Do you power through in your day, unable to hit the ‘off switch’ or even ‘idle your motor’ for a few minutes? This approach can be effective, but it can also lead to a buildup of stress that affects the performance of mind and body. To recharge yourself, try creating space in your day with meditation. During meditation, stress hormones dissipate, focus and clarity of thought improves (which may also help keep your mind young), and energy rebounds.
Although the benefits of meditation are increasingly supported by science, and meditation has become more mainstream, there are still misconceptions about what it is. These misconceptions can be barriers to trying meditation, just as thinking ‘exercise’ means ‘training for a marathon’ might stop you from exercising.
The science. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist, used brain scans to test anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation. The first study looked at long-term meditators versus a control group. They found the long-term meditators had an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions of the brain. They also found more gray matter in the frontal cortex, which is associated with working memory and executive decision-making.
Our frontal cortex is involved in reasoning and innovation and shrinks as we get older. Researchers found that fifty-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as twenty-five-year-olds in one region of the prefrontal cortex. In a second study to make sure participants didn’t have more gray matter to start with, researchers put a group of people who had never meditated before through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. The participants took a class weekly and then were given a recording and told to practice on their own for forty minutes a day. After eight weeks, Dr. Lazar found differences in brain volume in five different regions of their brains.
Adopting a meditation practice can also lessen the fight-or-flight response, which results in fear, anxiety, and stress. The part of the brain involved in this response, the amygdala, got smaller in the group that participated in the program and this corresponded to a reduction in stress levels and the levels of the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline.
Find your meditation style. There are different forms of meditation, so find one that works for you.
- Focus meditation. Find a spot where you will be undisturbed and choose something on which to focus, usually your breath, for a period of minutes.
- Walking meditation. In walking meditation, you focus on the physical sensations of walking: how your feet feel, how your weight shifts, how your arms move. You can expand your focus to include the environment around you: the sights, sounds, and smells.
- Guided meditation. A scripted recording guides you through breathing exercises or through a relaxing scenario that promotes calm. Many people find this type of mediation easier to practice with a meditation app.
- Mantra meditation. Choose a mantra—typically a one- or two-syllable word that you silently repeat to yourself. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t have to be Om! It can be a quality you’d like to have more of: for example, calmness, confidence, or compassion. Using a mantra like ‘calm and confident’ can be effective before meetings and presentations.
Pilot it. A mistake many people make when trying meditation is the same mistake many make when they start going to the gym—setting the bar too high and then getting discouraged. Rather than commit to meditating every day for 30 minutes, try meditating three or four times a week for ten minutes each session to start.
Practice it. There’s a reason why it’s called the practice of meditation. Even experienced meditators will tell you that they have days when their minds wander, their nose itches, or they start making plans for the rest of the day. Part of meditation practice is noticing the distraction and then bringing the mind back to the present moment.
Schedule it. Put a reminder in your calendar for the days and times you will meditate. I like to meditate after I’ve had my coffee in the morning and before I start on the day’s activities, but choose a time that works for you. You might find that meditating for ten minutes after you turn off your computer at night sets you up for a good night’s sleep.
Mini-meditation. If starting a meditation practice isn’t practical for you right now, try another strategy that I use with many of my executive clients. I call it the mini-meditation or pause breath. It takes just a minute and you can use it at any time during the day. All it takes is a pause, a breath, and noticing how your body feels. Simply breathe in on a count of four and breathe out on a count of six. Be aware if there is tension in your face, shoulders, or chest, and try to let that tension release as you breathe out. This release of tension can have a positive effect on your body language and executive presence.
Meditation is not for everyone but I have witnessed the benefits it has had for my most successful clients. Take a few minutes every day for you and you will notice a difference.
Written by: Beth Benatti Kennedy, MS, LMFT.
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