Healing your mind through mindfulness

Meditation has become a hot topic lately.

Everyone from entrepreneurs to actors to musicians to athletes swear by meditation. But if you’re anything like me, there’s a good chance that if you haven’t tried it already, you’re a little skeptical. I don’t blame you. Just sitting and not thinking seems like a waste of time, especially in today’s society where there is always so much going on and so much to do. Ain’t nobody got time fo’ that.

“All told we were in there about six hours and no I was not meditating. I just stood there quietly breathing. There were no thoughts in my head what so ever. My mind was blank. I don’t know what the hell these other crack pots are doing.” -Ron Swanson

Ron Swanson on Meditation

(We haven’t written our own blog describing meditation and all the different types yet, but if you need some background info, check out this article to get started.)

Taking a few minutes out of your day to focus on your breath and unwind can be a powerful tool for trauma survivors. Before we go into why, let’s take a step back for a second and I’ll share my experience with meditation.

My meditation journey

A few years ago, I would have scoffed at the idea of meditating. My first experience with it was in group therapy, and let me tell you, initially I was skeptical of a lot of the hippy-dippy bullshit (in my mother’s words) they introduced us to. But to stay open-minded, I went along with it all. The first meditation I can remember doing was a loving-kindness meditation. To start, we were guided to take deep breaths and focus our attention on our heart. I could feel the fullness of it in my chest. Practically overwhelming my senses.

We were then told to think of memories full of joy and love for another person. I focused my attention on my mom, inhaling her love with each breath. On each exhale, I sent that loving energy back. So refreshing. However, finding it difficult to concentrate on a single person without complicating emotions, I changed my focus to a different friend or family member with each breath. I moved to my dad, brothers, roommates, friends, romantic interests, only focusing on those feelings of pure joy I felt with each one. It’s been so long since this meditation now, but I can still remember how powerful it was. For the first time in months, I felt full, not like some hollow shell of my former self.

Despite the initial skepticism, it was obvious from that point on that meditation was a powerful tool. However, I didn’t immediately become some meditation fanatic. (I still wouldn’t call myself one.) I found it difficult to incorporate meditation into my daily routine. I didn’t value it enough to make time for it. For a while, I only meditated in those group settings, in therapy or later in yoga class.

10% Happier

Cover of book 10% Happier by Dan Harris

10% Happier by Dan Harris

Then, about 2 years ago, I read this book 10% Happier by Dan Harris. Dan is a news anchor who famously had a mental breakdown on live television due to his ambition, lifestyle, and drug addiction. This breakdown was a wake up call for him to change things, and Dan fell into meditation and mindfulness after being assigned to cover a series of stories on religion and spirituality by his boss Peter Jennings.

Though also skeptical of the often hypocritical gurus leading the movement, he soon found mindfulness as the answer to the critical voice in his head. Harris even started attending meditation retreats near where I live in the Bay Area. Not to give the whole book away, but reading Dan’s story, from avid skeptic to daily meditator, pushed me to take mindfulness and meditation more seriously. Dan’s theory, which is one I agree with, is that meditation isn’t some cure-all self care routine. However, a daily meditation practice can increase your happiness about 10% (hence the name of the book).

And this isn’t all just anecdotal evidence from me and some news guy. There’s actual data here.

Meditation isn't some cure-all self care routine. However a daily meditation can make you about 10% happierStudies on the benefits of meditation

Meditation has been used in various parts of the world as a spiritual and healing practice for more than 5,000 years! That alone should signify how beneficial meditation can be for one’s health. [1] As the practice has spread to the western world over these last few decades, the numbers of scientific studies examining the benefits of meditation have skyrocketed. There are over 3,000 scientific reports out there studying the benefits of meditation. [2] The general consensus is positive.

Side note on the caveats of this research

Even though there are a ton of studies on meditation out there doesn’t mean they are all done well. In fact, one analysis on the state of meditation research from 2005 concluded that the vast majority of literature on the subject was not well controlled, so the effects of meditation are often overstated. They also found it hard to draw universal conclusions from these studies, because oftentimes the type of meditation practice, frequency, and duration were inconsistent.

If you want to remain a skeptic, feel free to use conclusions from this analysis to justify your limited beliefs. However, I’m going to stand behind meditation regardless, because after studying biochemistry and working in research, I understand that the scientific method can be limiting, especially for neurobiology and psychology where experiments are difficult (if not impossible) to properly control. Does this mean they’re wrong? Well, some might be, but generally speaking, no. You just have to take them all with a grain of salt.

Each study is a tiny slice of our collective understanding. Each individual will have a different experience with meditation, based on their individual biochemistry, neural programming, lifestyle, and history. But there are trends that some studies have found. Take from them what you will:

Mindfulness decreases depression

Mindfulness based interventions were looked at in a 2014 meta-analysis (basically a study that studies other studies) in patients currently experiencing depression or anxiety. The authors limited their analysis to 12 studies that met their inclusion criteria (patients over 18 currently experiencing a bout of depression or anxiety) with a total of 578 patients. Despite any doubts about the quality of these studies (which tend to be small), the meta-analysis found mindfulness to have a significant effect on depressive symptoms in patients. These findings showed mindfulness therapies to be highly effective for patients with a diagnosed depressive disorder.

Some of the many benefits of meditation on your emotional health

Some of the many benefits of meditation to your emotional health

The caveat here is that depression gets in the way of patients even trying to practice meditation. Depressive thoughts and feelings can be somewhat addictive (speaking from my own experience) and breaking that pattern to practice mindfulness is way easier said than done. [3] Nonetheless, mindfulness meditation practices are shown to be just as effective as antidepressants in preventing relapse of depressive symptoms if one could stick to it. [4]

Other meditation benefits

Okay, I could sit here and spew information from hundreds of articles (and their criticisms) on the effects of mindfulness and meditation. However, you likely don’t care about all these details, so I won’t dive into it all here. And honestly, none of those studies will indicate how mindfulness will actually help YOU. You’ve got to try it out and incorporate it into your regular routine to see its benefits.

But if you need some convincing, here are some other ways in which mindfulness meditation has been shown to improve emotional health:

  • Helps regulate mood and anxiety disorders
  • Reduces symptoms of panic disorder
  • Improves focus, attention, and ability to work under stress
  • Provides mental strength and resilience
  • Increases emotional intelligence
  • Improves mood and psychological well-being
  • Helps allocate brain’s limited resources
  • Prepares you to deal with stressful situations
  • Increases awareness of unconscious thoughts
  • Improves empathy and positive relationships
  • Reduces social isolation
  • Increases feelings of compassion
  • Decreases worry
  • Decreases sense of loneliness
  • Reduces emotional eating

Plus, there are dozens of other physical health benefits to meditation not even touched on here. If that’s what you’re into, here’s a great article to get you started on learning more about those meditation benefits.

Special considerations: Meditation for sexual trauma

Again, as with literally everything we have or will ever recommend on this site, meditation alone is not enough. It is not going to heal those deep wounds by itself, but as Dan suggests, it will make you 10% happier.

Meditation: one of the many tools for your self-care toolbox

With that said, meditation can be particularly difficult for trauma survivors. Many survivors, myself included, dissociate our minds and bodies in order to cope with the pain. For me, bringing the pieces back together during meditation was intense at first. Meditation forced me, like others, to turn attention inward, to be aware of bodily sensations and negative thoughts. You know, the ones that we often try to forget completely. The goal is to work through these discomforts, by acknowledging the source and letting them be.

Sometimes, letting it be is easier said than done. I recently did a metta meditation where I started observing a lot of bodily sensations, especially in the lower two chakras. The feelings were so intense that I started having flashbacks of my rape. After a few minutes of trying to let those thoughts go, I had to stop the session entirely. I knew that if I kept sitting there, I was only going to keep working myself up and potentially traumatize myself further.  If you ever experience these feelings, know that stopping is perfectly okay. Not every meditation practice is for everyone all the time.

But don’t let that scare you

Just because meditation can sometimes be uncomfortable doesn’t mean you should skip out on it entirely. As we’ve already described, meditation greatly benefits your mental health and well-being. And like anything, the more your practice, the easier it gets. Many new meditators can get frustrated for being bad at it or not doing it right. But you must remember that becoming present and clearing your mind requires mental training in the same way your body requires physical training to master a skill. How many times did you fall down before you learned to walk?

The goal is not to just sit there with a clear head. If you approach meditation with this mentality, you will beat yourself up for being bad at it more than you try to practice. The goal is to catch yourself in thought, to notice all those words, feelings, and emotions that constantly run through your subconscious mind and make you feel overwhelmed. Every time you observe your thoughts and turn your attention towards your breath instead, you are getting better.

Tips to get started

In case you are still feeling overwhelmed, here are a few meditation tips for beginners:

  • Start out meditating for short periods, as little as a minute. As you get more comfortable with it, increase the length of time
  • While it is great to do, your meditation practice doesn’t have to be some elaborate ritual in a quiet place. You can meditate at any time of day or place, so don’t let that excuse stop you. Sometimes I take time on public transit to just sit and focus on my breath. Or at my desk at work. . . Just maybe not while driving.
  • Whether sitting or lying, make sure you are in a comfortable position before starting
  • Guided meditations are great if you need assistance. You might consider more active forms of meditation, like repetitions of a prayer/mantra, moving meditation, noting out loud, or chanting if you find yourself feeling uncomfortable or triggered.
  • LOVE YOURSELF

It takes time to build a solid meditation practice, so be compassionate with yourself if your practice isn’t where you want it to be. I’ve been working on my practice for years now, but only in the past few months have I actually made it a regular thing. It’s gone from feeling like a chore, like something I should do, to an activity that I crave and enjoy. I meditate nearly everyday now when I wake up, and sometimes again before I go to sleep. Meditation helps me relax and let go, after years of carrying that tension with me all the time. I love it because I feel a connection to my higher self and the world around me, and I’ve become addicted to that sense of release and the self-love that comes with it.

Hopefully with time, you find this bliss in your meditation practice too.

Feeling ready to meditate?

I often go to YouTube and find guided meditations there,  catered to what I’m looking for at that moment (positivity, motivation, sleep, etc). However, there are a ton of meditation apps out there. Find one that works for you and get to it!

Check out our Meditation and Mindfulness Pinterest Board for more articles and info. We’ve pinned our works cited there, and will continue posting relevant reads as we come across them. There is so much information on this topic available, so we’ll likely have more of our own posts in the future. Stay tuned!

  1. https://www.mentalhealthwatch.org/reports/meditation.pdf
  2. http://liveanddare.com/benefits-of-meditation/
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3999148/
  4. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3742431/

 

Do you use meditation as part of your self-care routine? What have been your experiences? Let us know in the comments below!

 

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