This is a question I have been asked a lot over the years and the simplest answer is - there are so many.
However, being asked this got me asking myself what benefits I have had over the past 25 years of meditating. There were several reasons why I started to meditate in my early 20's, the main ones being to reduce stress in my life and the overthinking I was doing, which was leading to fatigue, anxiety and low energy.
I had also been diagnosed with a chronic bowel disease and found that my symptoms were worse when I had a lot of stress and anxiety, so to find some form of practice that would calm me was a key reason for introducing meditation into my life.
It took a while to incorporate a regular practice within my daily life, but once I did, I found I was able to manage stress, overthinking and my energy levels well which resulted in my being able to maintain a good state of health for long periods of time over the years.
I found that with a regular meditation practice I gained perspective more quickly than I did before. I would tend to overthink everything which in turn drained my energy to the point of feeling exhausted.
I now accept that I have different emotions and can observe and let go of them more easily knowing this is just part of being human, where in the past I would have spent a lot of time feeling frustrated, irritable and at times angry with myself, which all negatively impacted on my physical and mental health.
When I say regular meditation practice, this doesn't mean hours of meditation on a daily basis - life is too busy to be able to do this, I am saying 10 to 20 mins a day. 10 mins a day can bring many benefits to busy lives.
To add to this, scientific research is now increasing our understanding of what the many specific benefits are that come from a regular meditation practice.
A range of benefits can be seen from a mental, physical, emotional and spiritual perspective.
Unfortunately, we now live in a society that mental health issues are on the increase. Mental health covers a range of different problems such as depression, stress and anxiety problems, panic attacks, sleep problems and self-esteem issues.
All these problems and challenges have an impact on our overall lives, whether that is our relationships, work or health. For this reason, it is more important than ever that we can find ways to be able to resolve these problems and have a way forward that can alleviate the negative impact these mental health problems are having in our lives. One of these solutions is meditation.
If we look at stress in particular, research has demonstrated how meditation can reduce levels of stress significantly. As Mary Pearson, founder of The British School of Meditation stated “since learning to meditate and then practising for 16 years I can honestly say that stress is rarely if ever a factor in my life. I couldn’t have said that in 1997”.
A well-known study on how meditation can positively impact on stress was undertaken by Dr Herbert Benson in the 1970’s. Benson, through his studies, gained an understanding of the ‘relaxation response’. The ‘relaxation response’ was a mechanism of the body that could reduce the fight or flight response that we get when our bodies are responding to stressful situations.
When our body thinks it is under attack, it switches to a fight or flight response. This was a positive instinct to have when we were in the stone age running away from wild animals, but unfortunately due to the disruptive lifestyles we lead now, our bodies are still reacting in this way which is leading to lots of mental and physical problems.
As a result of Benson’s studies, he found that the relaxation response mechanism could be triggered through meditation and once triggered could reduce the body’s heart and breathing rates, blood pressure and tension, identifying the benefits that meditation can have with removing stress from our bodies.
Likewise, meditation has shown significant benefits for improving sleep, concentration and having that ability to be able to be more in the moment rather than having thoughts on the past and the future. This has been able to help a great deal with depression, anxiety and mood swings.
More and more evidence are demonstrating the physical wellbeing benefits that result from a regular meditation practice.
These include lowering of blood pressure and lowering heart rates, reductions in cholesterol levels and increasing energy levels, fatigue, the ability to release tension from the body and effective pain management. A report in the magazine Psychology Today ‘The Science of Meditation’ quoted evidence that related to a group of cancer patients who had been taught a meditation. Over a period of time the group that was meditating were showing less depression, anxiety and anger compared to a control group that hadn’t been practising meditation.
There are also benefits with alleviating the symptoms of PMT and the menopause, where regular meditation has been able to reduce mood swings and hormonal fluctuations associated with these changes in the female body.
A regular meditation practise has also now been associated with losing weight. Regular mediation leads to a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol which is linked to helping us lose weight. The presence of cortisol in the human system makes us crave fat and carbohydrates. This decreases if we feel calmer and more relaxed in our bodies, hence one of the ways to reduce cortisol is to meditate. A regular practice also teaches us to be more mindful within our lives and the activities we undertake for example mindful eating. Mindful eating brings more awareness into what we eat which can transform our relationship with food by focusing on the how and why of eating.
As discussed earlier, a regular meditation practise is beneficial for decreasing anger management, mood swings and overall regulation of our emotions which in turn helps support the improvement of self-esteem and confidence levels.
Meditation creates that gap between the event or situation and our reactions which helps bring a new perspective into the way we are viewing the event or situation which results in a much calmer approach to life.
A regular meditation practise helps people live their lives more in the present moment. We start to slow down and become an observer of our emotions, we get off the ‘conveyor belt’ and just be. This creates an equilibrium within us and results in an emotional balance. This in turn provides a less stressful life where we are much more in the flow.
A regular meditation practise not only brings benefits for mental, physical and emotional aspects but can also lead the practitioner to increase their spiritual wellbeing. By becoming more aware of the present moment and being able to regulate our emotions and become an observer of our lives can lead to a stronger connection to life itself. It develops our insight and increased understanding of who we are.
When living in the moment your senses become more vibrant and you gain a stronger connection with you and the world around you which results in spiritual understanding evolving. Part of this is the development of loving kindness, self-acceptance and compassion.
All of this results in stronger feelings of inner peace and calmness which all goes to supporting a person from a mental, physical and emotional aspect.
We will be covering these different aspects in more detail over the coming weeks.
So, in answer to my original question, what are the benefits of a regular meditation practice?
For me it is giving me the ability to manage a chronic illness effectively with minimal impact to my everyday life. It has helped me be a well person that is sometimes ill, rather than an ill person that is sometimes well which is a really good place to be.
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