Yoga and meditation may have become recent trends, but the history behind mindful practices is much deeper than a hashtag. The earliest records of meditation are from 1500 BC, and the practice has appeared in numerous forms all across Asia for millennia. (1) In the hustle and bustle of our modern lives, there are a couple of things we can learn from the ancient practice of taking a moment to go inwards.
Stress in the Digital AgeDid you know that stress can actually be a good thing? Back in our primal days, stress and the “fight or flight” response were responsible for keeping us alive! Small doses of healthy stress are important, help us adapt to changing environments and challenges thrown in our path. Stress becomes a problem when it becomes chronic and overwhelms your daily life. From the physical to the emotional, there are many sources of modern-day stress that compound negatively on our health. Struggling to pay the bills, difficulty in your relationship, the death of a loved one. What to cook for dinner, meeting that project deadline, and how to manage picking the kids up from soccer practice and still make it back in time to meet the plumber.
Physical Effects of StressStress is linked to inflammation, which is touted as the root cause of virtually all modern disease. Other effects of stress include:
- Chronic stress can shrink your brain. (2) Studies report that the hippocampus shrunk 8% in patients with PTSD, the part of the brain responsible for learning and memory. (3) Those without PTSD don’t get a free pass: Chronically elevated cortisol levels (stress hormone) is also linked to shrunken brains. (4)
- Stress lowers your immune system: If you get sick often, or have trouble recovering from colds, it may be in part due to stress.
- Stress can make you fat. Not only does stress increase your cravings for fatty, sweet, and salty junk food-- it’s also linked to insulin resistance, a leading cause of weight gain and a precursor for diabetes. (5)
- Chronic stress accelerates aging: Stress can aggravate external skin issues, like acne and wrinkles, but even worse are the effects of stress on your mind. By reducing the function of the blood-brain barrier, stress puts you at a higher susceptibility for Alzheimer’s. (6)
How Meditation Can HelpWhile some cultures have been using meditation for centuries, the western world has only recently started to catch up. There is more research being done on meditation than ever before! Here are some of the benefits backed by science:
- Better Heart Health: Recent studies have shown that meditation lowers blood pressure. A daily meditation practice can also lower heart rate and increase circulation.
- Boosted Immune System: UW-Madison found that meditation not only boosts the immune system; it also creates positive, lasting changes to the brain! (8)
- Lowered Anxiety & Stress: Generally, stress increases a hormone called cortisol, which also contributes to inflammation. Participants in meditation studies were shown to have reduced levels of stress, anxiety, and inflammation! (9,10)
- Improved Memory: Meditation has shown to improve memory, increase attention span, and quiet the part of the brain that is linked to worrying. Participants who meditated were able to retain better focus on a task, and remember more details of the task, than those who don’t meditate. (11,12,13)
- Better Sleep: Those who participated in studies reported better sleep quality, longer sleep duration, and less sleep disturbances after starting to meditate. Also shown were positive effects on insomnia and related sleep-prohibiting conditions, like anxiety. (14)
Getting StartedNow that you’re aware of some of the long-term effects of stress, and the power of meditation, there’s nothing left to do but get started! Some important tips to keep in mind:
- Pick a quiet, calming place. This might be a specific corner of your home, maybe the bedroom, or perhaps a nature spot. It needs to be somewhere you feel safe and comfortable, and won’t be interrupted.
- Go at your own pace. If you can only handle 5 minutes your first few sessions, that’s fine. You can build up to longer sessions over time.
- Be easy on yourself. We have the impression that meditation is completely emptying your mind of all thoughts. Your mind will wander, that’s normal. Let it wander, and focus on your breathing to quiet things back down.
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