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The Science of Stress Reduction: How Meditation Affects Your Well-Being

Mindfulness has been all the rage in recent years. But what exactly is it? 

Civilizations worldwide have been practicing meditation for thousands of years. Yet, only recently it has become a fundamental part of what we know as ‘mindfulness’ – even creating a particular meditation style called ‘mindfulness meditation’.

According to the American Psychological Association (APA), mindfulness refers to the awareness of one’s internal state and external surroundings. ‘Mindfulness meditation’ entails a mixture of deep breathing exercises and a consciousness of one’s body and mind. Nevertheless, whether you practice meditation, mindfulness, or a mixture of both, all have shown to be effective stress reducers

As meditation and mindfulness have been increasingly prescribed as therapeutic interventions for things like stress, learning about their benefits on our well-being, either for a person who experiences stress or anxiety daily or even for a student with an online Masters in Clinical Counseling who wishes to work in counseling in the future, is now essential knowledge. Keep reading to learn how meditation and mindfulness positively affect our overall well-being and health. 


Mental Wellbeing

A common result of mindfulness and meditation is the feeling of relaxation and a sense of inner peace, providing significant mental health benefits. The following are some of the key and most recognized gains we can attain from them for our mental health and well-being. 

Increased Emotional Awareness 

Particularly with the self-reflective nature of mindfulness meditation, it can cultivate greater emotional awareness, allowing one to understand better and regulate emotions.

Meditating forces you to be in the present moment, immersing in a present-focused emotional experience. The result is increased resilience and the ability to recover from strong emotions like anger. 

Reducing Stress

Numerous studies evidence the fact that meditation is an important stress reliever. Generally, mental and physical stress is caused by increased production of a hormone called cortisol.

While a sporadic increase in cortisol would not necessarily be detrimental to health, chronic stress, which means continuously high cortisol levels, can wreak havoc on one’s mental and physical well-being. Meditative or mindfulness interventions can, however, effectively reduce cortisol levels, and therefore lower stress. 

Manage Anxiety 

Recent reports have shown that daily meditation is just as effective as medication in controlling anxiety. As meditation forces one to be in the present moment, it can offer options to change how you respond to your situation.

For example, Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at the Massachusetts General Hospital, said that meditation was a logical measure in treating anxiety, as the disorder itself is characterized by having too many distracting thoughts that wield too much power.  


Increase Attention Span

One’s attention span refers to the ability to sustain concentration on a task for a particular amount of time. Researchers have concluded that our brains are lost in thought 47% of the time, so meditation can be a way to re-route the wandering mind.

Meditation and mindfulness relax the brain and pull it away from those thoughts, allowing one to focus, concentrate, and increase attention spans. For example, meditation practices in the workplace have been shown to enhance job performance

Reverse Cognitive Decline 

Early memory loss is one of the first stages of cognitive decline, and a combination of meditation and mindfulness can actively reverse this.

West Virginia University (WVU) conducted a study in 2017 comprised of placing 60 older adults with subjective cognitive decline (SCD), which is a condition that may entail a preclinical stage of Alzheimer’s disease, under a meditation and music program that lasted for 12 minutes daily for 12 weeks. Researchers found after this 3 months intervention, both groups had substantial gains in their memory and cognitive function. 

Mindfulness and meditation can be practiced at any time, anywhere, and by anyone to improve one’s mental and emotional well-being. 

Physical Wellbeing

One usually thinks that meditation and mindfulness would only have mental benefits. Yet numerous studies have shown that those who practice mindfulness have also experienced direct improvements in their physical health too. 

Assist in Managing Substance Abuse

21 million adults in the U.S. suffer from a substance or alcohol use disorder, and only 10% ever receive proper treatment.

Meditation has been a recommended method used to treat substance abuse. It is an effective tool for those struggling with addiction to achieve a state of tranquility, calmness, and relaxation, as well as to learn how to control impulses and cravings. For example, WVU has incorporated mindfulness into its substance use treatment program. 

Reduce High-Blood Pressure

Dr. Herbert Benson, director at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind-Body Medicine has recommended meditation as a relaxation technique to lower blood pressure.

In one of Dr. Benson’s studies, meditation was used as a relaxation response training method for a group of elderly people with systolic hypertension. The study concluded that after the program, participants were more able to control their blood pressure levels insofar as reducing it, and even going off blood pressure medications entirely. 

Ease of Lower Back Pain

A study conducted in 2017 between the University of Duisburg-Essen, Germany, the University of Zurich, Switzerland, and the University of Technology Sydney (Australia) used the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) intervention method on 864 patients with low back pain. Researchers concluded that MBSR led to significant short-term reductions in pain intensity and increased physical functioning. 

For general physical health, meditation can improve sleep, help digestion, and strengthen the immune system. Clearly, the body benefits from quieting the brain. 


How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation

Practicing mindfulness meditation could not be simpler. If you are just beginning, choosing a shorter timeframe, such as five to ten minutes, for a session can be more effective. After, you can gradually build upon this, such as from 30 minutes to one hour. 

Usually, people choose their sessions to be in the morning and evening, or one or the other. You should find a quiet place without much clutter as a space for your session. The goal is to have as little distraction as possible. Then begin your mindfulness meditation session with these 8 steps:

  1. Take your seat – Make sure to sit in a comfortable yet also stable and solid place.
  2. Choose a position – You can sit cross-legged on a cushion on the floor or upright in a chair. Some people even do their sessions lying down. Nevertheless, your mindfulness meditation position will be personal to you.
  3. Relax – Close your eyes, and set a timer to a duration that is suitable for you. There are many apps today that are meditation-specific timers. Begin taking a few deep breaths through your nose, and out through either the nose or mouth. Make sure your breaths are natural and flow gradually to your abdomen.
  4. Feel your breaths – Be conscious of the sounds of your breaths when you inhale and exhale. You inhale all the positive energy around you; you exhale to rid yourself of all the negative energy inside you. The mind will be accustomed to this rhythmic breathing pattern. 
  5. Do not worry if your attention leaves to other places – Forcibly blocking or eliminating thinking will only be counterproductive and disturb your session. Let it flow. Whether in a few seconds, a few minutes, or even ten minutes, gently return your thoughts to the center – your breaths – when you notice your mind wandering off. 
  6. Pause before making any physical adjustments – There is always an itch, ache, or a desire to move around when we sit still. The best way to deal with this is to pause. Practicing the pause means taking a moment to notice the impulse before moving and yielding to it. Notice what it feels like in the body to want to move and notice what the mind is saying in this want to move. After this pause, you will begin to get comfortable with the uncomfortable. 
  7. Slowly lift your gaze or gently open your eyes – Use this moment to notice your surroundings. Be conscious of what you feel. Pay attention to your thoughts and emotions. Stay still briefly, and decide how you will continue the rest of your day. 
  8. Make your commitment – With anything it requires commitment, and meditation is no exception. The more you practice meditation, the better and stronger your mindfulness becomes. Even just practicing a mindfulness meditation session for five minutes daily will make a powerful difference in your well-being. 

Ready to give mindfulness meditation a try? It can take some time for it to become part of your routine, but with commitment and practice, you will discover a potent tool for relieving stress and improving your overall well-being.