By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.
What do Paul McCartney, actor Hugh Jackman, comedian Jerry Seinfeld, shock jock Howard Stern, and director David Lynch and I have in common?
Well, we’re all busy people and we meditate. We are, in fact, also all enthusiastic advocates. And for many good reasons.
Meditate for Stress Relief, Lower Blood Pressure, and Better Health
Used to be that meditation was considered something mystical and mysterious, the pastime of reclusive monks. That’s all changed. Today, meditation is VERY mainstream, and even doctors recommend it now.
It’s been quite a few years since meditation emerged out of its mystical wrappings and was put under scientific scrutiny. The results have been overwhelmingly positive. Meditation reduces stress. It improves blood pressure and heart health. Anything that can do that gets high marks from me, a doctor who has seen how stress can batter blood pressure and ruin health, and even cause heart attacks and stroke.
The research on meditation has proven that a concept and practice going back many hundreds of years, has relevance in our stressed-out modern society. Especially now during this COVID-19 era, people need tools to help keep stress from getting the better of them. Meditation is not only a healthy stress management tool, but in most instances, it’s free! All you need is a quiet space and a little know how (more on that below).
Meditation Backed by Science
Over the many years of my clinical practice, I often cajoled patients to start meditating because regular practice is so effective for reducing stress and contributing to overall health.
I myself have practiced Transcendental Meditation (TM) since the 1970s and although not as regular in my practice as I should be, the technique has often helped get me through intense times in my action-packed life.
There are, to be sure, many meditation techniques available in the world and if you are interested in meditating you need to find a technique that works the best for you.
I was drawn to TM by the utter simplicity of the technique and the fact that most of the worldwide research confirming the many health benefits of meditation has been done by the TM organization. The late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who founded the TM program and was known as the “guru of the Beatles,” put great emphasis on scientific research. His inspiration resulted in a massive volume of hundreds of studies conducted all over the world verifying wide-ranging benefits. That’s a huge accomplishment for a timeless technique carried out of the Himalayas and adapted for a busy modern world by Maharishi in the 1950s.
The results of the many studies include the following:
- Greater brain-wave coherence, an indicator of higher levels of creativity, intelligence, moral reasoning, and neuromuscular efficiency.
- Marked ability to recover from stress more quickly, including reduction of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder among combat veterans.
- Cuts in half, or more, the need for doctor visits or hospitalization.
- Decreased aggressiveness, anxiety and stress among prison inmates and reduction of repeat criminal offenses.
- Reduces or eliminates the use of illegal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes.
- Improved psychological health.
- Reduces risk factors and can slow or reverse the progression of pathophysiological changes underlying cardiovascular disease, including reductions in blood pressure, carotid artery intima-media thickness, myocardial ischemia, left ventricular hypertrophy, mortality, and other relevant outcomes.
This extraordinary volume of research includes numerous studies on high blood pressure that were singled out by the American Heart Association in 2013. In a report published in the journal Hypertension, the AHA said that of all meditation techniques it reviewed only TM met the standards to be recommended in clinical practice for the prevention and treatment of hypertension. There wasn’t enough scientific evidence to recommend other meditation or relaxation techniques, the report said.
In general, however, meditation of many kinds have attained mainstream popularity. Just how much so was clearly in evidence in a 2013 Wall Street Journal feature article in which doctors at leading American hospitals talk of meditation as a significant therapeutic concept in primary-care settings. Doctors, the article said, are increasingly recommending daily meditation for stress-related conditions, including insomnia, high blood pressure, chronic pain, irritable bowel disorders, depression, panic and anxiety disorders, and post-traumatic stress syndrome.
How to Start Meditating
You can find teachers of different techniques by simply typing in “meditation” on your Internet browser search engine. You’ll see a likely confusing array of options. So perhaps the best thing to do is ask somebody you know who meditates.
Some meditation courses are free. Some charge. Some you can learn online. Others you need to have a teacher take you through a formal course. You’ll have to figure out what works for your budget and what resonates with you.
Whichever technique you choose, one thing is for sure. You need to stick with it. Meditation is not a do-it-once-technique-and-you-are-cured. Although you may feel relief the very first time you meditate, it is continuity that generates maximum benefits for nervous systems usually running at full steam ahead. And making it a lifestyle practice helps you train your mind to use it when you most need to – during times of intense stress.
One simple, cost-free method that I have told many patients about over the years is this: Sit comfortably, and focus on any phrase that is meaningful to you… maybe it’s “The Lord is my shepherd,” “Shalom,” “Hail Mary, full of grace,” or an affirmation or word like “peace,” “I am grateful,” “happiness,” “I accept myself.”
As you breathe in and out, say your mantra phrase to yourself in your mind. You can also choose to focus on a blank mind. When stray thoughts come into your mind, don’t try to force them out. Simply acknowledge them, and then let them go…like a stream of water that flows under a bridge. If using a phrase, gently bring your focus back to your phrase. Each time distracting thoughts enter your mind – don’t get frustrated or mad, just recognize them and let them go.
Sitting cross-legged while keeping your back as straight as possible is probably the most common position, but you can meditate in any position…standing, sitting in the yard, or even lying down (even during Shavasana, or Corpse, pose in yoga). The important thing is to clear your mind and focus on your breathing. Some people prefer to close their eyes, others keep them open.
Use this technique for 10–15 minutes, once or twice daily, or as needed.
Once you learn to meditate in a quiet space, you can bring it into other activities, and mediate while walking, washing dishes, or any activity that doesn’t require active thinking (I don’t recommend meditating while driving a vehicle, though). After a while, it can become a way of life and a useful tool to stay cool when life turns up the heat.
- Reddy S. Doctor’s orders: 20 minutes of meditation twice a day. Wall Street Journal, April 15, 2013.
- Brook RD et al., Beyond medications and diet: Alternative approaches to ing blood pressure. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Hypertension, 2013; 61(6):1360-83
- Barnes VA, et al. Clinical case series: treatment of PTSD with Transcendental Meditation in Active Duty Military Personnel. Mil Med, 2013;178(7):e836-40.
© 2013, 2020 Stephen Sinatra. All rights reserved.