Meditation is rarely easy, even for the people who love it – it’s rewarding, but there is an effort involved. But for some people, it’s downright impossible: if you’ve ever gotten stuck in a feedback loop where meditating stressed you out more because you got so frustrated that you weren’t doing it right and couldn’t clear your mind, this is you!
For that second group of people, though, it can be so frustrating to constantly hear about all the miraculous health benefits of something you just can’t do. And it’s true that meditation is excellent for your health – stress is literally deadly, and meditation is a powerful stress management tool. So if you hate meditating or just can’t do it, are you sunk?
Definitely not. Here’s a look at the benefits of meditation for stress reduction (and how that translates into tangible benefits like “less pain” and “better sleep”) and how the non-meditators can get similar benefits without the useless pattern of sitting for 20 minutes on an uncomfortable floor while they beat themselves up for being inadequately zen.
Meditation, Stress, and Your Body
If you’ve been following the Paleo news for any length of time, you already know how dangerous chronic stress is. Acute stress (of the “There’s a semi truck coming right at me, RUN!”) form is very useful. It makes you hyper-focused on escaping the danger and gives you a burst of energy to dash across the street to safety. Your heart rate skyrockets, your blood pressure shoots up, your digestive system and other “non-essential” functions shut down – but you live.
Chronic stress, on the other hand, releases the same hormone cascade, but constantly. If you’re stressed all day at work, your body is basically being run down by that semi truck for 8 hours at a time. It’s a constant state of emergency, with consequences that range from the annoying to the downright dangerous:
- Chronic stress causes chronic inflammation, which is a risk factor for obesity, diabetes, mood disorders and neurodegenerative diseases, and just about everything else.
- Chronic stress is a risk factor for metabolic syndrome (Type 2 Diabetes, hypertension, blood lipid problems).
- Chronic stress causes gut flora problems, which contribute to everything from constipation to depression to acne.
As this study puts it:
Most of the leading causes of debilitating illness and death are correlated with, if not caused by, stress…research has provided direct links between stress and heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and suicide/self-harm. Further, stress can impact the immune system, leading to vulnerability to infectious and chronic diseases.
So what does meditation have to do with any of this? Meditation physiologically turns down the stress response. It reduces activity of the sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” response) and increases the parasympathetic nervous system (the “rest and digest” response). We can measure this biologically by the way meditation reduces the stress hormone cortisol, and by the huge number of stress-related outcomes that improve in response.
Lower Stress = Better Health
There’s no better way to show how dangerous stress is than by showing the amazing benefits of getting rid of it. Meditation improves or alleviates…
- Cardiovascular health, including overall mortality, hypertension, and blood lipids.
- Metabolic health, including blood sugar levels.
- Psychological stress
- Depression, anxiety, and other affective disorders, including mood problems secondary to other chronic diseases (e.g. Multiple Sclerosis)
- Chronic pain
- Immunity, possibly in the same ways that exercise does.
- Sleep quality.
And it’s not just for people with serious diseases or mental illness, either: meditation is also good for garden-variety stress. In this study, for example, meditation helped reduce stress in working nurses.
Meditation is basically a stress antidote – it helps you keep your health intact even if you're exposed to stressors in your life.
Getting Started with Meditation
If you’re interested in getting into meditation, you don’t need a whole lot of stuff. There are several different styles and there’s no one right way to do it. Just a few suggestions that might work for different people:
- A Guide to Meditation for the Rest of Us (Lifehacker)
- Headspace (daily 10-minute guided meditations, which you can use through their site or their app)
- Here’s a list of 10 different ways to meditate.
- Here’s a 12-minute mindfulness meditation video, in case that’s more your style.
There are all kinds of other beginning meditation resources – if there’s one you really like, why not share on Facebook?
"But I Hate Meditation!" - Other Mind-Body Alternatives
If you’re reading this and thinking joyfully about how much you love meditating (or how excited you are to get started), you can stop here. But if you’re thinking “Okay…but I’ve tried all that stuff and I just. Can’t. Do it,” then the next section is for you.
It’s very common for people to struggle with meditation, especially if they think “meditation” has to mean “sitting cross-legged on a pillow with incense and artfully arranged piles of pebbles while I wipe my mind completely blank.” It’s perfectly normal and it doesn’t mean you need to “try harder” or that there’s anything wrong with you.
So just in case you haven’t done it yet, pardon yourself. Starting right now, you’re absolved from Meditation Failure Guilt forever. There’s nothing to freak out about; you can still be perfectly healthy and manage your stress and do all those other things without ever achieving the Lotus Position again. (Of course, if you choose to meditate at some later point, that’s fine, too.)
Instead, try thinking of meditation as just one variety of mind-body practice. A mind-body practice is anything that connects your mental and physical being. In broader terms, mind-body therapies are defined as “interventions that use a variety of techniques designed to facilitate the mind’s capacity to affect bodily function and symptoms.”
Many other mind-body practices have similar health benefits to meditation, without actually meditating. Any activity that helps you be present in your body and stop focusing on your stress will do the trick. Do you like to…
- Listen to people tell you stories? Try guided imagery. Guided imagery is a kind of mind-body practice where you don’t have to “clear your mind” the same way, and it has some of the same health benefits of meditation – if you’re one of those people who can’t just “clear their mind,” it might be more helpful. (You can find all kinds of guided imagery videos on Youtube)
- Lie down quietly with some music and just let your mind follow the melody? This could easily work as a kind of guided imagery, especially if you’re the kind of person who gets very vivid images from music. For relaxation purposes, something gentle might be more effective than death metal, but everyone responds differently; maybe death metal is exactly what you need!
- Stretch, take long walks, or experiment with what your body can do? Try yoga, Tai Chi, Quigong, or any other form of ritualized gentle movement; these are also forms of mind-body practice with stress-management benefits. The physical involvement might be helpful for wandering minds.
- Work with your hands? Try knitting (no, really, knitting is great stress relief!), playing with building blocks or Legos, or doing anything else with repetitive physical patterns while you let your mind wander.
All of the above are perfectly legitimate forms of stress reduction that help you get the same benefits of meditation, without the headache. The point is to find something that won’t kick you into that endless loop of “I suck at this…I hate this…this is so dumb…I can’t do this…” and leave you feeling worse than when you started!
Summing it Up
Meditation is one of the most effective tools we have for managing the stress load of life in the modern world – but it's not the beginning and end of stress management. Some people love to meditate, and for those people, it can be fantastic. But other people find it impossibly frustrating, and often end up completely turned off of all forms of stress management on the assumption that it’ll just be yet another person smiling serenely at them and giving them impossible instructions like “clear your mind” or “focus on the breath.”
For those people: there are all kinds of other ways to manage stress. Try some other form of mind-body practice, like yoga or guided listening, and see if it’s better. What have you got to lose? At the worst, you’ll leave a class a little more flexible, or spend half an hour listening to some music you like - that's not such a horrible fate.