I already hear a collective sigh and a plethora of excuses being thrown around -"I don't have time to meditate," or "I can't sit still long enough," or best one yet - "its boring!" Well I empathise with you because that was me not long ago......... Fast forward a few weeks and several pod casts later and here I am meditating daily (I even have my husband on board!). So why might you ask did I decide to begin this journey?
We are exceptionally fortuitous in this day and age to have the world wide web at our fingertips and thus an abundance of inormation to explore. I am always trying to grow and evolve as a person and often use platforms such as podcasts as a way to learn new information. Obviously my passion lies within the health and fitness industry and upon listening to podcasts of this genre, I have discovered that every single health and fitness professional is taking time to meditate daily (20 minutes seems to be a common timeframe). So it led me to delve deeper into what its all about and let me tell you, the data is quite startling!
Lets begin with what meditation actually means - "a discipline that involves turning the mind and attention inward and focusing on a single thought, image, object or feeling." (source http://www.abc.net.au/health/library/stories).
From a neuroscience perspective, there are 5 categories of brain waves that each correspond to different activities. Meditation helps move from high frequency to low frequency and when the brain frequencies are slower, we have more time to consciously work out what thoughts you invest in and take action towards. Below are the 5 categories of brain waves which clearly highlight changes in brain function with activity:
5 Categories of Brain Waves: Why Meditation Works
1. Gamma State: (30 - 100Hz) This is the state of hyperactivity and active learning. Gamma state is the most opportune time to retain information. This is why educators often have audiences jumping up and down or dancing around -- to increase the likelihood of permanent assimilation of information. If over stimulated, it can lead to anxiety.
2. Beta State: (13 - 30Hz) Where we function for most of the day, beta state is associated with the alert mind state of the prefrontal cortex. This is a state of the "working" or "thinking mind" -- analytical, planning, assessing and categorizing.
3. Alpha State: (9 - 13Hz) Brain waves start to slow down out of thinking mind. We feel more calm, peaceful and grounded. We often find ourselves in an "alpha state" after a yoga class, a walk in the woods, a pleasurable sexual encounter or during any activity that helps relax the body and mind. We are lucid, reflective, have a slightly diffused awareness. The hemispheres of the brain are more balanced (neural integration).
4. Theta State: (4 - 8Hz) We are able to begin meditation. This is the point where the verbal/thinking mind transitions to the meditative/visual mind. We begin to move from the planning mind to a deeper state of awareness (often felt as drowsy), with stronger intuition, more capacity for wholeness and complicated problem solving. The theta state is associated visualization.
5. Delta State: (1-3 Hz) Tibetan monks that have been meditating for decades can reach this in an alert, wakened phase, but most of us reach this final state during deep, dreamless sleep.
The illustration below shows the theta wave synchronisation pre and post meditation. You can see the more symmetrical activity 25 minutes post meditation.
So how can meditation help you?
- Reduces stress: Meditation has been shown to lower cortisol levels. Cortisol is a stress hormone that is released when we sense danger. This is a good thing however many people have a chronic cortisol overload due to constant high levels of stress. This can lead to mental health problems, blood sugar imbalances, weakened immune system and impaired mental focus and memory. One study showed that second year medical students who meditated daily had reduced cortisol levels in just 4 days!
- Reduces pain: Cortisol also causes inflammation which can lead to chronic health conditions and can exaccerbate pain. It is thought that by lowering cortisol, meditation subsequently lowers inflammation and pain.
- Lowers blood pressure - by lowering the bodys response to stress, we inadvertantly lower blood pressure though meditation. Stress causes increased heart rate and also constricts blood vessels which both lead to increased blood pressure.
- Faster post workout recovery: through less stress and thus inflammation, we can repair tissue more rapidly post workout
- Better immunity: when the body is under stress, it lowers the bodies immune system making us more prone to illness. By lowering our body's response to stress, meditation also increases immunity
- Better emotional regulation: Studies have shown that mindfulness meditation helps enhance the sensory pathways in the brain that work to control emotion and increase tolerance for discomfort and pain
- Increased memory: studies have shown that regular meditation have shown positive changes in the grey matter of the brain which improves cognitive function
- Improved mental focus: with positive changes in the structure of the brain along with more balanced communication between the hemispheres, meditation improves alertness and focus. Having less "brain chatter" enables clearer thought processes and more time to make decisions.
So how do you meditate? The positive effects of meditation can be seen in as little as 5 minutes per day. It is thought that a 20 minute block is ideal and if you can do that twice daily (40 minutes) you will see huge changes. I downloaded the app "Headspace" which gives you a guided mediation from beginner through to more advanced. It provides a voiceover so you don't even have to think about 'what to think about'! We chose to meditate just before bed as we found this was the best time for us (mornings are inconsistent). So I encourage you to give it a try and see how it can impact your state of mind. You don't need much time, just a 'can do' attitude! Good luck!