Emotions have a powerful impact on physical health, especially given the stress, anxiety, worry and self-doubt that many people wrestle with on a daily basis.Meditation, an alternative therapy based in Eastern religious or spiritual traditions, offers an escape, along with impressive health benefits.Opening up your mind to meditation and practicing consistently can yield significant mental and physical benefits, including better sleep, greater mental focus and stress relief.
Sharon Salzberg, meditation teacher and author of “Real Happiness: the Power of Meditation,” recommends meditating daily, even if it’s only briefly at first. Like any other learned skill, meditation takes practice, she explains. Begin with five minutes of daily meditation, seated upright in a quiet, comfortable location and work up to 20-minute sessions, either guided by a book, an audio recording a class or alone. Meditation can take many forms, including visualization, focus on breath or a mantra, and progressive muscle relaxation.
“The purpose of meditation is not to stop thinking, it’s to develop a different relationship with your thoughts and to have more perspective,” says Salzberg. “Understand that meditation takes time. None of us would expect to sit down at a piano, never having played before, and play beautifully and masterfully, but we seem to expect that of our own minds.”
Scientific Support: Many studies back the efficacy of meditation, but less is known about the exact changes that meditation produces in the body. A 2010 study, published in the journal Pain, found that meditation reduced the emotional effects of pain in meditators; those who practiced the therapy regularly showed less anticipation and negative appraisal of pain.
Another 2010 study showed changes related to connectivity in the brain, beginning after six hours of meditation training and becoming more pronounced after 11 hours of cumulative practice, using a technique called integrative body-mind training. And a 2011 study from Massachusetts General Hospital showed meditation’s ability to change brain tissue composition in areas associated with learning, memory and emotion regulation after eight weeks of daily meditation.
Complement to Western Medicine: Meditation can work in harmony with Western medical treatments, such as when taking medications or preparing for surgery, by easing stress and anxiety, according to Salzberg. “Meditation can form a context of wellness and healing as we pursue the Western medical regime,” she says.
What it’s Best For: The practice is effective therapy for emotional issues including depression and anxiety, stress, obsessive-compulsive disorder, chronic pain, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome and more.
The Beauty Connection: Meditation gives us the opportunity to connect with powerful feelings that encourage inner beauty, notes Salzberg. “There is something about being in touch with ourselves and knowing what we want, knowing our motives, and what we care about that projects a sense of peace and confidence,” says Salzberg. “Loving kindness and compassion meditation make your face radiant and serene. [And beauty is] more about overall radiance than about particular physical features.”