Several years ago, I gave my doctor a list of things I could do to improve my overall health and asked him if I only added one thing, which would he prioritize?
- Improve my nutrition
- Exercise more
- Fast 12+ hours overnight
- Reduce alcohol consumption
- Lose weight
- Meditate more
- Use an infrared sauna
- Do brain exercises
The answer surprised me:
He said, “Little brain holidays are one of the healthiest things we can do, short and long-term.” *
This has proven to be excellent advice. As a coach, I don’t typically give unsolicited advice, but I’ll take my coach hat off for a moment. Please establish a meditation practice. It is one of the most essential strategies for improving your health and well-being.
Meditation is like the Swiss army knife of mental health. A practice that was once relegated to “woo-woo” has now amassed a mountain of scientific evidence demonstrating its benefits. On a recent episode of the Huberman Lab podcast, Andrew Huberman said literally tens of thousands of studies have now been published demonstrating the benefits of meditation.
Recently I talked about the benefits of meditation in building resilience. One study by Desbordes et al. (2012) demonstrated that meditation can lead to structural changes in our amygdala, the area of the brain associated with emotional regulation. You may have heard the term “amygdala hijack,” suggesting that in a fight-or-flight response, our amygdala “hijacks” our brain, shutting down other areas and taking over.
Research has disproven this theory. A much better metaphor is Ann Betz’s orchestra metaphor of the brain. Think of the brain as an integrated system, with different brain areas represented by different instruments in an orchestra. When we experience a fight-or-flight response, the “drums” of the amygdala get louder. The other instruments still play, but the drums may drown them out. Through meditation, we strengthen our ability to conduct that orchestra, signaling to the drums that they need to lower their volume so the other instruments can be heard.
In her book Peak Mind, Amishi Jha cites several studies showing how meditation can improve attention and focus. Jha’s research suggests that the sweet spot is to build to 12 minutes a day, at least five days a week. Her research shows that even less time produces substantial benefits.
Meditation has been shown to reduce anxiety. In one study, meditation was effective as anti-depressants in preventing depression relapse. Meditation has been shown to reduce our cortisol levels, which contribute to stress. In my Neuroscience, Consciousness, and Transformational Coaching coursework, we learned a tool to help our clients manage stress. It includes six strategies, ranked from least effective to most effective. What is the most effective strategy? Mindfulness. Meditation is the best tool I know to build your mindfulness.
Hopefully, you are convinced. Developing a meditation practice is one of the best things you can do to improve your overall wellbeing. Even so, I still hear frequent objections when talking to friends and clients.
In the spirit of the Ancient Greek traditions, I’ll employ Plato’s “Socratic dialogue” style to address the common objections I hear.
FRIEND 1: I understand the potential benefits of meditation. I have tried. I can’t do it.
JOSH (in the role of Socrates): When you say you can’t do it, what exactly do you mean? What have you tried, and how have you failed?
FRIEND 1: I have tried to meditate for five minutes and can’t sit still for that long.
JOSH: I see. Friend, you are an avid runner. How long do you train each day?
FRIEND 1: I run at least an hour a day.
JOSH: I see. So you can engage in vigorous exercise for more than 60 minutes, but you cannot sit still for five?
FRIEND 1: Well, I’m certainly capable when you put it that way. I don’t enjoy it.
JOSH: I see. So it isn’t that you can’t meditate. It is simply that you’d prefer not to.
FRIEND 1: I suppose so.
JOSH: When your mental health is as important to you as your physical health, I trust you will overcome this aversion to sitting still.
FRIEND 1: Fair point. I’ll give meditation a try.
FRIEND 2: That logic makes sense for our friend, the runner, as she has excellent discipline. I don’t share her discipline. I don’t run. I sit around watching TV in my spare time.
JOSH: So you can watch TV for two hours a day, but you cannot watch your thoughts for five minutes?
FRIEND 2: I suppose I can handle five minutes with my thoughts.
JOSH: Consider making meditation a daily practice you complete before you turn on the TV each evening.
FRIEND 3: I have tried. I can spend five minutes focusing on my breath, but it’s a waste of my time. My brain is clouded with thoughts, and I can’t stop them.
JOSH: When you step on a golf course for the first time, do you expect to hit a hole-in-one? When you start a new university course, do you expect to skip ahead to the final exam on the first day and get a perfect score?
FRIEND 3: Well, no, of course not.
JOSH: Meditation is no different. Simply spend a few minutes a day focusing on your breath. Thoughts will arise. Imagine them like a river, letting them flow by as they appear. Just continue to return to your breath. Like anything, you will strengthen your meditation abilities through regular practice.
As with any new practice, I recommend you start with a simple, achievable goal and build the habit over time. Find a time of day when you can make this a ritual. Consider a “stacking” habit, where you tie the practice to an existing ritual, as with Friend 2 meditating before their daily TV ritual. Start with one minute a day if need be. Consider adding a minute each week. In three months, you’ll be meditating twelve minutes a day.
Your meditation can be as simple as setting a timer on your phone, closing your eyes, and focusing on your breath. Consider counting your breaths from one to ten, then starting over at one. If you get distracted by thoughts, return to your breath and start over at 1.
I use the Insight Timer app. I like it because it has a free offering, and it integrates with Apple Health, so even if I’m just using it as a timer, it tracks the time I’ve spent meditating and sends it to Apple so I can easily see how much I’m meditating. Usually, I’ll use the timer and do my own self-directed practice.
Putting It Into Practice
Whether you want to get more focused, reduce anxiety, manage stress, be more mindful, or elevate your consciousness, meditation is a powerful practice that can support you.
- Find a time of day when you can reliably meditate.
- Start with as little as one minute a day. Over time build up to at least twelve minutes a day.
- Select a meditation app such as Insight Timer, Headspace, or Calm to help structure your practice.
Commit to your meditation practice today – you won’t regret it!
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* Dr. David Stewart, Loudoun Holistic Health Partners