The Benefits of Meditation for Stress Management

Meditation has many benefits, including lowering stress, improving immune function, and slowing mental aging. This age-old practice has become one of the most popular ways to relieve stress among people of all walks of life. Meditation can take many forms and can be combined with many spiritual practices. It can also be used in several important ways

It can be a part of your daily routine and help you build resilience to stress.
It can be a technique to get centered when you're thrown off by emotional stress. ​
It can be a quick-fix stress reliever to help you reverse your body's stress response and physically relax.
Your physical and emotional stress can melt away by learning to calm your body and mind. This leaves you feeling better, refreshed, and ready to face the challenges of your day with a healthy attitude. With regular practice over weeks or months, you can experience even greater benefits.

What is Meditation?
Meditation is a practice that incorporates different techniques that help people focus their attention and achieve a heightened state of awareness. It can result in changes in consciousness and has been shown to have a number of health benefits.

Meditation involves sitting in a relaxed position and clearing your mind, or focusing your mind on one thought and clearing it of all others. You may focus on a sound, like "ooommm," or on your breathing, counting, a mantra, or nothing at all.
A common thread among the many meditation techniques is that the mind stops following every new thought that comes to the surface.

It’s generally necessary to have at least five to 20 distraction-free minutes to spend, though meditation sessions can really be any length. Longer meditation sessions tend to bring greater benefits, but it is usually best to start slowly so you can maintain the practice long-term.

Many people find that if they try to meditate for too long each session or create a "perfect" practice it can become intimidating or daunting, and they find it more challenging to keep as a daily habit. It is far better to create the habit and work it into a more thorough version of that habit.

It’s helpful to have silence and privacy, but more experienced meditators can practice meditation anywhere.

Many practitioners of meditation attach a spiritual component to it, but it can also be a secular exercise. Really, there is no wrong way to meditate.

Meditation and Stress
One of the main benefits of meditation is its ability to reduce stress. The body's stress response causes the body to automatically react in ways that prepare you to fight or run. In some cases of extreme danger, this physical response is helpful. However, a prolonged state of such agitation can cause physical damage to every part of the body.1

Meditation affects the body in exactly the opposite way that stress does—by triggering the body's relaxation response. It restores the body to a calm state, helping the body repair itself and preventing new damage from the physical effects of stress.

The Role of Relaxation
There is an element of more direct physical relaxation involved in meditation as well, obviously, so this double dose of relaxation can really be helpful for shrugging off stress. A greater gain that meditation can bring is the long-term resilience that can come with regular practice.

Research has shown that those who practice meditation regularly begin to experience changes in their response to stress that allow them to recover from stressful situations more easily and experience less stress from the challenges they face in their everyday lives.

Some of this is thought to be the result of the increase in positive mood that can come from meditation; research shows that those who experience positive moods more often are more resilient toward stress.4 Other research has found changes in the brains of regular meditation practitioners that are linked with a decreased reactivity toward stress.5

The practice of learning to refocus your thoughts can also help you redirect yourself when you fall into negative thinking patterns, which in itself can help relieve stress. Meditation offers several solutions in one simple activity.

Health Benefits of Meditation
The benefits of meditation are great because, among other things, it can reverse your stress response, thereby shielding you from the effects of chronic stress.

When practicing meditation:

  • You use oxygen more efficiently.
  • Your adrenal glands produce less cortisol.
  • Your blood pressure normalizes.
  • Your heart rate and breathing slow down.
  • Your immune function improves.
  • Your mind ages at a slower rate.
  • Your mind clears and your creativity increases.
  • You sweat less.

People who meditate regularly find it easier to give up life-damaging habits like smoking, drinking, and drugs. They also find it easier to stop rumination from ruining their day.

It helps many people connect to a place of inner strength. Numerous studies have found that, in diverse populations, meditation can minimize stress and build resilience. Meditation research is still relatively new, but promising.

The Pros And Cons of Meditation
There are many benefits to meditation, both mentally and physically:

  • People with physical limitations may find it easier to practice than strenuous physical exercise for stress relief. Plus, no special equipment is required.
  • Unlike enlisting the help of a professional, meditation is free.
  • Unlike some medications and herbal therapies, meditation has few potential side effects.
  • Meditation is always available and can be done anywhere at any time.
  • It is amazingly effective in short-term stress reduction and long-term health. The benefits of meditation can be felt in just one session.

While meditating is a great tool for many people, there are a few things to be aware of before beginning the practice:

It does take discipline and commitment to make meditation a regular habit. Some people find it more difficult to maintain as a habit than methods that enlist the help of someone or something outside themselves for added motivation. If you are one of these people, finding a meditation group may be the perfect solution.
Some people may find it more difficult to free their minds from the thoughts of the day. This may make it more difficult than methods that involve focusing on these events, like journaling, or methods that are distracting, like physical exercise or the use of humor.
Some people may have mental or physical health conditions that don’t allow them to comfortably meditate while sitting. Instead, try a moving meditation like running or yoga.
Some studies suggest that meditation can be harmful to those who have experienced trauma or other serious mental health conditions. In such cases, other mind-body practices such as somatic body-based therapy may be a good alternative.

An experienced teacher can be helpful but isn't absolutely necessary. Ultimately, if you can focus on your breath, on the present moment, or on any one thing for a while, you can now meditate.

It does often take some practice, however, and some people find it difficult to "get it" in the beginning. Meditation also requires a little patience and may be difficult for people with little free time (like some stay-at-home mothers who get very little privacy from small children). However, the time and effort it takes to learn and practice is well worth it in terms of the benefits it provides.

Keep these four things in mind when you begin your mediation practice.

Consistency Is Key
Consistent practice matters more than long practice. This means that it's better to meditate for five minutes, six times per week than for 30 minutes once a week. The former can calm your body's stress response several times in a week, while the latter may calm your body into a deeper state of relaxation, but it will only reverse your stress response once.

In addition, you are more likely to stick with a regular meditation practice if you can start with short, daily sessions than if you feel you need to find time for longer sessions in order to practice. It is more likely that this self-imposed pressure will lead to you not finding time for it, then losing the motivation to try.

Research suggests that the amount of time it takes to make a behavior a habit can vary from as little as 18 days to as long as 254 days.

Practice Doesn't Mean Perfect
Regular practice matters more than "perfect" practice. This means that, rather than concerning yourself too much about what position to sit in, what technique to try when you sit, how long to sit, or what time of day, you should just sit and meditate.

The rest will fall into place if you just begin, but if you feel the need to work these details out before you can start, you may find it more challenging to get started. There really is no "wrong" way to meditate anyway; any meditation is better than none.

It's OK for Your Mind to Wander
If you notice your mind wandering, that's good. Meditation can be challenging for some people, particularly perfectionists. We sometimes fall into the trap of wanting to do it "right" and becoming frustrated with ourselves when our mind drifts off. The thing to remember is that if you notice this happening, that's a good thing—you noticed.

Noticing and redirecting your thoughts back to the focus of your meditation (your breath, the present moment, or whatever you are choosing as your focus) is the real point of meditation. It's virtually impossible to prevent your mind from wandering anyway.
Keeping your focus on the present moment is not an easy task—even long-time meditation practitioners find it challenging. Don't feel discouraged by this.

What Is Mindfulness Meditation?
Getting Started
There are many forms of meditation that bring these fantastic benefits. Two major types of meditation include concentrative meditation (where attention is focused on a specific point) and mindfulness meditation (which focuses on building awareness and acceptance of the present moment).

Some may feel more comfortable for you to practice than others, so it's a great idea to try a sampling of them and repeat the techniques that seem to fit best for you. If you practice meditation while you are not in the midst of a stressful situation, you will find it easier to use it as a calming technique when you need it.

Begin at a Relaxed Time
Even if you plan to use it only as needed and not as a daily exercise, it is a good idea to practice meditation when you aren't feeling particularly stressed first, rather than trying it for the first time when you're feeling overwhelmed—unless, of course, you can't find a time when you don't feel this way.

The most important thing to remember is to practice meditation for a few minutes per day and to try to sit for at least five minutes each session.

Focus on Your Breath
If you don't know where to start, you may simply focus on listening to your breathing for five minutes. To do this, relax your body, sit comfortably, and notice your breath. If you find yourself thinking of other things, simply redirect your attention back to your breath.

Another simple strategy is to count your breaths. When you inhale, count "one" in your head, and then count "two" as you exhale. Keep going as you breathe and start over at "one" if you notice you've become distracted by other thoughts.
Some people will find counting easier to practice than simple breathing meditation, and others will find it more challenging. Remember, your best meditation techniques are the ones that resonate with you.

Use Guided Meditation
Guided meditation is a practice that involves being directed through the process by another person. This guide often helps people focus on mental imagery, describes breathing exercises, utilizes mantras, guides the process using other techniques.
There are many different types of guided meditations available including podcasts, websites, apps, online videos, and online streaming services. Yoga studios may also offer guided meditations as group classes.


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