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Published on April 29, 2021

6 Health Benefits of Meditation (Backed By Science)

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6 Health Benefits of Meditation (Backed By Science)

Meditation has a long history dating back at least 3000 years ago. It began as a practice within Hinduism. Perhaps this is the reason why when many people think of meditation, they imagine someone sitting in a lotus pose, legs crossed, hands raised, and eyes closed.

What’s missing from this stereotype is an understanding of how much meditation has become a variegated practice of enhancing mental control, clarity, and repose. Although some people continue to use meditation as part of their religious practice, the majority of those who practice meditation do so to reap its many health benefits.

This is understandable given how little time it takes to effectively employ meditation daily (about 20 minutes—less time than most people spend catching up on social media).

Let’s take a look at the six science-backed health benefits of meditation.

1. Stronger the Immune System

One of the more surprising aspects of meditation is its impact on your immune system. It turns out that regularly calming your mind has a way of building up resistance to various illnesses.[1] That’s not to say that meditation is a firewall that will prevent you from ever getting the flu again. Even so, the evidence is pretty strong that it can significantly reduce the chances of your becoming sick.

An example of this benefit comes from a study that compared three groups of people. There was a control group where no changes were made to their daily lives, an exercise group where the members completed a set of daily exercises and a meditation group whose members practiced meditation daily.

The study found that after eight weeks, the meditation group had 30% fewer respiratory infections when compared to controls. What’s more, the severity of those illnesses that did occur among people in the meditation group was significantly less than either the exercise or control group.[2]

The takeaway lesson: a regular dose of medication may be just the thing to help guard against some illnesses.

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How does this work? No one knows for certain. Even so, it seems likely that because meditation reduces stress, this has the follow-on effect of helping the body stay in a strong state of readiness to combat illness.

2. Decreased Psychological Stress

Everyone experiences stress. If you are conscious, then you experience stress. Some sources of stress are pleasant, such as getting married, going on a vacation, moving into your dream home. Many sources of stress are unpleasant, like being fired from work, the loss of a loved one, the cost of having your car repaired.

No matter the source and no matter whether the stress is pleasant or cringeworthy, it can take a toll on your mental and physical reserves. Consequently, finding effective ways to control your stress is important for living a full and rewarding life.

Meditation can be one of the tools used to reach this goal. This has been shown in many studies. For example, researchers Cara Geary and Susan Rosenthal compared stress levels in two groups of subjects over the course of eight weeks. One group received training in meditation (and then performed it consistently) while the other group coped with stress in their usual manner.

Not surprisingly, the meditation group had significantly less stress after eight weeks. But what is more surprising is that the meditation group continued to have lower stress levels one year later. Moreover, they also rated their overall sense of well-being as higher than those who had not received training in meditation.[3]

The takeaway lesson is that a brief introduction to meditation can lead to lifestyle changes that have long-term impacts.

3. Enhanced Quality of Sleep

Everyone has experienced how much sleep impacts their mood and their ability to function effectively. A good night’s rest sets the foundation for the day ahead. Likewise, a night of tossing and turning creates an obstacle to pushing forward toward your goals the following day.

It’s a well-known problem that 60 million Americans struggle with each year.[4] If you are one of those who chronically wrestle with getting enough good quality sleep, meditation may just be the thing that helps you turn the corner.

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One study that supports this idea included a group of participants that were studied for one year. All participants presented with significantly disturbed sleep. The researchers divided the group into two subgroups. One was taught simple meditation techniques. The other group was given instructions on how to get a better night’s rest (e.g., establish routines, decrease caffeine intake, etc.).

At the end of the year, these two groups showed significant differences in their quality of sleep. The meditation group had markedly improved sleep—similar to what is found with those who use medication to treat sleep problems. They found that the power of meditation to improve the quality of sleep was roughly equal to that of medication or cognitive behavior therapy.[5]

The other group—the one that was provided sleep education/instruction—showed only mild improvement in sleep.

But it is not just one study that supports the link between meditation and improved sleep. A 2018 review of 18 studies on meditation, including a total of 1654 participants, found that meditation improved the quality of sleep much more than using a “wait and see” approach.[6]

4. Decreased Cellular Aging

Although practicing meditation does not lead to eternal youth, it does appear to reduce the speed at which cells age and eventually decay. It seems likely that part of the mechanism by which meditation induces this effect is by increasing the presence of telomerase, an enzyme that protects genes from aging (protects, but does not ultimately prevent).[7]

When this enzyme is scarce, cells tend to age faster. When it is in abundance, cells age more slowly. Likewise, the telomerase enzyme increases when someone is coping well with life and decreases when one feels extremely stressed.

Meditation appears to cause an increase in this enzyme and, consequently, reduces the rate of cellular aging. The mechanism by which this happens may be the reduction in psychological stress that is often seen in those who meditate. By reducing tension in life, and increasing a sense of well-being, the presence of telomerase should increase. In turn, cells live longer.

The longer your cells live, the more slowly they need to be replaced, and the slower you age.

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5. Increased Memory

Several studies show that meditation enhances memory. It improves blood flow in the brain, which may account for the improvements in memory.

Although research has not shown that one form of meditation is superior to another, it has shown that it only takes about ten minutes of meditation each day for someone to experience these benefits. Moreover, the improvements in memory begin to show up soon after someone begins to make meditation a daily habit.

An example of this is found in a study that compared two groups of subjects. The first group consisted of people who listened to a 13-minute guided meditation recording each day. The other group of subjects listened to a 13-minute podcast (unrelated to meditation).

At the end of eight weeks, both groups were tested and the one that performed daily meditation showed significant improvement in both long-term memory and recognition memory. Not surprisingly, those that meditated also showed less stress.[8]

6. Decreased Anxiety

Anxiety is part of life that everyone experiences from time to time. It arises, becomes a momentary nuisance, is dealt with, and resolved.

For some people, however, anxiety becomes a major source of concern—one that has life-changing consequences: loss of employment, ruined relationships, squandered opportunities, and physical illness.[9] Even milder (but chronic) anxiety can have a significant impact on one’s happiness and ability to function at his or her best.

Fortunately, many effective approaches reduce or eliminate anxiety. These include Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT), medication, Exposure Therapy, Corrective Experience Focused Therapy, and others. But none of these approaches can compete with the simplicity and ease of meditation.

A 2010 review of 39 studies involving 1,140 participants concluded that meditation has a positive impact on reducing anxiety. Interestingly, the authors also found that meditation is sometimes helpful in reducing anxiety that arises as a function of chronic pain, and cancer treatments.[10]

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As was true with memory, it does not require long periods of meditation for it to be effective in reducing anxiety. Just 20 minutes a day can prove helpful.

Many people are likely to see improvement in their anxiety levels by following a ten-minute guided meditation once in the morning and once again in the evening. Below is a short video to help you.

Final Thoughts

Consistently practicing short periods of meditation can result in numerous benefits. Yet, it takes very little effort and costs nothing but a brief bit of your time. It is easy to learn and can be done at home, in the office, or when away traveling.

Anyone wanting to improve their quality of life can readily take advantage of this tool. The only thing needed is to make a decision—start today.

You can easily do that by going to Ron Siegel’s website (he is a Professor at Harvard Medical school) and listening to one of his guided meditations. Barbara Fredrickson, Professor of Psychology at the University of North Carolina, is one of the foremost researchers on meditation. She has free guided meditations on her website that will get you started enjoying the benefits of making this a daily practice.

More About Meditation

Featured photo credit: Darius Bashar via unsplash.com

Reference

More by this author

Forrest Talley

Forrest is a Clinical Psychologist who has been helping adults, teens and children for over 30 years.

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Last Updated on November 8, 2021

How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

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How To Do Focused Meditation Any Time

Do you often feel stressed for most of your day? Maybe you always feel a burden that you just can’t get rid of? Focused meditation might be your answer.

In this article, I’ll explore what focused meditation is, how it differs in the pool of many styles of meditation, and how to implement and start this practice today. Likewise, I’ll highlight the benefits of a focused meditation practice for your overall health.

What Is Focused Meditation?

Meditation is the practice of becoming self-aware through breath and attention to connect the mind, body, and spirit.[1] Meditation as a whole can change the structure and function of our brain. That being said, focused meditation or a guided meditation for focus is by far the best one. Meditation for focus and concentration can come in different forms. Experienced meditators use the following:

  • Mindfulness – this meditation involves us to be focusing on your breath and observing thoughts. This allows us to focus on our feelings without becoming too absorbed in them.
  • Concentrative – a meditation that gets us to focus on a particular point; be it a word, breath, object, or a point in the space you’re meditating. This is meant for us to pay attention to that point and prevent our minds from getting distracted.
  • Moving – this meditation involves gets us to focus on slow and repetitive movements similar to yoga or tai chi. The goal is again to be focusing on your breath while relaxing your body and mind with the movements.

Focused meditation, also known as concentrative meditation, is the practice of meditating and bringing your attention to one single object. This object can be something practical and tangible, such as a mandala painting or a candle flame. It can also be something abstract, such as a phrase (also known as mantra) or a sound (such as Om).[2][3]

Whatever you settle your attention on becomes the focal point. None of these object examples are better than others—they are simply choices depending on what you’re looking to get out of your practice. For example, practitioners will choose candle gazing to interpret the images the flame makes in the shadows while others will choose a mantra because that particular phrase or word empowers or heals them.

How Does It Differ From Other Meditation Styles?

All meditation styles and practices overlap and build on each other. Their basic foundation is the same: to bring the practitioner insight and introspection.

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There is no right or wrong way to meditate, however, the various types of meditation can enhance particular qualities. Based on your personality and needs, one type of meditation may be more useful to you than the other. The 9 types of meditation are:

  • Mindfulness meditation
  • Spiritual meditation
  • Focused meditation
  • Movement meditation
  • Mantra meditation
  • Transcendental meditation
  • Progressive relaxation
  • Loving kindness meditation
  • Visualization meditation

Focused meditation, specifically, is the practice of focusing on one single object for the duration of the practice. How this differs from other meditation styles is that it gives the practitioner something tangible to do: focus. It’s almost like giving your mind an action to perform—listen to this sound, repeat these words, watch this flame, etc. This is also one of the reasons why this particular meditation style is great for beginners!

One of the biggest challenges in any meditation practice is that the mind gets carried away and we lose ourselves to random thoughts. This “obstacle” is actually a style of meditation in and of itself called Vipassana.[4] However, in focused meditation, we give the mind something to do so that it’s not simply left to its own devices. This type of meditation is beneficial for beginners and for practitioners who prefer some structure and guidance to their meditations.

The Benefits of Focused Meditation

In this style of meditation, what you’re really doing is exercising your mental muscles. Your brain is highly affected by dedicated and concentrated meditation practice.

Scientists have performed countless studies on focused meditation and have found that active meditators have more gray matter volume in their brain and, therefore, offsetting the cognitive decline that comes with aging. So, not only does practicing focused meditation help you learn how to focus better on certain tasks, but it also improves similar functions, such as memory. [5]

Likewise, it helps in reducing symptoms of depression and anxiety, which our society is currently crippled with.[6] By settling your attention on an object, you are essentially building your ability to observe your thoughts and sensations from a place of objectivity. This allows you to detach from negative self-talk that is often the breeding ground for depression and other mental illnesses.

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From a guided meditation for focus to practicing it yourself, daily meditation for focus comes with several benefits:

  • It’ll reduce stress
  • Help you to control anxiety
  • Enhance your self-awareness
  • Improve attention span
  • Helps you to focus on the present moment
  • Increase your creativity and imagination
  • And boost your patience and tolerance for things.

How to Practice Focused Meditation

Here are six tips to help you practice focused meditation. Based on your availability and interest, these tips may change and evolve. That’s the point: to create a structured practice that caters to your needs.

1. Find a Comfortable Seat

As with any meditation practice, comfort is truly key. The physical body responds to meditation practice by alerting you to whether it is comfortable and supported or stressed out and in pain. This is best observed in practitioners who tend to slouch and lose the tall, supported spine that is essential to meditation practice.

A simple rule in meditative sitting is to ensure that your hips are higher than your knees. Therefore, choosing to sit in a chair instead of on the floor may be a smart decision or perhaps propping yourself up on a cushion. For meditation techniques overall, it does not matter how you sit. All that matters is that you are supported and comfortable sitting for some time.

2. Choose Your Object of Focus

Every meditation training session is going to be different because no single day is the same for any one person. Therefore, experienced meditators know that choosing an object is more about listening to what you need at this time versus following any doctrine or “rule.”

If you’re not sure and have a hard time deciding, make focusing on your breath and pay attention to the inhale and exhale is a good option. Then, assign each inhale and exhale a number, and once you reach 10, start over. This is one of the simpler methods of keeping your mind occupied—by giving it a task. This also trains your mind, and over time and with practice, your mind will easily focus on an object without too much effort.

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3. Set Your Desired Time or “Go With the Flow”

If you have a structured routine and would like to stick to your schedule, by all means, set a gentle timer for how long you’d like your meditation to be. This is also your opportunity to throw out the notion that any meditation has to be a certain length of time to be correct—it does not.

Likewise, if you have the time, you can also listen to your body and come out of your meditation when you feel it’s right to do so. This is often a beautiful practice of listening and tuning in.

4. Relax Your Body as You Focus on Your Meditation

Typically, when we are focusing on something, we tend to tighten our body. Observe this next time that you’re concentrating on something: your jaw will tighten and your shoulders will squeeze up towards your ears.

As you sink into your meditation, keep this in mind and check in with your body every once in a while. Let your shoulders sink down your back and release any tension through your jaw and face. Lastly, relax your brow and let your eyes be heavy in their sockets. Then, return to your object of meditation. Observe if your meditation changes at all by relaxing your physical body.

5. Return to Your Breath and Object When You Get Distracted

Notice that I didn’t say “if you get distracted.” That’s because you definitely will drift off with random thoughts or get pulled away from your object of focus. In meditation, distractions are almost guaranteed. Therefore, it’s your opportunity to practice detaching yourself from feeling guilty or inadequate to continue.

Over time and with practice, you will find it easier to stay with your object of focus. In the meantime, however, notice when you get distracted. Pause and take a big breath in and out. Check in with your physical body and relax. Once you’re ready again, return to your object of focus. Meditation is simply one long cycle of wandering and coming back to yourself.

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6. Journal Your Experiences

When your meditation practice has ended, another powerful practice is to jot down any experiences that you felt. There may have been insights and “downloads” that you acquired during your session that you may want to record.

Likewise, you could write about any challenges that you faced. These are great lessons that will continue to show up for you, and it’s nice to keep a journal of them to see how they evolve and progress over time (and they will). Lastly, you can write about what works and what doesn’t, as far as picking your objects of meditation go. This way, you can learn what you most associate with and feel comfortable with.

While these steps are simple, it’s easier said than done. Whether you’re starting out with a guided meditation for focus, loving kindness meditation, or transcendental meditation, anticipating failure the first time you try these things is healthy. Furthermore, congratulate yourself for even making slight progress like noticing and returning to the present moment and noticing the sensations you experienced.

Final Thoughts

If practicing meditation causes you to feel distracted and unsupported, give focused meditation a go! With the help of an object to bring your attention to, it structures your meditation time and offers guidance and support.

Dedicating yourself to this style of meditation will help increase your memory, reduce stress and anxiety, and promote better cognitive function. Even though any style of meditation is a powerful way of taking care of your mental health, focused meditation gives your mind a tangible task with which to grow and strengthen.

More About Focused Meditation

Featured photo credit: Lua Valentia via unsplash.com

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Reference

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