“BREATHING IN, I CALM MY BODY. BREATHING OUT, I SMILE.”
World Mental Health Day in October reminds us about the importance of exercising our minds for better mental health – and it starts with mindful meditation
Mindfulness has long been considered effective therapy for easing mental health conditions like anxiety and depression, so much so that clinicians are increasingly, recommending it as a course of treatment before turning to medication. Just taking a few minutes a day to meditate with the goal of becoming more mindful, or focused on and accepting of the present, enhances the ability to regulate our emotions. Mindfulness provides the tools required to step back from negative thoughts and feelings, identify them, and accept them, instead of fighting them. This enables mindful thinkers to cope better by better regulating their emotions.
Research published in the journal Biological Psychiatry, studies 35 unemployed men and women experiencing the major stress of a job search. After just three days of mindfulness meditation, significant changes to the brain were observed on scans, especially in the portions dedicated to processing stress, focus, and calmness. Four months after the study, blood tests continued to show lowered levels of a key marker of inflammation. Researchers say that it’s this impact on the body’s stress response that seems to make meditation so effective in treating mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
“People at risk for depression are dealing with a lot of negative thoughts, feelings, and beliefs about themselves, and this can easily slide into a depressive relapse,” explains Willem Kuyken, Ph.D., a professor at the University of Oxford, who conducted a study which found that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) helped to prevent depression occurrence as effectively as maintenance antidepressant medication did.
Clinical psychologist and mindfulness researcher, Elizabeth Ward, Ph.D., also says that she has seen big shifts in her patients seeking help for anxiety and depression, through picking up a consistent practice of meditation. “Within a few weeks, I start to see changes and more importantly, they start to feel the changes,” she shares, adding that majority of her clients try meditation as an alternative to prescription meds.
Dr Ward, who has many athletes in her client base, uses exercise as an apt analogy. “I equate it with going to the gym. You’re not going to get fit working out one day a week – it needs to be several times a week,” she says, “We’re changing mental muscles in your brain, and it takes repetition and consistency for those changes to occur.”
To reap the best benefits, meditation should be a daily practice, but if you really can’t do it seven days a week, go for short meditations, or as often as you’re able to. “If you’re new to meditation, start with just three minutes a day,” advises Rie Komiya, who teaches Kundalini Yoga and Meditation at The Yoga School. “Meditation is a self-help tool that also teaches us awareness, empowering us to break old patterns that keep us stuck in chronic cycles of anxiety, stress or depression.”
The Body Scan is a mindfulness meditation that’s easily accessible for most beginners, and requires very little props. A thorough body scan meditation usually takes 30 to 40 minutes of uninterrupted focus and relaxation, but if you’re curious about mindfulness and meditation, commit to a daily practice by starting with a time frame that’s easily achievable. Three minutes is all you need to get started with this guided meditation by UCLA Health.
After a week or so, re-evaluate and see if you’re ready to meditate longer. Here’s a seven-minute guided Meditation for Working with Difficulties.
The most powerful proof of whether meditation works for you lies in your personal experience, so give it a go and try it for yourself. The Mindfulness Body Scan Meditation is highly effective for quieting the mind, strengthening concentration, and letting go of strain. Here’s a 30-minute guided meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.