Throughout the day, when we experience stress, our bodies automatically react in ways that prepare us to fight or run. In some cases of extreme danger, this physical response is helpful. However, a prolonged state of such agitation can cause physical damage to every part of the body. Meditation affects the body in exactly the opposite ways that stress does, restoring the body to a calm state, helping the body to repair itself, and preventing new damage due to the physical effects of stress.
The benefits of meditation are manifold because it can reverse your stress response, thereby shielding you from the effects of chronic stress. When practicing meditation, your heart rate and breathing slow down, your blood pressure normalizes, you use oxygen more efficiently, and you sweat less. Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol, your mind ages at a slower rate, and your immune function improves. Your mind also clears and your creativity increases. People who meditate regularly find it easier to give up life-damaging habits like smoking, drinking and drugs. Meditation research is still new, but promising.
Meditation involves sitting in a relaxed position and clearing your mind. You may focus on a sound, like “ooommm,” or on your own breathing, or on nothing at all. It’s necessary to have at least 5 to 20 distraction-free minutes to spend. (Longer meditation sessions bring greater benefits, but sometimes starting slowly can help you maintain the practice long-term.) It’s helpful to have silence and privacy, but more practiced meditators can practice medtation anywhere. Many practitioners of meditation attach a spiritual component to it, but it can also be a secular exercise.
Meditation is wonderful in that it’s free, always available, and amazingly effective in short-term stress reduction and long-term health. Benefits can be felt in just one session. An experienced teacher can be helpful, but isn’t absolutely necessary.
It does take some practice, however, and some people find it difficult to “get it” in the beginning. It also requires a little patience, and may be difficult for people with little free time (like some stay-at-home mothers who get little privacy from small children). However, the time and effort it takes to learn and practice is well worth it in terms of the benefits it provides.
Unlike some medications and herbal therapies, meditation has no potential side effects. People with physical limitations may find it easier to practice than strenuous physical exercise for stress relief, plus, no special equipment is required. Unlike enlisting the help of a professional, meditation is free. However, it does take discipline and commitment, so some people may find it more difficult to maintain as a habit than methods that enlist the help of someone or something outside themselves for added motivation. Also, some people may find it more difficult to free their minds of the thoughts of the day, and thus find it more difficult than methods like journaling that involve focusing on these events, or methods that in themselves are distracting, like physical exercise or the use of humor.