Between balancing work, family and other responsibilities, life can be stressful. And now more than ever, you might be feeling overwhelmed and worried with concerns over the novel coronavirus pandemic, which has disrupted daily life for millions of people.
Though you can't avoid everyday stressors, sometimes, simply taking a pause to breathe and rest your mind through meditation can be exactly what you need to ease the pressure. But don't just take our word for it.
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Numerous studies have demonstrated that meditation can be an effective stress-management tool. Indeed, research has even discovered that meditation may have a longer-lasting affect on shrinking stress than rest and relaxation on vacation, per Harvard Health Publishing.
Below, Jodie Skillicorn, DO, a holistic psychiatrist and author of Healing Depression Without Medication: A Psychiatrist's Guide to Balancing Mind, Body, and Soul, discusses four types of meditation to reduce stress (including step-by-step instructions), plus tips on starting a meditation practice.
1. Mindfulness Meditation
"A broad term, mindfulness meditation encompasses techniques that train the mind to focus on compassionate, non-judgmental awareness of this moment as it is — right here, right now — and not as we want it to be or think it should be," Dr. Skillicorn says.
Mindfulness can center around bodily sensations, thoughts, feelings, sounds, images or breath. But focusing on breath is particularly valuable for stress relief.
"The practice of paying attention to breath in the belly activates the vagal nerve, which winds up to the brain and sends a message of safety," Dr. Skillicorn explains. In other words, it tells the part of the brain that's constantly on alert for danger to relax, she says.
In fact, mindfulness meditation can even change your brain. A May 2013 study published in PLOS ONE examined people who practiced mindfulness, and their MRI scans indicated a shrinkage of the amgydala, the brain structure responsible for fight-or-flight and fear responses.
The researchers theorized that this could help explain why mindful individuals are less reactive to stress.
Even brief mindfulness training can have a major effect on the way you handle stress. A March 2018 study in Mindfulness found that meditators who completed 10 introductory mindfulness sessions (each approximately 10 minutes long) on a smartphone app reported less irritability and stress.
How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation
- To begin, find a comfortable place to sit or lie down. If seated, be sure that your back is relaxed but elongated, allowing freedom of movement for a full breath. Close your eyes to bring your awareness inward.
- Begin to notice the rise and fall of your breath without trying to change anything. Just be curious. Note where you are most aware of the breath. Perhaps that is the nose, the chest or the belly. Just observe the movement and sensations for the next five to six breaths.
- Now place both hands gently over the belly to bring your awareness there. See how the belly expands like a balloon as you breathe in and releases and contracts as you breathe out. As best you can, keep your focus on this movement and the sensations in the belly.
- Your mind will likely wander. That is what minds do. No need for judgment. Simply notice that your mind has wandered and return your focus to the next breath. Each breath offers an opportunity to begin again.
2. Guided Imagery
"Guided imagery uses the power of the imagination to calm the brain and body," Dr. Skillicorn says.
And, believe it or not, conjuring up peaceful images in your mind can be quite effective for combatting stress and negativity.
That's because "our brain responds to our thoughts and imagination as if they are real," Dr. Skillicorn says. "Think about the implications of this! With guided imagery we can provide a peaceful space and reprieve for the mind and body so that they can relax, just as they would if you were actually on an idyllic vacation."
Indeed, a study published in the spring 2014 issue of Biofeedback found that a guided imagery exercise reduced participants' levels of cognitive and emotional stress along with their heart rates.
How to Practice Guided Imagery Meditation
- Begin by finding a comfortable place to lie down. Take a few deep breaths into the belly, breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth with a sigh. With each breath, allow the body to release and relax into the ground beneath you.
- Now, allow an image to come to mind of a peaceful, relaxing place. This place may be real or imaginary. It may be indoors or outdoors. Perhaps it is a beach, mountain, forest, meadow or just curled up on a comfy couch in a cozy room — wherever you feel drawn.
- Your mind may bounce around to different possibilities and that is fine, but eventually allow yourself to settle on one space.
- Once there, use all your senses to fully take in your surroundings. Notice what is around you: the light, the colors, the time of day, time of year. Feel the temperature on your skin, perhaps the breeze, the sun. Notice any familiar sounds, any familiar smells.
- Allow yourself to spend the next few minutes fully immersing yourself in the peace of this space.
3. Body Scan Meditation
"The body scan is a meditation that systematically moves through the body with intentional focus and curiosity, noticing whatever sensations may, or may not, be present," Dr. Skillicorn says.
"By tuning into the body and attending to its sensations, we step out of the stories of the mind, calm the nervous system and turn off the sympathetic fight-flight-freeze response that gets amped up particularly in times of stress, uncertainty and disruption," she explains.
And the scientific evidence supports Dr. Skillicorn's claim. Research that examined two types of body scan meditation — one emphasizing physical relaxation and the other mindful awareness — found that both techniques were associated with a reduction in stress, per a June 2018 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine.
Yet another August 2012 study published in Mindfulness discovered that people who practiced body scan meditation for three weeks reported an overall improvement in psychological wellbeing.
How to Practice Body Scan Meditation
- Begin by noticing the temperature of the hands. Notice the feel of whatever the hand may be touching. Tune in to the tips of the fingers and see if you perhaps feel a tingly sensation. Perhaps you do, perhaps you do not. The point is not to judge or hold expectations, but just to be curious.
- Now begin to move up the arm noticing any sensations in each segment of the arm: forearm, elbow, upper arm and into the shoulders.
- Moving into the neck, notice any tightness or tension there, breathing into whatever you find — not trying to change anything, but simply focusing with curiosity.
- Move your awareness to the base of the skull, back of the head, top of the head and forehead, once again pausing and noticing the sensations.
- Shift your awareness to the eyelids, eyes and space behind the eyes. Notice the nose and the sensation of the air passing through the nostrils, perhaps even noticing which side of the nose is more open and receiving more air. Notice the jaw, tongue, back of the throat and front of the neck.
- Shift your focus to the chest, becoming aware of the rise and fall of the breath, noticing areas of tightness or openness. Follow the breath and the sensations down into the belly and abdominal region. Notice the rise and fall of the belly. See if you can sense your organs and the space around them.
- Move down into the pelvis and genitalia, noticing the movement even here of the breath and any other sensations. Shift your focus into the top of the legs, knees, lower legs, feet and toes.
- Circle back up the leg and into the sacrum, feeling the weight of the body resting here and the movement with the breath.
- Move up into the lower, middle and upper back, noticing areas of tightness and tension and breathing into them.
- Finally, return to the arms and the hands, noticing how the sensations may or may not be different than when you began.
4. Mindful Walking in Nature
If you prefer the great outdoors, you might want to practice another powerful meditation technique: mindful walking in nature.
"Like the other forms of meditation, walking in nature allows us to be fully present in our bodies and calms the nervous system," says Dr. Skillicorn, adding that spending time outside also reduces anxiety, bolsters immunity and improves mood.
Case in point: A May 2019 study in Ecopsychology found that people who strolled outdoors while practicing mindfulness reported a decrease in negative mood (and an increased connectedness with their surroundings) .
How to Practice Mindful Walking in Nature
- Find a park or forest and begin your walk by slowing your movements down and fully noticing your body moving through space.
- Focus on the feel of feet connecting with the ground, the movement of your legs and the swinging of your arms back and forth.
- Shift your focus and begin to tune into the space around you with all your senses. See the colors and designs of the sky, the trees, the grass and the flora.
- Listen to the sounds around you: the wind, the birds, the rustling of leaves, the sound of your own breath and heartbeat creating a symphony.
- Smell the air, the trees, the flowers. Touch the texture of a tree or ridges of a leaf. Feel the air, the sun and the wind on your skin. Allow all your senses to be fully open and receptive.
Tips for Beginning a Meditation Practice
For starters, spend some time in shallow waters before jumping in the deep end.
"The best way to establish a practice is to start small and build. Perhaps commit to practicing every day for just two minutes upon awakening to create a calming anchor for your day, and two minutes just before bed to help with sleep," Dr. Skillicorn says.
From there, slowly add a bit more time each week.
And if you need a little guidance, "there are many apps available, including Headspace, Calm and Insight Timer, to keep you on track and even remind you to practice for a set amount of time," says Dr. Skillicorn, who adds, "and even if you forget to meditate, be kind to yourself and begin again the next day."
- Mindfulness: “Improvements in Stress, Affect, and Irritability Following Brief Use of a Mindfulness-based Smartphone App: A Randomized Controlled Trial.”
- PLoS ONE: “Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults.”
- Mindfulness: “Comparing Mindfulness-Based Intervention Strategies: Differential Effects of Sitting Meditation, Body Scan, and Mindful Yoga.”
- Psychosomatic Medicine: “Common and Dissociable Neural Activity After Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Relaxation Response Programs.”
- Biofeedback :“Effect of a Brief Guided Imagery on Stress.”
- Ecopsychology: “Mindfulness in Nature Enhances Connectedness and Mood.”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Regular meditation more beneficial than vacation.”
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