Ever since I can remember, I have struggled with anxiety. It has varied in severity throughout my life, but it has always been present — a weight I have carried and tried to manage, sometimes more successfully than others.
It helps to know I am not alone. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, just over 18 percent of US adults struggle with anxiety lasting for at least 12 months. Just under 23 percent are estimated to be living with anxiety classified as “severe.” At times, mine has reached this level. As anyone who has struggled with anxiety knows, it can make day-to-day life very difficult, indeed.
However, the purpose of this piece is not to complain, seek solidarity, or vent frustration. It is to highlight one practice that has quite literally been a saving grace to me throughout the years: meditation.
Meditation is an ancient practice that has been around for about 5,000 years — or perhaps even longer. It originated in the ancient Hindu and Buddhist traditions, and today, has evolved into many forms.
At its root, however, meditation centers around focusing one’s mind entirely on the present. Through this practice, worries of the past, and anxieties about the future, are given a channel to fall away.
It’s not an instant solution: Like anything worth doing, meditation requires dedication and repetition for maximum benefits to be reaped. However, it’s so worth it. Through daily meditation (in the morning and then again before bed is ideal for me), I am able to calm the anxiety and refocus myself to take on the world.
Through the discipline of getting back to the present, I am able to separate the nervous energy from myself. Through the cultivation of mindful breathing, it finds a way to leave my body as I exhale. I am left in a state of peace where it becomes much easier to let things slide, and get back to my core stability.
The connection between meditation and anxiety relief has been researched. To name just one example, a 2003 study performed at Texas Tech University tested the effects of a mindfulness-based program on women with heart disease, the results supported the hypothesis that the program might indeed lower the women’s anxiety levels.
Of course, anxiety is not the only thing that meditation can help with. There are so many things that can benefit from this practice, and science is just starting to scratch the surface of the possibilities. Besides relieving stress and anxiety, the following are seven more reasons to meditate every day:
Elevate your energy levels
Stress can not only zap your mental energy… it can deplete your physical energy as well. When we get caught up in the cycle of stress and anxiety, our bodies release a hormone known as cortisol, sometimes called the “stress hormone.” Cortisol leads to an adrenaline spike, characterized by quickened heart rate and muscle tension, and a subsequent crash.
Regular meditation can help train your mind and body not to go into this stress mode when challenging situations occur, leaving your energy levels intact. Additionally, taking a few moments to yourself to meditate when you begin feeling this way can calm the reaction, and allow you to get your focus and gusto back.
Boost your mood
Meditation has the notable potential to not only ease stress, but to elevate mood and lift depression, as well. A study performed in 2004, published in the journal Cognitive Therapy and Research, surveyed 23 participants who were diagnosed with “lifetime mood disorders,” and had histories of experiencing depression.
On the results of their analysis, the study authors wrote:
“Mindfulness practice can help to anchor a person in the present moment by identifying, even labeling, what arises in the stream of consciousness without becoming engrossed in or judging it… Thus, rather than avoiding or becoming absorbed in the content of the body and mind, MM [mindfulness meditation] teaches attentional skills that balance these extremes while remaining alert and observing the patterns of the mind.”
The study authors further added:
“With time, this awareness and pattern recognition can contribute to a decentered perspective of thoughts, sensations, and feelings—a sort of metacognitive awareness—which can help reduce the potency of the literal meaning of thoughts and feelings and the tendency to become absorbed in a ruminative state of mind.”
It is this “ruminative state of mind” that the researchers say can lead to increased depression, and meditation was linked to helping participants break out of this mental state.
Enjoy a higher quality of sleep
Meditating regularly may help you to get a better night’s sleep. A 2009 study published by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine surveyed the effects of Kriya Yoga, a type of relaxation meditation, on sufferers of chronic insomnia.
On their results, the study authors wrote:
“Results indicate that patients saw improvements in subjective sleep quality and sleep diary parameters while practicing meditation. Sleep latency, total sleep time, total wake time, wake after sleep onset, sleep efficiency, sleep quality and depression improved in patients who used meditation.”
Be more productive
When we are outside the present moment, it becomes extremely difficult to get anything done. This is because action happens in the present. If your mind is caught in the past or future, your work will suffer – there’s no way around it.
If you meditate regularly, however, you can train your mind to stay focused on the present, which infinitely benefits any task that you have on your plate, be it creative, professional, or something as simple as cleaning the house.
In fact, a study published by the Academy of Management Journal found that Transcendental Meditation® was linked with improved job performance, higher job satisfaction, and better relationships in the workplace.
Meditating on a regular basis can really help you to connect with your kids on a new level. When you are at peace and in the present, you can really zero in on activities with your child, and may find you are much better able to communicate with and understand them. I know this is true with my son: The more I meditate, the more easily I am able to engage with him, and the more fun we have!
Fight stubborn belly fat
This one may seem odd, until you really think about the mechanics at work. When we are stressed, agitated, or miss out on valuable sleep, our bodies’ levels of cortisol spike. When cortisol levels are chronically high, it can actually lead to the accumulation of belly fat .
On the other hand, meditating regularly can help to keep cortisol levels down, which does its part to help keep belly fat at bay — along with a healthy diet and exercise, of course.
Protect your brain
It’s true: Some research has shown that meditation, especially over the long term, can actually protect the gray matter of the brain , and increase the size of the hippocampus, which is associated with learning and memory. We use our brains a lot in our lives — it pays to protect them!
A few tips
If you’re just getting started with meditation, I suggest checking out a guided meditation session in your area. Many of these are free, and welcome walk-ins. If you find a session where you feel comfortable, it is a great way to learn the basics of meditation, including deep breathing and mantras, which you can then use at home. You can also receive many helpful tips and techniques online.
Of course, you don’t need to attend a session to meditate. Find a comfortable spot to sit on a stable surface (such as a cushion on the floor), relax yourself (doing a scan of your body to make sure you aren’t tensing any muscles), and breathe deeply and deliberately.
Try to focus on your breath, and observe yourself as you are in that moment. If you feel thoughts running through your mind, acknowledge them, and let them exit your body as you exhale. If you can meditate outside among the beauty of nature … well, that’s even better.
Remember, it’s okay to start small. Even five minutes of meditation when you wake up in the morning, and five minutes at night, can yield positive effects. As you get more into the swing of things, try to meditate for longer sessions.
If you keep up this habit for the long term, you’ll see your life starting to change. It certainly changed mine for the better, and continues to do so to this day!
Tanya is a writer at The Alternative Daily with a passion for meditation, music, poetry, martial arts, and overall creative and active living. She has a special interest in exploring traditional Eastern remedies and superfoods from around the globe. Currently, she and her son live in Wisconsin, where they enjoy spending time immersed in nature.