefrontal cortex. Meditation allows us to underreact to stressful situations. We are able to look at events in a more rational, rather than emotional way.
A few studies showed that those who practiced meditation were able to adjust their brain waves to stop distracting thoughts from coming in. They were also on average, more productive than their non-meditating counterparts. Those who meditated were able to remember new information and recall past information in order to help solve problems. Another theory suggests that an induced state of calm leads to better memory retention. Because meditation decreases anxiety, those who practice it tend to have a better memory.
Calmer people tend to sleep better. There are certain meditations that can be done before bedtime in order to induce a state of relaxation and sleepiness. Even meditations that are done during the day can trigger a calmer mind frame than those who don’t do them at all. Over time, meditation can help people with mild insomnia, and has even improved one’s quality of sleep.
How do you meditate? What are some tips? Luckily, there are many different apps and videos online to help get started. The New York Times reviewed a few different apps and found that Headspace and Calm were the most popular and effective. Both of these provide hundreds of different meditations for a variety of needs-including concentration, insomnia, anxiety, depression, work stress, and more.
There are also many other ways to meditate that don’t require one to install an app. Simply try lying still for 10 minutes and focus on a calming image- such as the ocean, or a walk in the forest. Turn some soothing music on through Pandora to help relax your mind and body. Some have also argued that prayer is a form of meditation, as it helps us vocalize our needs and turn them over to a power above us. There are also yoga practices available that incorporate meditation and exercise together to create a relaxing, yet productive workout.
Regardless of the method you choose, practice is the key in achieving results. The first time you meditate, it may be difficult. This is especially true for those who suffer from severe anxiety disorders due to intrusive thoughts. However, it will be easier to meditate over time as you gain practice. Before you know it, it will simply be a part of your daily wellness routine.
Do you struggle with anxiety and depression? Would you like to add counseling to your meditation routine? If so, contact Straight Talk Clinic at 714-828-2000 or visit our website at straighttalkclinic.org. One of our professional counselors would be happy to speak with you.