Meditation is a way to calm and focus the mind. Research suggests various kinds of meditation may help relieve stress, anxiety, depression, and sleep disturbances. Scientists are looking at its impact on other health concerns like diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease. Historically rooted in religion and spirituality, meditation has evolved to meet the needs of a changing world. If you’re new to meditation or think it has to involve long periods of sitting in solitary silence, read on.
Types of Meditation. The fact is, there are hundreds of meditation techniques encompassing thousands of years of different traditions, cultures, religions, and spiritual disciplines. Today’s meditation techniques are vast and varied and can be formal or informal. Formal meditations are guided, which means you’re being lead through practices, whether in person, virtually, or with a recording or app. Examples of popular types of meditation include:
- Transcendental meditation, which utilizes a repeated sound or mantra to focus the mind and avoid distracting thoughts, creating a state of relaxed consciousness.
- Mindfulness meditation, which focuses on the present moment with purposeful, non-judgmental attention.
- Body scan meditation, a technique that tunes in to the physical body by focusing on and experiencing any sensations without judgement.
- Movement meditation, an active form that focuses on awareness and presence of body movements rather than the purpose of the movements. Yoga, dance, and tai chi are examples.
Informal meditation can be anything from listening to a meditation app, rocking a baby to sleep, or simply focusing on a few deep breaths. If done mindfully, even everyday activities—like enjoying a piece of rich, velvety dark chocolate or listening to your favorite piece of music—can be meditative.
“Meditation is not so much something you do,” says Debbie Lyn Toomey, MSN, RN, injury prevention coordinator of the Division of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery at Tufts Medical Center. “It is more a result of doing something purposefully.” For example, Toomey explains, if you love to swim, feel the coolness of the water and the way the body moves with each arm stroke; if you love to paint, garden, bake, or walk in nature, you can create a meditative state by quieting the mind and tuning in to every detail of what you’re doing and how you’re feeling.
Brain-Based Benefits. Imaging studies have found that meditation creates structural and functional changes in the brain. In a 2019 study among adults who had never meditated before, participating in eight weeks of daily, 13-minute guided meditation sessions improved mood, enhanced attention and memory, and decreased anxiety more than listening to daily 13-minute podcasts. A recent meta-analysis suggested mindfulness meditation interventions (particularly guided sessions) may reduce symptoms of depression. Meditation may also help improve sleep. A 2019 meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials concluded that mindfulness meditation improved sleep quality compared to the non-meditative activities used in control groups and was as effective as evidence-based sleep treatments in people with clinically significant sleep disturbance.
Meditation is even being used to enhance safety. At Tufts Medical Center,
Toomey uses meditation techniques to empower people to reduce stress as a way to help prevent unintentional injury, especially among older adults. She also leads stress reduction programs for caregivers and employees in various departments with the goal of reducing work-related injuries.
Researchers have also found potential for meditation to help with things like blood glucose control, chronic pain, and high blood pressure, although more research is needed to confirm benefits.
For thousands of years, people have used meditation to help alleviate stress and return to a calm, relaxed state. There may not be a way to avoid the stress in our lives, but we can look to ancient wisdom and emerging research and take a few minutes out of the day to set aside our worries and choose to focus on something positive. The best, most effective practice is the one that works for you.