Daily life can take a lot out of you. Full schedules, endless lists of tasks, constant distractions – it can all drain your internal batteries, replacing your energy with anxiety. And when you’re ready for bed, it can be even harder to shake off the day and get some restful sleep, which makes you wake up even more tired and depleted. It’s a cycle that can take its toll on you: mentally, emotionally, physically and spiritually.
However, these feelings and experiences definitely aren’t new. Over thousands of years, people have used meditation to find calm and relaxation from within, recharging and refueling well before batteries and fuel tanks ever existed. It’s a tangible way to recalibrate yourself, find calm and take on life with peaceful energy. Even better, it’s something you can begin right now and wherever you are.
We’ll help you get started with a simple introduction to meditation – what it is, the different types, how it works and its benefits. We’ll also share resources to help guide your first meditations. You’ll find that discovering a little inner peace might be easier than you imagined.
What is meditation?
Meditation is the practice of calming your mind by focusing your attention. You can do this by concentrating on a sensation (like your breathing, a sound, a mental image, a word or a phrase) or your awareness of the present moment.
By placing all of your attention in a single direction, other distractions start to disappear. Or, as they enter your thoughts, you acknowledge them and then refocus yourself. Eventually, you start feeling calmer and your body responds by becoming more relaxed. A few minutes later, you finish your session feeling rested and energized.
The good news is that it doesn’t take special, expensive equipment to start practicing mindfulness and meditation. You might not even need formal training, but many people benefit from working with a therapist, meditation instructor or yoga instructor.
Of course, it’ll take time, effort and practice to get the results you want. But once you learn these practices, deepening your understanding of how they work and integrating them into your daily routine, you’ll feel their relaxing and enlightening benefits.
Types of meditation
There are two common meditation techniques:
- Concentrative meditation is based on your focus of experiencing a single image, sound, mantra (a word or phrase), or your own breathing, becoming “one” with the experience itself.
- Mindful meditation is centered on the awareness of your thoughts and surroundings – the feelings, sounds or images sensed by your mind and body – to gain strength in understanding and restructuring the focus of your awareness and attention.
For example, Transcendental Meditation (also known as TM) and Autogenic Training (a form of guided hypnosis) are types of concentrative meditation. Forms of mindful meditation include Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT). Fortunately, both types are excellent in helping you become calmer and more focused – it’s just a matter of finding which one works best for you.
Does meditation work?
Absolutely. From the almost instant response of calmer breathing and relaxed muscles to longer-term effects on stress, anxiety, depression, high blood pressure and more, meditation has proven itself to be an important technique in improving health. Multiple medical studies have found evidence of meditation’s positive effects on a wide range of conditions, with more research in progress.
The value of meditation for physical and mental health comes from what makes it valuable to spiritual health. By focusing your mind and reducing the intensity of thoughts that race through your brain, the stressors that normally have their hold on daily thinking lack their usual punch. Instead of reacting to “fight or flight” stress, the body and mind go into a recovery mode, sending the heart to a resting state and relaxing the muscles in your body.
With regular meditation, your body and mind are able to get the regular rest they need instead of constantly being on alert, which can have a significant positive effect on your physical and mental health.
From anxiety, stress and depression to pain and high blood pressure, a growing number of medical studies are finding that meditation can provide noticeable positive benefits when it’s used alongside conventional treatments such as talk therapy or medications prescribed by your doctor.
Meditation for anxiety and stress
Along with conventional treatments – including cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressant medications – meditation works as an excellent complement in treating depression, anxiety and stress. Recent studies also are finding that mindfulness meditation works especially well in treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in veterans, nurses and people who have experienced interpersonal violence.
Meditation for better sleep
Concentrative and mindful meditation can also help calm your brain and body before you go to sleep. Today’s popular meditation apps offer guided sleep meditations that you can follow, eyes closed, as you drift off. Several studies have also found that mindful meditation produces better quality sleep than education-based treatments.
Meditation and other health benefits
The benefits of meditation, when used alongside conventional treatments, are also being seen with other physical and mental health conditions, including:
- Nicotine, alcohol and substance use
- Acute and chronic pain
- High blood pressure
- Cancer and HIV-related fatigue, sleeplessness, pain, anxiety and depression
- Weight control and eating behavior management
- Menopause-related management of hot flashes
Even better, meditation doesn’t carry negative side effects or complications, either alone or with other medical treatments. However, keep in mind that meditation should not be used as a replacement for conventional treatments, and it’s always a good idea to talk with your doctor before you start any additional therapy like meditation.
How to meditate
There are several ways to start meditating that are either inexpensive or free to use – and all without any initial long-term commitment attached. You can use a meditation app, check out a book on meditation or follow one of many videos on YouTube. It’ll also help to find a place that’s quiet and comfortable to meditate in. The room or spot outside that you choose doesn’t have to be completely silent, just quiet enough for you to concentrate.
Of course, once you get started, you might find yourself falling down the rabbit hole of meditation accessories like pillows, chairs, beads, bowls, chimes and the like. The great thing about meditation is that all of this is practically unnecessary. All you need is a quiet place to sit and reflect.
Meditation apps provide an excellent way for beginners to start exploring meditation techniques. There are many available on both the Apple App Store and Google Play for Android users. Just search for “meditation,” “mindful meditation,” or “guided meditation.” You’ll find plenty of highly rated options.
Some meditation apps – like meditation timers – are absolutely free. Some apps require a paid subscription to access their content. Fortunately, many of these apps offer free trials and guided meditations, giving you a chance to see how you like the app before you commit.
You can also find guided mindful meditations on YouTube and across the web. Here are some examples:
Are you more the analog type? Your local library and bookstore are full of books on meditation, its benefits and how to get started. Start your book search by looking for titles about “meditation” and “mindful meditation.” If you want to browse in person, many bookstores have their meditation books in their health or spirituality sections. If you can’t find them right away, just ask an employee for books on meditation – they’ll know exactly where they’re at.
If you’re looking for a place to start, our clinicians recommend these staff-favorite titles perfect for those new to meditation and mindfulness:
- “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment and Your Life” by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- “Trusting the Gold: Uncovering Your Natural Goodness” by Tara Brach
When it’s time to meditate, sometimes silence can be hard to find. In that case, you can always play music or white noise to help you concentrate. The key is to find ambient music that is quiet and flowing without being distracting. Or, you can find sounds that cancel the noise around you like loops of water flowing in a river or rain falling in a forest. (Pro tip: these are also great sounds to listen to as you’re falling asleep.)
YouTube is another excellent place to find and try different soundscapes. For music, search “meditation music” or “ambient music” for options. For soothing sounds, search “nature sounds,” “meditation sounds,” “ambient noise,” or “white noise.” You’ll immediately be served with dozens of free videos to try for yourself.
Resources at HealthPartners
Learning how to meditate is an excellent way to help deal with day-to-day anxiety. But if you find that you need more help, talk with one of our primary care doctors who may refer you to a mental health professional. Our mental health doctors are available with advice and treatment to help you live life fully.