Posts Tagged ‘Meditation’
According to the 17th Century French philosopher Blaise Pascal, “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone.” Such a statement may sound a bit overwrought for most moderns, however, it is a well-known fact that ubiquitous exposure to noise is one of the great stress factors of our time. Unfortunately, even for those who seek it, silence is hard to come by.
To be sure, not everybody suffers from lack of quiescence. Most of us are now used to being constantly connected with the outside world, with our workplace, with family and friends. It can be bothersome, but it can also be addictive.
A study by CNN found that most pre-teens and teenagers would rather be “grounded” at home than having their smart phones taken away from them as a form of punishment. Staying in touch via social media means more to these kids than almost anything else in life, according to the researchers who conducted the study.
Of course, craving for social interaction is not limited to young ones. Neuroscientists from the University of California, Los Angeles discovered in a recent study that the human brain is wired to be social, especially when there is little else to do that requires attention. “The social nature of our brains is biologically based,” they concluded.
Yet, experts warn that, although we may be social creatures, not having enough downtime to be by ourselves may have consequences we don’t yet fully understand.
The fact that people make (or have to make) themselves constantly available for interaction increases the risk of “burnout,” commonly defined as physical or mental collapse by overwork or stress, according to neurophysiologist and Nobel Prize laureate Thomas C. Südhof.
The pressure of always being within reach can become a form of chronic stress that affects how our brains function. Over time, this may lead to lasting damages. To counteract it, he says, we need regular brakes and time out to recover.
In addition to the onslaught of social demands, the sheer fact that most of us live in noisy environments makes things only worse. According to studies by the American Psychological Association, noise pollution plays a role in numerous health issues, including learning disabilities among children. By contrast, researchers found that when “quiet time” was introduced in selected schools, students found it easier to concentrate and had better peer relations.
Naturally, not everyone can decide to tune out and escape his or her world on a whim, even if nothing else would be more welcome. Finding a truly quiet spot for relaxation, meditation, or simply a short nap may be difficult. But there are other solutions. A walk in a nearby park after work or an afternoon in the woods or on a beach can do wonders.
Much of what we experience also depends on our attitude. Does that phone really have to be on 24/7? Can answering those e-mails wait a bit longer? What if you’re not up on the latest news?
Letting it all go for a while may be a better choice. Besides, most of what you missed out on will still be there when you get back.
People who meditate regularly over long periods of time in their lives suffer smaller age-related decreases in brain volume than those who don’t, according to a new study on the long-term effects of practices like transcendental meditation, yoga, tai chi, and other relaxation techniques.
Some of the study’s outcomes confirm what prior research has shown, namely that meditating may be helpful for improving one’s concentration, memory, verbal fluency, and creativity. Surprisingly, though, this latest investigation also found that loss of brain volume – especially grey matter – due to aging was less significant in habitual meditators compared to their non-meditating counterparts.
Although most forms of meditation are rooted in religious and spiritual traditions, millions now practice purely for the enhancement of their health and wellbeing, according to statistics by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the National Institute for Health Statistics (NCHS). Most commonly, meditation and other relaxation techniques are thought of as an essential part of stress management.
While not all experts are convinced of the effectiveness of meditation in promoting both mental and physical health, it is by and large accepted that therapeutic measures to induce calmness can be instrumental in easing psychological stresses like anxiety and depression as well as physical pain. Some studies have suggested that symptoms of medical conditions like asthma, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), high blood pressure, and even heart disease and cancer can be better managed with meditation. Also smoking cessation and recovery from alcohol and drug abuse show higher success rates when meditation is included in the process.
Even though the jury may still be out on whether, or to what extent, meditation and other practices of mindfulness can materially alter the brain, it is certain that chronic stress causes real damage. Neuroscientists have long discovered that cortisol, the stress hormone, can indeed create lasting changes to the brain structure and detrimentally affect brain functions. Reducing the impact of stress by engaging in effective countermeasures such as meditation can mitigate at least some of those injuries.
Beginners may find it hard to establish a meditation routine. Not everything works for everyone. While there are many types of exercises, all recommend the following:
First, find a time and place where you won’t be interrupted or distracted. Second, choose a style that makes you most comfortable. You may prefer to sit, lay down, move, or walk. Third, choose a focal point that is easier for you to maintain such as a particular word, object, or sensation like your breathing. Fourth, keep an open mind towards all that happens during your session. Let inevitable distractions and loss of focus pass. Do not judge or allow yourself to be discouraged. Fifth, do not measure your progress in terms of what you can achieve by outside standards. This is something you do only for your own benefit and your personal growth.
Regardless whether you turn out smarter or not, it will be worth the effort if it makes you feel better, calmer, happier, and lets you enjoy life. What could be more important?
Do you feel energized, restless and impatient? You may have spring fever. Are you irritable, weary, listless and unable to concentrate? You may have spring fever. Or are you in a constant state of tiredness and exhaustion? It may be spring fever as well. Why so many different symptoms that even seem to contradict each other? It can be your body’s reaction to the changing seasons, or seasonal affective disorder (SAD), as the phenomenon is sometimes called.
During the winter months the body protects itself against lower temperatures and reduced sunlight by adjusting its metabolism and hormonal balance. Body temperature drops, blood pressure rises, and secretion of the sleep hormone melatonin increases, making us more sleepy. As the weather gets warmer and sunnier in the spring, the opposite happens: body temperature goes up, blood pressure goes down, and the feel-good hormone serotonin begins to dominate.
The problem is that the transitions between these different stages don’t always go smoothly. In any case, hormonal imbalances take place that can cause all sorts of physical and mental responses. Some experts say that spring fever or spring fatigue are a bit like having a “hangover” after a period of dormancy, perhaps a lighter version of what hibernating animals go through.
Because our experience of seasonal changes has become so much mitigated through artificial light and heating, our natural reactions may be even less predictable.
In addition, weather conditions can fluctuate to a larger degree in the spring than at any other time of the year. Global climate change may only intensify these variations. Extreme weather changes have become the new normal in recent years. 2012 had the warmest spring on record in the United States, with over five degrees above average. It also had some of the coldest winters months. As I write this article, temperatures at the east coast are approaching 90 degrees, while western states like Colorado report freezing conditions.
The effects of seasonal changes on the body’s equilibrium are stress-producing, says Karina Seizinger, a homeopath and yoga teacher who recommends taking a number of measures for the treatment of spring fatigue symptoms. Among them are eating a healthy, balanced diet consisting of lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, drinking plenty of water, exercising, exposing the body to sunlight and engaging in calming practices like yoga and meditation.
“First and foremost, just be aware, and know that your body is in a state of transition,” she emphasizes. “Be kind and patient with yourself, and give yourself some time to adjust.”
While feeling fatigued for some time due to seasonal changes is no cause for concern, chronic tiredness may have other roots. Feeling drained or exhausted from stress or lack of sleep can be a normal response. It can also be a sign of a more serious physical or mental condition that should be examined by a doctor.
Outside of that possibility, getting enough sleep, watching your diet, exercising, managing stress and avoiding alcohol, nicotine and drugs should get you back on track for the coming summer.
I practice a special kind of meditation on an almost daily basis. Perhaps meditation isn’t the right word since it doesn’t require me to sit in silence with my eyes closed and legs crossed or anything like that. It’s more a form of taking stock of where my life is going at any particular time.
For this, I have five issues to consider: my physical health, my diet, my emotional state, my intellectual rigor and my social/relational life. These I think of as the pillars of my wellbeing. Each one matters greatly by itself, but each must also be in balance with all the others. If one goes missing, the rest will suffer as well.
Let me give an example. When I injured my shoulder in a tennis game a few years ago, I realized how much was taken away from me, not just because I had to give up playing for a while but also because a dear routine was interrupted with all sorts of consequences.
During my prolonged absence from the court, I lost my tennis buddies whose comradeship I had enjoyed tremendously. One of them, a university professor and a true intellectual, had not only been a great partner in doubles but also a stimulating presence in my life that gave me many insights in a vast variety of subjects. Due to the reduced physical activity, I felt less energetic and not as motivated in my work. And I had to watch my diet more carefully to prevent unwanted weight gain.
Needless to say, I was saddened about losing a part of my life that was more important to me than I had been aware of. In fact, it made me miserable for quite some time.
The German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said: “Health is not everything, but without it, nothing is anything.” I am a great believer in that. I know now that my physical health is the foundation of what I can do in life, whether it concerns work or leisurely activities. It also affects my state of mind, my interest and participation in the world around me, and my ability to relate to others. And it works both ways: The happier I am, the more fulfilled I feel, the easier it seems to stay healthy and fit.
Obviously, my little meditational routine is nothing original. If you are interested in taking up this kind of exercise, I can recommend using the so-called “Wellness Wheel”, which follows a similar pattern. As the name indicates, the different components of wellness relate to each other like spokes in a wheel. Each is necessary to hold the whole thing together, none is expendable.
Good nutrition, regular exercise, weight management as well as avoidance of smoking and alcohol and drug abuse are at the core. But so are stress management and getting enough sleep. Our emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs must be cared for. Having goals, a sense of purpose and satisfaction and fulfillment in what we do are all part of it, just like having good relationships with loved ones, colleagues and community.
Not all areas will always be at peak performance. And that’s not even necessary. We can focus on work and put our social life on the backburner for some time. We can take a break from our exercise routine for a day or two and make up for the missed time on the weekend. We can overindulge for a special occasion and then go right back to a healthy diet afterwards. What we can’t do is neglecting or sacrificing entire segments of our wellbeing because, sooner or later, it will affect the whole person.
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com. For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com). You can follow Timi on Twitter, on Facebook and on Pinterest.
New research, funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH), found that people with heart disease who regularly meditate may be able to reduce their risk of suffering a heart attack or stroke nearly by half.
For the study, which was published in the journal of the American Heart Association (AHA), heart disease patients were enrolled in a stress-reducing program based on Transcendental Meditation (TM). The participants were required to meditate for about 20 minutes twice a day, practicing specific techniques that allowed their bodies and minds to experience a sense of deep rest and relaxation.
“Transcendental Meditation is a simple, effortless and natural way to settle down to a quiet state of mind,” said Dr. Robert Schneider, director of the Institute for Natural Medicine and Prevention, a research institute at the Maharishi University in Fairfield, Iowa, and leader of the program.
But achieving calmness and emotional balance are not the only potential benefits. Meditating can have a positive impact on the body as well, such as lowering blood pressure, and can thereby play an important role in the treatment or prevention of cardiovascular disease. “It’s a way to utilize the body’s own internal pharmacy,” said Dr. Schneider in an interview with WebMD.
Meditation has been practiced in various forms for thousands of years all around the globe. Practitioners use it to reach a state of tranquility, inner peace, awareness and balance but also for the treatment of medical conditions, especially when they are aggravated by stress and anxiety.
Transcendental meditation, as applied in the study, is only one of many types of the practice. Yoga, which focuses on posture and breathing exercises, primarily for physical flexibility, can also help relax the mind and reduce stress.
“Those who meditate can choose among a wide range of practices, both religious and secular,” said Dr. Charles L. Raison, clinical director of the Mind-Body Program at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, who participated in a study on the healing effects of meditation on both body and mind. “What they have in common is a narrowing of focus that shuts out the external world, which usually [also] stills the body.”
Some experts have warned that drawing conclusions like these may be premature. Dr. Britta Hölzel, a psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School who studied mindful meditation practices, finds it hard to pinpoint the benefits of meditation. “The field is very, very young, and we don’t really know enough about it yet,” she said in an interview with the New York Times. “I would say these are still quite preliminary findings. We see that there is something there, but we have to replicate these findings and find out what they really mean.”
Still she acknowledges that meditating can increase a sense of well-being and improve the quality of life, even if it’s hard to determine how precisely these effects come about. And she agrees that meditation has its place if for no other reason than to provide some much needed rest.
“It does not require any particular education and does not conflict with lifestyle, philosophy or beliefs,” said Dr. Schneider. “It’s a straightforward technique [that] helps to reset the body’s own self-repair and homeostatic mechanisms.” That’s a lot for the simple act of sitting still.
If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Self-Care for Heart Disease Patients.”
Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.