Feeling a bit stressed out or run down? Think you’ve tried everything to relax and unwind? Perhaps the ancient art of meditation can help. Now used as a complementary therapy for improving overall health and wellbeing, meditation is a practice that has exploded in popularity over the last decade. It’s been made more accessible by the growing number of qualified instructors and gym-based classes and is fast becoming a global phenomenon.

What is meditation?
How is meditation practised?
Does meditation work?
Can anyone practise meditation?
Action points

 

What is meditation?

The term meditation is used to describe many different meditative disciplines. The general aim of most practices is to reduce your stress levels and change your emotions. It’s thought that by achieving a deep state of relaxation and awareness, you can improve your overall health and wellbeing.

Modern meditative practices originated from Eastern religious and spiritual traditions. Today, many thousands of people from different cultures around the world meditate, so if you’re thinking about giving it a go, you definitely won’t be alone.

 

How is meditation practised?

When you meditate, you will usually be sitting or resting quietly with your eyes closed. Sometimes you may repeat a sound or phrase (known as a mantra) to help you focus. As there is no such thing as a typical meditation session, you can do it for as long or as little as you want and in a place that suits you.

There are two commonly practised types of meditation: ‘mindfulness meditation’ and ‘transcendental meditation’ (also known as ‘TM’).

In mindfulness meditation you’re encouraged to change the way you think, feel and act. The aim is to try and break yourself free from negative thoughts and actions, and instead build up positive thoughts. To achieve a state of mindfulness, you’re taught to focus solely on your breathing. If you can learn to fully immerse yourself in the experience, without reacting to or judging what is happening around you, it’s believed you will be able to deal with your thoughts and emotions in everyday life with more balance. As the technique combines simple meditation practices with yoga, you may also benefit from improved flexibility.

The TM technique is quite different to mindfulness meditation. During a typical session, the only thing you must do is repeat a mantra over and over in a very soft voice, or silently. This is to stop you from getting distracted and will help you to focus and find a state of relaxed awareness. 

 

Does meditation work?

There is some good evidence to suggest that meditation may have a number of health benefits. For example, if you have been depressed before, a treatment called mindfulness-based cognitive therapy may be able to prevent you becoming depressed again. There is also research to suggest that mindfulness meditation can help relieve stress, or help if you have an anxiety disorder or an addictive behaviour.

Scientists who research meditation think it may work by affecting the part of your nervous system that controls the ‘fight-or-flight-response’ (an involuntary action in which your body responds to stress by increasing your heart and breathing rate and the amount you sweat). However, there simply isn’t enough evidence at present to say whether there is a definite link to this theory or not.

 

Can anyone practise meditation?

If you’re in good health, there should be no reason why you can’t practise meditation. However, your GP may advise you against doing certain types of meditation if you find other types of low level physical activity challenging. This is because some techniques, such as mindfulness meditation, use yoga as part of the practice.

There have been very few reports of people becoming more unwell after practising meditation, but if you have an existing mental health condition, speak to your GP for advice before starting.

 

Action points

  • Find a quiet location. Meditation requires focus, so to prevent distractions go somewhere you can relax and won’t be disturbed.
  • Get comfortable. If you need to hold a certain position for an extended period of time, it’s important to be as comfy as possible.
  • Focus your attention. Breathing in a controlled way, or repeating a mantra may help you to get into a meditative state.
  • Be open-minded. If you’re trying meditation for the first time and you can’t focus straight away, remember that it’s a practice – so you will need to do just that.

 

Further information

 Mental Health Foundation
 www.mentalhealth.org.uk


Sources

  • Meditation. National Centre for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. http://nccam.nih.gov, accessed 13 October 2009
  • Mind-body techniques. Merck Online Medical Library. www.merck.com/mmhe, published February 2009
  • Mindfulness. Mental Health Foundation. www.mentalhealth.org.uk, published 4 January 2010
  • Mindfulness based cognitive therapy and the prevention of relapse in depression. University of Oxford Centre for Suicide Research. http://cebmh.warne.ox.ac.uk, published 20 January 2010

Related topics
Anger management
Depression
Tai chi
Stress
Work-related stress

Related articles

SAD is a type of depression with a seasonal pattern, occurring most commonly in the winter months. About SAD Symptoms of SAD Causes of SAD Diagnosis of SAD Treatment of SAD...
ADHD is a disorder that can affect children’s learning, behaviour and development. Children with ADHD have short attention spans and may be easily distracted, overactive and...