Do you picture someone sitting cross-legged with their eyes closed when you think of meditation? That’s not uncommon. But, meditation can look very different depending on how you practice it. With the enormous health benefits of consistent meditation and the many different ways to practice it, it’s easier than ever to find a way to add it to your health routine.
Let’s learn more about the effect of meditation on the body, what the research says about meditation, meditation benefits, and finding the right type for you. But first, let’s talk about the nervous system and its role in meditation and stress management.
The Nervous System and Meditation
The nervous system transmits signals throughout the body, controlling our ability to breathe, think, move, and more. The autonomic nervous system, a branch of the nervous system, regulates involuntary processes such as breathing, digestion, heart rate, and blood pressure.
The autonomic nervous system has two parts – the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. Here’s how it works: The nervous system receives information about the external environment and about the body, then responds by either stimulating certain body processes – the sympathetic nervous system’s role – or by inhibiting them – the parasympathetic nervous system’s role.
The sympathetic nervous system is commonly referred to as the fight or flight response. It’s what causes your heart rate and breathing to increase in the face of perceived danger – like seeing a bear on a hike. This side of the nervous system releases stress hormones during times of perceived danger that either help you run or fight back.
But the danger doesn’t have to be something as extreme as seeing a bear on the hiking trail in front of you. It’s any “perceived danger”, such as getting called to the boss’ office or even social anxiety.
Then, once the perceived danger has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system kicks in, decreasing your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure and allowing you to rest. The parasympathetic nervous system is sometimes referred to as the rest and digest nervous system, because it helps you recover from perceived danger and stress. It is also the side of the nervous system that allows us to heal.
The cool thing about meditation is that you’re training your nervous system to turn on the parasympathetic branch more often – essentially practicing to deactivate your sympathetic nervous system. Over time, this helps reduce anxiety, stress, depression, and even pain!
The Vagus Nerve and the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The vagus nerve is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system. It’s the longest nerve in the body, connecting the brain to many organs throughout the body like the heart, lungs, and intestines.
When we think about the vagus nerve and its role in the nervous system, what we really care about is its “tone” – called vagal tone. Vagal tone refers to the activity of the vagus nerve. Having a higher vagal tone means the body relaxes faster after stress and your parasympathetic nervous system is activated.
So how are some ways you can improve vagal tone?
- Cold exposure therapy, such as finishing showers with 30 seconds of cold water
- Getting enough good quality sleep
- Body work/Massage
What Does Research Say About Meditation?
There’s a plethora of research on meditation benefits and the many medical conditions it helps – things like high blood pressure, anxiety, depression, and pain management. This is in addition to the cognitive benefits like improving brain function, memory, and stress reduction!
Meditation Benefits on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression
When looking at a group of over 100 individuals diagnosed with depression or anxiety, mindfulness meditation worked just as well as evidence-based therapies like antidepressant medications. Research suggests that practicing meditation daily has the best benefit.
Blood Pressure and Meditation
According to the American Heart Association, practicing meditation may have benefits on blood pressure. A review of studies showed that people with chronic health conditions like hypertension or diabetes who practiced meditation had a reduction in blood pressure over time.
The Impact of Meditation on Pain
Many studies have shown that consistent meditation practice is strongly associated with a reduction in pain. For those with acute pain, such as after surgery, meditation appeared to improve pain tolerance.
Different Types of Meditation Techniques
This involved sitting upright and focusing on the breath, noticing the way it moves in and out of the belly space. This is often the most commonly thought of meditation and is an ancient Buddhist practice. This type works for some people, but can be an intimidating place to start for beginners without any guidance.
Instead of focusing on the breath to quiet the mind, a mantra is used in mantra meditation to encourage positive change. The mantra could be a word, phrase, or syllable.
This meditation practice involves being guided by a teacher during meditation and is generally performed twice daily in 20 minute increments. The transcendental meditation teacher is certified in the practice and gently walks you through each meditation.
Progressive Relaxation Meditation
Sometimes referred to as body scanning, progressive relaxation targets tension in the body and promotes relaxation by tightening and relaxing one muscle group at a time throughout the body. This can be especially helpful as a meditation practice before bedtime.
This type of meditation centers around focusing on feelings or images of positive scenes, images, or people – such as visualizing a beautiful sunset. Visualization requires you to use all 5 senses and to create the image in your mind with as much detail as possible. This can also be done as a quick practice to prepare yourself before going into a stressful situation, such as a work meeting.
While not always considered a traditional form of meditation, yoga can be integrated into a meditation practice if desired. One such form of yoga practice that is aimed at strengthening the nervous system is kundalini yoga, which consists of holding long repetitive poses, chanting, and breathing exercises.
*While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it gives you some ideas on where to get started!
Guided vs Unguided Meditation
Along with finding a type of meditation that works for you, you may also want to consider whether you’d prefer guided or unguided meditation. In guided meditation, a teacher walks you through the process. This is often a great choice for beginners, because the teacher explains the meditation technique, how the mind often responds, and then provides ideas on how to integrate the technique into daily life. Unguided meditation, on the other hand, is when you meditate alone without anyone else involved explaining the process. This is sometimes called silent meditation.
Incorporating Meditation and Mindfulness Into Your Daily Routine
We’re fortunate in the modern world to have access to many resources that can help us learn new things, many times from the comfort of our own home. Learning meditation is no different.
There are so many ways to learn meditation techniques and integrate it into your daily life. There are online courses, apps like Calm and Headspace, learning from Youtube, and local in-person classes to help. We have access to tips for establishing a regular meditation practice at our fingertips. One of my favorite online meditation courses is by Emily Fletcher, called Ziva Meditation. If you are interested in an in-person course, Transcendental Meditation has been around for decades and is also great.
Meditation has a role in any daily wellness practice. Integrating it consistently into your daily routine can yield many benefits physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you’re just getting started, try a guided meditation to begin. Youtube has endless options for guided meditation videos to help you get started – find one you like and stick with it!