What meditation can do for your mind, mood, and health

Harvard Women's Health Watch

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Taking a few minutes to focus your mind each day can reduce stress, pain, depression, and more.

You can't see or touch stress, but you can feel its effects on your mind and body. In the short term, stress quickens your heart rate and breathing and increases your blood pressure. When you're constantly under stress, your adrenal glands overproduce the hormone cortisol. Overexposure to this hormone can affect the function of your brain, immune system, and other organs. Chronic stress can contribute to headaches, anxiety, depression, heart disease, and even premature death.

Though you may not be able to eradicate the roots of stress, you can minimize its effects on your body. One of the easiest and most achievable stress-relieving techniques is meditation, a program in which you focus your attention inward to induce a state of deep relaxation.

Although the practice of meditation is thousands of years old, research on its health benefits is relatively new, but promising. A research review published in JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2014 found meditation helpful for relieving anxiety, pain, and depression. For depression, meditation was about as effective as an antidepressant.

Meditation is thought to work via its effects on the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure during times of stress. Yet meditating has a spiritual purpose, too. "True, it will help you lower your blood pressure, but so much more: it can help your creativity, your intuition, your connection with your inner self," says Burke Lennihan, a registered nurse who teaches meditation at the Harvard University Center for Wellness.

Types of meditation

Meditation comes in many forms, including the following:

  • Concentration meditation teaches you how to focus your mind. It's the foundation for other forms of meditation.

  • Heart-centered meditation involves quieting the mind and bringing the awareness to the heart, an energy center in the middle of the chest.

  • Mindfulness meditation encourages you to focus objectively on negative thoughts as they move through your mind, so you can achieve a state of calm.

  • Tai chi and qigong are moving forms of meditation that combine physical exercise with breathing and focus.

  • Transcendental meditation is a well-known technique in which you repeat a mantra—a word, phrase, or sound—to quiet your thoughts and achieve greater awareness.

  • Walking meditation turns your focus to both body and mind as you breathe in time with your footsteps.

Lennihan suggests trying different types of meditation classes to see which technique best suits you. "Meditating with a group of people is a much more powerful experience, and having a teacher talk you through the technique will make it much easier at first," she says. Many meditation classes are free or inexpensive, which is a sign that the teacher is truly devoted to the practice.

Starting your practice

The beauty and simplicity of meditation is that you don't need any equipment. All that's required is a quiet space and a few minutes each day. "Start with 10 minutes, or even commit to five minutes twice a day," Lennihan says. "Preferably meditate at the same time every morning. That way you'll establish the habit, and pretty soon you'll always meditate in the morning, just like brushing your teeth."

The specifics of your practice will depend on which type of meditation you choose, but here are some general guidelines to get you started:

  • Set aside a place to meditate. "You'll build up a special feeling there, making it easier to get into a meditative state more quickly," Lennihan says. Surround your meditation spot with candles, flesh flowers, incense, or any objects you can use to focus your practice (such as a photo, crystal, or religious symbol).

  • Sit comfortably in a chair or on the floor with your back straight.

  • Close your eyes, or focus your gaze on the object you've chosen.

  • Breathe slowly, deeply, and gently.

  • Keep your mind focused inward or on the object. If it wanders, gently steer it back to center.

  • Breathe peace and quiet into your heart and mind. "While you're breathing out, imagine your breath as a river or a tide that's carrying your thoughts away," Lennihan says.

You can also chant out loud. Many people use the Sanskrit word "shanti," which means "peace." Or choose a word from your own religious tradition. "Chanting out loud can help drown out thoughts," Lennihan says.

Within just a week or two of regular meditation, you should see a noticeable change in your mood and stress level. "People will start to feel some inner peace and inner poise, even in the midst of their busy lives," says Lennihan.