In light of Mental Health Month, I want to talk about my very favorite tool to keeping a healthy mental balance. As I mentioned in the previous post, the single most effective thing that has helped me combat depression and anxiety, and stabilized my mental state is daily meditation and releasing my worries and burdens to God and the Universe.
(And don’t worry, you don’t have to believe in God for meditation to work for you.)
When battling depression, anxiety, or even lots of stress, it can seem impossible to get out of your own head. This is why meditation is so important. If that sounds silly to you, because you are thinking, “How can I possibly meditate when my brain won’t shut up?” then definitely come back for part two of this post. It was written just for you!
Meditation has mental, emotional, spiritual, and physical benefits too numerous to list here. But to name just a few, it can help you:
- build the skills to reduce your stress load in your everyday life
- ease anxiety and depression
- reduce negative emotions
- manage sleep problems
- reduce inflammation and lower blood pressure
- reduce risk of heart disease and stroke
- manage pain
- develop more compassion and improve relationships
It does a LOT of other incredibly beneficial things too, and this awesome article explains a lot of them.
Setting yourself up for an effective meditation
Whether you are brand new to meditation, or you’ve attempted it and given up because you just can’t seem to concentrate for more than fifteen seconds, how you get started may be the difference between a peaceful, desirable meditation, and a tortured, anxious (or nonexistent) one.
Your environment while meditating is crucial. It should be quiet, comfortable, free of distractions, and allow you to be undisturbed for the entire duration of your meditation. It helps to practice in the same space and time of day every time. Even how and where you sit should remain consistent if possible. This ritualism gives your body and mind the hint that “now it’s time to meditate,” and it will be easier and quicker to get into it every time.
Allow yourself the freedom to check your to-do list at the door. This is YOUR time. Work, family stuff, whatever obligations you may have can wait until you are done. Remember you are doing this because your brain needs a break. Let it have one.
Your breath is your best means of focus. Different types of meditation use the breath in different ways, but generally you’ll want to start with a few long, slow, deep inhales and exhales. Inhaling until your lungs and your belly are completely full, maybe even holding it for a few counts, then exhaling just as slowly (or slower) until you’ve gotten rid of all the breath in your body. Your belly should expand on the inhale and contract on the exhale.
This is also a great step to take whenever you find yourself getting worked up or anxious about something. Slowing your breath and focusing on it is an awesome way to calm your brain and body and recenter yourself, in or out of meditation. Closing your eyes while doing this helps too.
TYPES OF MEDITATION
There are many different styles of meditation (we’re talking hundreds), and choosing the one that’s right for you can make all the difference in your experience. Whether you are a visual person, a wandering mind that needs constant prompts, or a do-it-yourselfer that prefers to guide your own journey, there’s a style that will work for you.
These are some of the more popular types of meditation:
Mindfulness Meditation - This is a style of open-monitoring meditation, and it is simply about being aware. There’s no pressure to focus on one thing, and no expectation to “clear your mind” completely. It’s all about observing, without judgment, what comes and goes in the mind and letting it pass.
Mantra Meditation - This is a type of focused meditation great for people who prefer to have something to concentrate on. Many mantras are Sanskrit and chosen not only for their meaning, but also for the way their sound resonates within the body. You can find some common mantras in these articles: The Beginner’s Guide to Common Yoga Chants, 5 Ancient Mantras that Will Transform Your Life, and Top 10 Mantras for Meditation.
Guided Meditation - This is the easiest way to get started in meditation. And for that reason, many of the suggestions in part two of this post are guided meditations. They are often visual and ask you to use all of your senses to create a scene in your mind. Many are also directed to a specific topic or a challenge you may be facing such as “abundance,” “peace,” or “overcoming obstacles”.
Walking Meditation - A great option for those who are too restless to simply sit in meditation at first. Traditional walking meditation is done VERY slowly and on a simple and short, direct path that you traverse back and forth for the entire meditation. However, it can also be done on a regular walk, preferably in nature or a simple walking path without too many distractions or obstacles to navigate. This is an excellent guide to walking meditation.
Chakra Meditation - Chakra meditations can be guided or unguided (but are much easier at first if guided). You can meditate on just one chakra and the life aspects associated with that chakra, or you can spend time on each chakra for a fully cleansing effect. For more information on chakras, I find this article helpful.
Loving Kindness Meditation - About as straight-forward as it sounds, this meditation starts by sending loving kindness to yourself until you feel it radiate throughout your body. Then you send it to those you love, then those you consider neutral acquaintances, then those you find difficult to deal with, then the whole world.
Qigong - Qigong (chee-gong) is an ancient Chinese tradition that combines postures, breathing, and meditation for an all-in-one intentional practice. Check out this article for a more in-depth explanation on Qigong.
APPS AND OTHER TOOLS
Luckily meditation and mindfulness have become very mainstream over the last few years. This means there are many apps and tools to help you do it. And they’re getting better all the time. This article is a thorough review of the apps that are out there and how they stack up. I love Omvana and Headspace.
YouTube is great for finding free guided meditations and meditation music (and where many of the suggestions in part two come from). But beware that for every good one out there, you’ll find five more questionable ones. The UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center also has some good basic meditations for those who are just starting out.
Every few months, Oprah and Deepak Chopra put out a free 21-day meditation series that is always centered around a theme and never disappoints. This is a nice way to make daily meditation a habit. Actually, it's how I started my daily practice over two years ago.
And if you really want to jump in and start a daily meditation practice, but also experiment with many different types of meditation and topics, there’s this awesome podcast with hundreds of free guided meditations at Sip and Om.
So, while it can seem difficult to make just 10-20 minutes of your day available to shut out your obligations and turn inward, I can assure you it’s worth it. The science is there, and I have experienced the hugely transformative effects for myself. Now it’s at the point where I don’t have time NOT to meditate. It’s a priority I cannot live peacefully without.
If you still have reservations and obstacles that prevent you from having a decent meditation session, please come back for part two of this post where I’ll address many of those challenges head-on with suggested meditations and advice.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts on meditation in general. What are your past experiences with it? Are you skeptical, excited to try it, or totally confused by it? Let’s talk it out friends!