If the word "meditation" brings to mind a deep-breathing yogi sitting in lotus pose, you wouldn't be wrong, but you'd be missing a huge part of the picture. As it turns out, this now-trendy practice is part of a much broader concept that goes beyond chanting or sitting in complete silence for a few minutes — it requires significant concentration and, more importantly, discipline. The key to making it effective is figuring out how to make meditation a habit that sticks for the long haul.
For starters, the process of meditation is completely up to you. Some people set a peaceful mood with candles, incense, and soothing music, while for others, a few minutes of deep breathing techniques is sufficient. Many find that certain activities, like running, knitting, and journaling put them in a meditative state that clears the mind or allows thoughts to freely flow.
If alleviating anxiety is your goal, meditation — of any kind — certainly has its stress-reducing qualities, but it's not just because it promotes relaxation. Conscious breathing, visualization, and getting in touch with your spiritual side can actually promote physical health and strength, give you mental clarity, and make you feel more control of your life, thus diminishing anxiety from multiple angles. Needless to say, if finding inner peace was one of your New Year's resolutions, this is a great place to start.
Ahead, two therapists and an avid meditator give their take on the stress-relieving benefits of this practice. Not sure where to start? Scroll on for first-timer tips on starting and sticking to a zen-filled routine.
Promote Physical Healing
Believe it or not, meditation can help your body heal. "Research indicates that meditation decreases oxidative stress and inflammation," explains holistic psychiatrist Alice W. Lee, MD, ABIHM, ABoIM. "Oxidative stress is when the amount of oxygen that you use to help the functioning of the body is not able to meet the needs of the body, in terms of energy." What's more, she says, people who meditate regularly may require less doctor's visits, and are more apt to recover faster. "[Meditation] decreases a need for medical care, basically," she surmises. "It helps the very foundational function of your body. That’s the root of healing."
Sometimes, noticeable changes are immediate. Dr. Lee recommends this three-minute energy breaths meditation to her clients. At the part where they visualize connecting with an infinite energy source, she says that their strength increases dramatically on muscle tests.
Reduce Stress Hormones
Connie Yip, a psychiatric nurse practitioner, explains another way that meditation can influence your body's physiological responses. "When we’re stressed, we release cortisol, aka the 'stress hormone,'" she says. "One hypothesis with meditation is that it helps decrease cortisol and possibly increases our dopamine levels, which helps us feel good."
In addition to preventing moments of panic, keeping cortisol levels at bay can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, improve immunity, put a stop to weight gain, and so much more.
Focus Thoughts & Increase Decisiveness
When it comes to making decisions — especially big ones — it's a bad idea to do it with a distracted or foggy mind. "When we’re calm, we tend to make more thoughtful decisions and be more realistic about our current and future circumstances," says Yip. "This prevents extreme knee-jerk reactions or decisions, which tends to lead to more stress."
Ever had a case of "analysis paralysis," where a decision feels so overwhelming, you just can't move forward? When this happens, even a few moments of mediation can help you calm down enough to gain some perspective on the situation. After all, the best decision you can make is the one you'll be at peace with.
Visualize & Achieve Your Goals
Whether it's getting on top of your finances, landing your dream job, or meeting the love of your life, Sydney Holland, co-founder of the crystal company The Urban + The Mystic, says that meditating with visualization can help you achieve your goals — even if they seem impossible. The business owner practices meditation and visualization every day, and when things come to fruition with no explanation, she dubs the phenomenon "magic." "I don’t need to know how things work or how they happen because it’s magic," she says. "So now I look for the magic everywhere."
Although she's been practicing visualization for a long time, Holland says that only recently, she had an epiphany and everything changed. "I think, for years, I was [approaching visualization] from a place of asking and sitting in anticipation, as opposed to knowing that [what I want is] already done," she recalls. "It finally clicked when I realized it’s the feeling of already having [what you want]. Holding that feeling consistently is what makes the magic happen." Knowing that your dreams will come true ... now that's calming, isn't it?
Starting & Sticking To Your Meditation Routine
If you're overwhelmed at the thought of starting and sticking to a meditation routine (remember, the point is to have less stress in your life), Holland recommends starting small, then building up. "Find what feels good," she says. "If two minutes of deep breathing feels good to you, then you’re more apt to [increase it to] five minutes of meditation a week from now." She also suggests trying guided meditations, which you can find through meditation apps or on YouTube. But her biggest piece of advice? "Get out of your head that you’re doing it 'wrong.' If you can sit, breathe, and not talk for 120 seconds, you’re well on your way."
To stay consistent, like anything else, you simply have to schedule your zen time in. "Make it a daily practice, like you do with other habits like brushing your teeth," Holland says. "Do it before you start your day, or right before you go to bed. That way it has a place in your daily routine." She adds, "Don’t worry if you only spend a few minutes each day meditating. Eventually you may spend more time — or just the right amount of time — that you need for that specific day.”
Overall, remember that you're more likely to stick with this form of self-care if it becomes a fulfilling and enjoyable part of your day. Treat yourself to some luxurious candles, some awe-inspiring energy crystals, or a beautiful journal. Maybe burning some incense and watching the tendrils of smoke puts you in a pleasantly hypnotic state ("it's said that as the smoke rises it carries your thoughts and wishes to the heavens," says Holland). Have fun trying different techniques, and if you want to set the ambiance with a little bit of everything, snag The Meditation Box from The Urban + The Mystic, which is filled with crystals, incense, sage, and a candle.