The Science behind Mindfulness Meditation – Exercise for your mental health
I know what you’re thinking – Meditation? That airy fairy, voodoo thing that hippies and yoga instructors do? I know that’s what you’re thinking, because that is exactly what I thought until a few weeks ago. Meditation is something that I’ve always wanted to try, but continuously put off as I could never quite ‘find the time’. I was never into yoga or any kind of relaxation ‘exercise’ because to be honest, I can barely touch my toes – never mind do a head stand, while simultaneously looking graceful. Instead of focusing on the goal of relaxing to find my inner ‘Zen’, I would stress over how evident it was that I was the only person unable to do the poses. Meditation is similar to yoga, in the sense that they both concentrate on the breath. The obvious difference is that you don’t have to do any eccentric posing and can sit down in a comfortable position.
When I first gave it a shot, I thought to myself that it doesn’t work and that I was probably doing it wrong. I thought it was meant to make me feel relaxed and calm but instead, I found myself getting distracted by my thoughts and drifting off. Like anything, it requires practice and your full attention. I first gave it a try in the lead up to my final exams and it wasn’t until I stopped meditating that I noticed the benefits. I gave it a break of about 3 days or so, and during that break, I noticed myself becoming more anxious and stressed. While it can give you an instantaneous feeling of calm and focus, it also gives you the power to be mindful of your own thoughts. We can get caught up in a spiral of negative thoughts far too easily, so I found this is aspect of mindfulness meditation to be very beneficial. Have you ever found yourself completing a task, with no memory of physically doing it as your mind was elsewhere? This is the same situation as when you are having a conversation with someone but can’t remember a word they just said. Or when you are trying to sleep, but your mind is on overdrive, thinking about everything and anything. Or what about a negative comment someone makes about you? You may have never heard it before, but it begins to consume you and you begin feel bad about yourself. We let our minds take control, when we should be controlling our minds. Mindfulness meditation helps you to stop these thoughts in their tracks, before they trigger a blur of negativity. You stop getting distracted and dwelling on the little things. Productivity increases and you will gain mental clarity. I know I’m starting to sound a little hippy-like, so I’ll get to the science now.
The autonomic nervous system is made up of the sympathetic nervous system (breathing in) and the parasympathetic nervous system (breathing out). Each system has its own function in the body, controlling everything from your heart rate to the digestive system. Due to how stressful daily life can be, the sympathetic nervous system is often heightened. This causes the body to be in fight or flight mode causing increases in the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline and disruption to digestion. The body also conserves energy by shutting down certain processes that are deemed to be non-essential to survive eg. The menstruation cycle in females. The parasympathetic nervous system acts to balance the effects of the sympathetic nervous system – this is where meditation comes in. When we go about our day-to-day lives, rushing around and feeing stressed, the effects of the parasympathetic nervous system are diminished. By simply taking a few long, deep breaths, you have the power to restore the balance in your body. It is such an effortless thing to do, but can have such a positive effect.
How do you do it? Find a comfortable, yet wakeful position (ie. not lying down on your bed) and sit for a set time, generally around 10 minutes. Begin by focussing your mind on nothing but your breathing. It’s natural for your mind to wander off during the session, but each time it does, simply bring your attention back to the breath. I find starting off with a voiceover is best, using guided meditation videos or apps, such as Calm or Headspace. I prefer the Calm app, and I’m trying to get into a routine of doing at least one mindfulness meditation session a day. I do wish that I tried it sooner, as not only do I find it really beneficial mentally, but physically too in terms of my hormones and IBS symptoms (the Gut-Brain connection).
What’s great about mindfulness meditation, is that it’s like a form of exercise for your mental health. By committing to just 10 minutes of your day, you will notice how it can positively affect your mental health. If you can spare 40 minutes exercising in the gym or watching a Netflix series, surely you can find 10 minutes in your day? We need to become more pro-active when it comes to mental health. We workout for our physical health, so why don’t we exercise our mental health? I’m not saying this is the answer to all mental health problems, but speaking from experience, practicing mindfulness meditation works. I often say if you are continuously doing the same things, but are not getting the results you want, why not make a change and try something new? Take 10 minutes out of your day and give meditation a go. Realistically, everyone has 10 minutes to spare. If you feel like you don’t, then I advise you to find the time and make it a priority. Start being pro-active and prioritise your mental health.