Stress is an insidious problem in our society.
The American Institute of Stress (AIS) reports that 44% of Americans feel more stressed than they did five years ago, and that 1 out of every 5 experience “extreme stress” every day.
And stress doesn’t just cause unpleasant emotional states. It also can be physically detrimental to the body. Get this: AIS states that stress is the cause of 60% of all human disease and illness, and that 3 out of every 4 doctor visits are for stress-related ailments.
Stress increases your risk of heart disease by 40%, and your risk of stroke by 50%. It floods the body with the inflammatory hormone cortisol, compromises the immune system…and generally leaves you in bad shape.
To top things off, stress usually leads to a downward spiral of other unhealthy practices. Studies have shown that stressed people tend to overeat, eat unhealthy foods, and sleep less.
So how can you break the cycle?
The answer is surprisingly simple.
A recent study at Carnegie Mellon demonstrated that meditating for just 25 minutes, three days in a row, can significantly attenuate stress.
When asked to perform a stressful activity (giving a speech and solving math problems in front of a “stern” judging panel), those who had undertaken a three-day meditation practice reported markedly lower psychological stress levels.
Researchers have known for some time that veteran meditators are able to lower cortisol levels with their practice. What’s unique about this new research is that it demonstrates that even complete beginners can benefit from meditation practice.
Past research focused on Buddhist monks and others who have dedicated much of their lives to mastering their practice. Unfortunately, this research bias reinforced the persistent notion that meditation is difficult, esoteric, and time-consuming.
If it takes a lifetime of practice to see any serious results, why bother?
Anyone who’s spent any time at all meditating knows that this is silly logic. Any amount of meditation is beneficial…and now scientific research has offered evidence to support this claim.
Anyone can easily integrate meditation into their life, and the benefits are undeniable.
So what do you think? Can you spare 25 minutes each day to build a solid foundation for your physical and mental health?
Here’s how to begin…
The study in question focused on a simple form of meditation practice known as “mindfulness meditation.”
While there are numerous kinds of meditation from which to choose, mindfulness is a great place to start. It’s not about doing anything or getting anywhere, so it tends to lead to less performance anxiety.
The point is to reduce stress…not create more of it, right?
Mindfulness meditation is about directing focused, non-judgmental attention toward your state of being. It’s about being a neutral observer of all that you are, so that you can interact with the world in a calm and collected way.
You can get started by “observing” three basic aspects: body, breath, and thought.
Body. Take a few minutes to organize your meditation area. Move slowly and methodically, viewing the orderliness of your physical surroundings as an extension of your body and mind. Sit comfortably (feel free to use a chair if sitting on the floor doesn’t work for you), and maintain an ordered but relaxed posture. Pay attention to everything you feel in your body, but don’t judge any of it; just observe it, and then let it pass.
Breath. Use your breath as a sort of metronome to guide your practice. Breathe deeply and fully, and remain acutely aware of each inhale and exhale. If you find yourself getting restless, bored, or frustrated, just come back to your breath. Keep your eyes open or closed—whichever keeps you most focused.
Thought. It’s commonly believed that meditation is about “emptying the mind.” While this is the goal of some advanced forms of meditation, mindfulness is simply about being aware of your thoughts. Don’t try to make them go away; just observe each one of them non-judgmentally, and then let them pass.
Aim for a twenty-five-minute practice, but don’t push yourself. Meditation is not a race; trying to get to finish line—no matter how agitated it makes you—is completely beside the point.
Start with whatever amount of time allows you to finish your practice in good spirits—even if that’s only 5 minutes. Again, don’t judge how long you can or can’t meditate. Just allow yourself to feel rejuvenated and relaxed, and increase the duration of your practice over time.
Though you can meditate any time of day, practicing in the morning is a great way to prepare yourself for the day. Just as starting off the day stressed leads to a vicious cycle of destructive behaviors, starting off the day in a calm and neutral state can lead to a virtuous cycle of positive habits and practices.
Try it out, and let us know how it works out for you!