While all these changes can help, there is one thing that is more powerful than any other tool when it comes to combating stress: meditation.
Meditation is something a lot of people don’t fully understand. There is the assumption among some that meditation is somehow ‘mystical’ or that it is necessarily linked with religion. Neither of these things is true.
There are many different types of meditation from transcendental, to mindfulness, to
religious meditation but all of them really just have one thing
in common: they
involve the purposeful direction of attention inward.
Whether it is reflecting on your own thoughts, praying or just sitting silently and trying to clear your mind, meditation involves making the conscious decision to take control of what you’re thinking and to try and stop your thoughts from jumping around everywhere. And when you do this, you will find it has a truly profound effect on your ability to stay calm in stressful situations, to control the nature of your thoughts and to combat many of the negative effects of stress.
In fact, studies show us that meditation can improve the areas of your brain that stress destroys – actually increasing the amount of grey matter in the brain and the amount of whole-brain connectivity. Furthermore, it can help to improve areas of the brain specifically related to motivation, attention and willpower. One study shows that it only takes 8 weeks to see amazing positive changes to the brain and restoration of grey matter in particular.
People who use meditation will usually report that they feel generally calmer, happier and more at peace throughout the day. This results in a better mood, heightened attention and general improvements in cognitive function and productivity.
All these things
mean that meditation is actually the
perfect antidote to stress and can undo a lot of the damage that meditation causes.
Apart from anything else,
meditation will help you to take a small break from the constant
stress of daily life and from the racing thoughts that come with this. More to the point
though, it will teach you to take control of racing thoughts at will and simply
to put them to one side.
Related: WHY YOU MUST STRESS LESS
Meanwhile, allowing your brain some time to enjoy this highly relaxed state will encourage the reparation of neurons and the cementing of things you’ve learned through the day.
Finally, it makes sense that areas controlling self-control would develop during the process of meditation. Meditation uses certain brain areas and we now know that the more you use an area of the brain, the more it grows. This works just like using a muscle and is a process known as ‘brain plasticity’.
And by practicing reflecting on your own mental state and being more aware of your own emotions, it only follows that you would better be able to control it and to avoid letting stress or impulse get the better of you in future.
How to Get Started With Meditation
So this is what meditation does for you and why it is the ideal antidote to stress.
The next question is how can you get started with meditation? Do you need to attend a class? Do you need to be a Buddhist monk?
Fortunately, meditation is actually pretty simple and this
is what ends up making it hard even
in some cases. A lot of people who first try meditation feel that it is too simple and thus assume they must be
doing something wrong!
The easiest way to get started if you’re a complete beginner, is to try guided meditation. Guided meditation means using a pre-recorded script that will talk you through everything you need to be doing at any given stage. Essentially, this works to help direct your attention and show you what you need to be reflecting on or paying attention to at any given time.
A good one to try is ‘Headspace’. This is available as a website and as an app and in either case, you’ll find a selection of guided meditations to walk you through. The only downside is that headspace is not free and that after the first 10 sessions, you’ll have to start paying.
Fortunately, those first ten sessions are more than enough to give you a taste of meditation and to teach you the basics. From here, you’ll then be able to take what you learned and re-apply it in order to continue on your own.
If you’d rather not start a paid system though, then you can always use one of the many free YouTube videos that will do the same thing!
In general, most guided meditation will take you through the following steps.
To start with, you will sit somewhere comfortable and close your eyes.
Set a timer for 10 minutes, or however long you have until you need to be doing other things. While you should be comfortable, you shouldn’t be too
reclined or generally put yourself in danger of falling asleep!
The next thing to do, is to bring your attention to the sounds and the world around you. This means just listening to the sounds and noticing what you can hear. This is an interesting exercise in and of itself: if you actually stop to listen you’ll be able to pick up on a lot more information than you were probably previously aware of.
Don’t strain to listen but instead just let the sounds come to you – whether those be barks from dogs next door, the sound of birds or perhaps chatter from someone in another building that you can hear through the walls.
After you have done this for a little while, the next step is to bring your attention in to yourself and to notice how your body feels. This means noticing the way that your weight is distributed on your buttocks. Is it evenly distributed? Are you leaning slightly to one side? Likewise, try to notice the air against your skin, the temperature, any aches and pains etc.
You can then try the ‘body scan’. This is something that some people use as the main basis for their meditation and it involves focussing on each part of your own body, starting right from the head and then moving down the body slowly from the face, to the chest, to the legs, to the feet. Each time you get to a point on your body, make a conscious effort to release any tension you might be holding there and to relax.
You can even turn your attention inward further by
seeing if you can feel the beating
of your own
heart, or the
movement of your
Either way, we’re now going to focus on breathing. This is something that a lot of people will again use as the entire basis of their meditation. Simply count the breaths in and the breaths out and each time you get to ten, start again. The aim now is to have all of your focus and all of your attention on the breathing and not to be distracted by anything outside.
Now, from time to time, you will notice that your thoughts start to drift and that you end up thinking about other things. This is a fantastic example of just how hard we find it to focus on any one thing for a given period of time. It’s a fantastic example of just why you need this meditation!
Don’t fret when it happens though. This is the worst thing you can do! Instead, simply ‘notice’ that your mind has wandered and then bring your attention back to your breathing again. Each time it drifts off, just re-center and don’t worry about it.
Focussing on the breathing is simply giving us a way to center our thoughts and to remove the distractions that normally interrupt. This could just as easily work by focussing on anything else: for example, some people will focus on a single word called a ‘mantra’. A mantra is what is often used in transcendental meditation for instance and might mean just repeating the word ‘Om’ in order to busy your internal monologue.
Finally, the last stage of our guided meditation is going to be to just let the
thoughts wander freely
and to let them go wherever they want to.
This last stage is essentially mindfulness meditation. The idea is that you’re going to detach yourself from those thoughts and simply ‘watch them’ rather than feeling emotionally affected by them.
This last part is the part where you get to really relax and stop ‘fighting’ your brain and it’s a great way to end. Then bring your focus back to your breathing, then back to your body, back to the world around you and eventually open your eyes.
Congratulations, that was your first meditation session!
Learning to meditate and making it a part of your life are two very different things and a lot of people reading this are now going to struggle to adopt this new behavior in a meaningful way.
The first issue is that a lot of people get frustrated when they feel that their meditation isn’t ‘working’ and they thus give up. This is entirely the wrong way to look at meditation – this is not a means to an end but rather a relaxing place you can come and visit whenever you need it, or a great interlude before you start your day.
This extends to how you start out. A lot of people want
things to go perfectly right away and they’ll wonder why they haven’t achieved enlightenment as soon as
they close their eyes! Then their hair gets in their face, they become stressed
that they aren’t doing it right and they get up. Then they need to itch. Then
they’re not comfortable.
Don’t worry about it. It’s fine to move. It’s fine to open your eyes for a moment. All that’s important is that you then bring your attention back. In time, you’ll find you are less distracted. But to begin with, you won’t be ready for that yet and you mustn’t get frustrated when you find that distractions do arise.
The next tip is to think carefully about how you’re going to sustain your meditation training and make it a feasible part of your routine. A lot of resources will tell you how easy it should be to take 10 minutes out of your day. They’ll claim that ‘everyone’ has five minutes.
In reality though, it’s not easy. If it were, then everyone would already be doing it! Most of us are so busy that we legitimately struggle to find five minutes of free time and so we need to be realistic about what we can and can’t achieve.
Look at it this way: it’s much better to practice for two minutes twice a week and actually stick with it, than it is to try and practice for an hour a day and to give up after day two.
The best thing to do is to find an opportunity
when you waste time in the morning or the evening. This might be while your
partner goes through the shower in the morning,
or it might be when you get home
from work. Whatever it is, most of us have a few short periods of time
in our usual routine and the great thing about meditation is that you can do it anywhere
and with no props. Even if it’s on the train to work,
or if it is when you get into work 10 minutes early.
If you can find a ‘slot’ that already exists, you’ll find it’s much
easier to fit meditation in and to stick with.
Correct Breathing for Stress Reduction
When meditating it is important to try to remember to breathe properly. And better yet is to try and make this into a habit so that your breathing is better during your waking day as well.
The thing is: a lot of people don’t know how to breathe well and are unintentionally breathing incorrectly most of the time. Theory has it that the reason for this is closely linked to the way we sit at work.
This is a big deal if you’re trying to reduce stress, seeing as your stress levels are closely related to the way you breathe. We’ve already seen that there is a strong connection between physiology, feelings, emotions and psychology. When we are stressed, we breathe more quickly and not as deeply. But likewise, when we breathe more quickly and not as deeply, we become more stressed.
Right now, take both hands and place one on your stomach and one on your chest. Now breathe normally. Which hand is moving first? Is it the hand on your chest or the hand on your stomach?
For most people, the answer is the chest. But to be optimally healthy, it should be the stomach. When we’re infants this is how we breathe and it’s also how animals breathe. Years of sitting in an office desk though, or on a sofa, mean that we’ve spent too long with our stomachs compressed and learned to breathe differently.
Stomach breathing means that you are relaxing your
abdominal muscles, thereby opening
up your abdominal cavity and allowing your
diaphragm to drop down into that space. This then creates more room for the lungs and they will automatically inflate as they enlarge. You then bring your chest in and open that up to take in even more oxygen and as a result, you breathe a lot more deeply. This oxygenates your body and it calms your heartrate and helps you to feel less stressed.
In fact, one of the very best ways to help yourself feel instantly less stressed, is to start taking deep, controlled breaths. This puts you in a rest and digest state and stops the fight or flight response in its tracks. So if you’re about to go to an interview or give a presentation, practicing some controlled breathing for a while is the perfect antidote to the stress you’re probably experiencing.
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