Simple Meditation Exercises for Better Health
BY: Stacey Colino
It’s long been known that meditation has the impressive ability to combat stress -- a blessing since unbridled tension and strain can take a toll on your body and mind. Now, more and more doctors and psychologists are encouraging their patients to try simple meditation exercises in order to harness the tension-taming benefits and ease stress-related physical ailments.
In one recent study that involved 75 women with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) -- a condition characterized by repeated bouts of constipation, diarrhea, abdominal cramping and bloating -- researchers at The University of North Carolina found that those who learned mindfulness meditation exercises experienced a greater improvement in their symptoms over three months than those who were assigned to a support group. Meanwhile, recent studies have found that mindfulness meditation can significantly improve pain scores among women with chronic pelvic pain and fibromyalgia. Indeed, stress-management techniques like meditation are being used nowadays to help alleviate everything from headaches and heartburn to high blood pressure.
The Healing Power of Meditation
How can meditation help with so many seemingly unrelated conditions?
“When we’re under stress, the sympathetic nervous system stimulates the fight-or-flight response: Stress hormones, like cortisol and norepinephrine, get released; blood pressure, pulse and breathing rates go up; and muscle tension increases,” all to help you battle your enemy or run for your life, explains Dr. Delia Chiaramonte, a family physician and the director of education at the Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore.
Meditation, on the other hand, “stimulates the opposite of all those things: the relaxation response,” says Chiaramonte. During meditation, circulating levels of stress hormones decline, muscle tension decreases, and blood pressure, pulse and breathing rates go down. It’s like the antidote to the stress response.
Another reason why “meditation is good for health is because most forms, especially mindfulness meditation, encourage us to stop and recognize the recurring chaotic stories that we play over and over in our minds’ thoughts,” says Dr. David Rakel, director of Integrative Medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health in Madison. “These stories often cause stress that can have a physical effect, such as a headache.” Because meditation requires you to pause and focus on the present moment and then proceed with greater clarity, the practice can have numerous positive effects on physical and mental health, adds Rakel.
To bring the benefits of mindfulness meditation into your life, try the following simple meditation exercises:
1. Become truly present-minded: While doing any mundane task, keep your attention in the moment by focusing all your senses on the experience. When washing dishes, for example, pay attention to the feel of the dishes and the warmth of the water on your hands, the scent and suds created by the soap, and the soothing sound of the running water. “If you come to an activity with a mindful perspective, it becomes a meditation,” says Chiaramonte.
2. Take a meditative break: Sit in a quiet place, in a comfortable chair that supports your back and allows your feet to rest on the floor. Close your eyes, breathe slowly and count each breath as you inhale until you get to 10; pause, then start again. If other thoughts come to mind, notice them as if they were clouds passing across the sky or leaves floating on a stream. “Let them pass without judging them or engaging them,” advises Chiaramonte. Start by doing this for two minutes a couple of times per day, then gradually work up to 20 to 30 minutes if you can.
Whether stress is making your thoughts whiz out of control or your stomach feel tied up in knots, simple meditation exercises like these can help you create an oasis of calm that will soothe your mind, relax your body and refresh your spirit.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.