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Take a Breath and Meditate To Relieve Stress

September 01, 2021

By Lisa Cianci, Editorial Contributor

It takes practice to learn how to meditate, but it’s worth it. Meditation can ease depression, lower your blood pressure and even reverse some chronic illnesses.

Many Americans also are turning to meditation to handle stress. In fact, meditation apps reported a spike in usage in 2020, with Headspace seeing a 20 percent increase and Calm seeing its daily downloads double.

Meditation is the practice of focusing attention to calm your nervous system. Think of it as restful awareness — you’re relaxed but alert as you train your mind to focus on one thing. When the mind settles down, it literally changes brain wave patterns and opens the pathway for the mind, body and spiritual connection, says Dr. Israel Wojnowich, a family practice physician with Bayfront Health St. Petersburg Medical Group Wellness Clinic.

Meditation Myths

Think you can’t meditate because it’s too hard or your mind wanders? Think again.

Meditation might not be our default mode because we’re always thinking about what's next or what decision we need to make. But it provides the brain with a much-needed mental pause. It’s a tool that’s accessible to everyone. Plus, it’s free and has zero negative side effects.

And don’t worry, it’s perfectly normal for your mind to wander during meditation. It happens to everyone.

“Meditation doesn’t mean your thoughts will stop,” Dr. Wojnowich says. “You’re just trying to interrupt them, which helps your mind settle down.”

Stress and Its Effect on the Body

When you don’t consistently take time to quiet your mind, stress can accumulate. Stress might seem invisible, but you can certainly feel its mental and physical effects.

Short-term effects of stress include:

  • Elevated heart rate
  • Muscle tension
  • Increased breathing
  • Spikes in blood pressure
  • Boosts in cortisol levels, the body's stress hormone

Long-term effects include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Impaired immune function
  • Decreased brain health
  • Decreased heart health

Chronic stress can contribute to anxiety, depression, headaches, heart disease, insomnia and even death.

How Meditation Helps

By taking a moment to forget about your daily needs, wants and urgent matters, you allow the mind to focus on the present and enter a state of relaxation, thus reducing stress, Dr. Wojnowich says.

When people routinely meditate, it can help reverse some chronic illnesses, lowering blood pressure by an average of five points. One study found that in depressed patients, meditation was about as effective as taking an antidepressant.

While you might not see a reversal in diabetes, meditation can help improve symptoms. Studies have shown that diabetes patients who meditate have better glycemic control. If you can better control diabetes, you can reduce the risk of heart disease.

How to Meditate

Consistent practice is the best way to benefit from meditation, just like building muscle with regular exercise. Try these tips to jumpstart your meditation practice:

Make time in your schedule. Creating a new habit takes time, but it’s a matter of reprioritizing. Instead of watching TV for 30 minutes, set aside a few minutes for meditation. Recognize that it’s critical to give your mind and body a break.

Remove distractions. Turn off your phone and put a do-not-disturb sign on your door if you need to. Your meditation should be uninterrupted.

Focus to settle your mind. Concentrate on one word or image, or on your breathing, to help relax and stay in the present moment.

Take baby steps. Start slowly with 10- to 15-minute sessions. Then increase your practice as your schedule allows and your meditation skills sharpen.

Do what works best for you. Some people like guided meditations, while others weave in prayers or mantras. Some practice in the morning, while others incorporate it into their workday. Try different techniques and styles to fit your needs.


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