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Practice Meditation to Take Your Health to the Next Level

Just as we know our bodies need exercise to remain strong and fit, we must recognize that we also need exercises to help keep ourselves mentally and emotionally strong and fit. So many of us get caught up thinking about the past with guilt or regret. We think that we wish we “could have”, “should have”, “would have” done something differently. And, if we’re not thinking about the past, then we are often worrying about the future and how certain things might play out. No wonder we are so stressed out and anxious! The truth is we can’t change the past and we have no way to predict the future. Mindfulness-based meditations help us train our mind to come back to the present moment, where we can take actions now to become the person we want to be and create the lives we want to create.

Let’s put this in terms of science and human physiology.

The physiologic response to stress is controlled by the autonomic nervous system (ANS), the involuntary part of our nervous system that controls heart rate, blood pressure and digestion. There are two branches to the ANS: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body to react to stress (“fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic helps us recover from stress (“rest and digest”). When our body perceives we are in danger, it releases cortisol, adrenaline and other stress hormones to allow greater blood flow to our muscles, heart and brain, so we are able to think or act quickly in the face of the immediate threat. In doing so, these stress hormones temporarily divert energy away from non-emergency functions like digestion, reproduction and maintaining the immune system. Once the danger is over, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing us to relax and recover from the stressful event.

However, these days we are constantly being stressed out by our demanding jobs, lifestyles, difficult relationships, finances and all the thoughts in our head (guilt, fear, regret, anger, worry, etc.) telling us we are unsafe. This constant activation of the stress response leads to a host of negative health outcomes, including a weakened immune system (infections), impaired digestion (abdominal pain, diarrhea), weight gain, high blood pressure, heart disease and even difficulties regulating temperature.

Meditation naturally counteracts the effects of stress by strengthening the parasympathetic nervous system to overcome the excessive activity of the sympathetic nervous system, helping to slow down our heart rate, breathing rate and blood pressure.

What does this mean in layman’s terms?

In summary, a regular meditation practice has been scientifically-linked to the following benefits:

  • Decreased stress and anxiety - Studies find that mindfulness reduces feelings of stress and improves anxiety and distress when placed in a stressful social situation.

  • Enhanced focus – which helps us learn faster, retain more and take in more information from our external and internal environments, so we can make better decisions. Greater focus also contributes to enhanced performance and increased productivity. Numerous studies show improved attention, including better performance on objective tasks that measure attention.

  • Emotional regulation – we learn to respond appropriately to our environment, rather than reacting in ways we might later regret. Mindfulness has also been associated with emotion regulation across a number of studies. Mindfulness creates changes in the brain that correspond to less reactivity, and a better ability to engage in tasks even when emotions are activated.

  • Greater compassion – we develop more empathy and become more forgiving of others, which helps us create stronger social connections. We also become more self-forgiving, recognizing that we are all doing the best we can with the life we’ve been dealt. We deserve to be our own best friend and recognize we need to put on our own oxygen mask before we can assist others. Research also shows people randomly assigned to mindfulness training are more likely to help someone in need and have greater self-compassion.

Now what? ...get practicing!

These benefits are pretty compelling, but the caveat here is that you have to practice (and do so consistently) in order to experience the benefits. If you have ever started a new exercise or healthy eating plan, you probably didn’t start seeing results until you were regularly practicing your new habits. It’s the same with meditation. So how do we practice? For a basic mindfulness-based meditation practice, we can simply choose some kind of anchor (point of focus) and keep returning our attention back to it. Each time we do this, it’s like we are doing a mental bicep curl and with each rep (of noticing we are thinking and then returning back to the breath), we are training our mind to focus. Below are simple instructions for a beginner’s breath-awareness meditation practice:


  • Before you begin, you might want to set a timer for your practice. If you are just beginning, it may be helpful to start with a short amount of time, say 5 or 10 minutes. The important thing is just that you practice and do it regularly.

  • Sit in a comfortable chair with your feet on the floor and your hands either face down or palms open on your thighs.

  • Have your spine be upright, but not too uptight. Relax your shoulders down. The purpose of this position is to keep you feeling comfortable, as well as alert.

  • If you feel comfortable, close your eyes. If not, gaze softly at a spot on the floor in front of you.


  • Bring your attention to the natural sensation of your breath. Don’t try to control or manipulate your breath in any way. You are just going to focus on the natural sensation of your breath, wherever you feel it most strongly. Some people feel it in the rising and falling of their chest or their belly. Some feel it as the warm air leaving their nostrils and the cold air entering their nostrils. Again, just pay attention to your breath, wherever you feel it most.

  • It’s inevitable that thoughts will come up. Just as our lungs were meant to help us breathe, our mind is meant to think and help us solve problems. Thoughts will come up and we are not trying to clear our minds of thoughts. What we are doing is noticing when our mind has wandered—in a few seconds, a minute, five minutes— and simply return our attention back to our breath. Have no expectations and make no judgments of yourself or the contents of your mind...just keep doing your mental bicep curls.

  • When your timer signals the end of your practice and you feel ready, gently open your eyes (or lift your gaze). Take a moment to notice how your body feels right now. Notice any lingering thoughts and emotions. Perhaps stretch a bit to gently awaken your body.

Meditation is a powerful tool that can help us feel healthier and happier, become more emotionally resilient, focus better, gain clarity and develop more compassion for ourselves and others. There is no better day to start practicing than today.


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Birnie, K., Speca, M., & Carlson, L. E. (2010). Exploring self-­compassion and empathy in the context of mindfulness-­based stress reduction (MBSR). Stress and Health, 26(5), 359–371.

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