It’s been acclaimed as the antidote to most of life’s stresses. Indeed, meditation does reduce the body’s response to stress and, in the process, may affect our health in perhaps myriad ways. It’s also inexpensive to learn, and it can be performed almost anywhere. Considering that modern medicine draws a link between chronic stress and a host of physical and psychological problems, meditation may certainly be a habit worth forming.
Technically speaking, "meditation" can refer to almost any activity that brings about inner calm. One popular form is transcendental meditation (TM), which centers on the repetition of a sound or word – the "mantra" (Sanskrit for "formula"). To perform TM, you sit in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Then, concentrating on your breathing, you slowly inhale and exhale. On each exhalation, you continually repeat (aloud or to yourself) your mantra, chosen for its personal significance or simply for its sound. Alternatively, you can just focus on your breathing without using a mantra.
In another form of meditation, called visualization or guided imagery, you bring to mind a peaceful scene, either remembered or imaginary, and concentrate on every aspect of it – sights, sounds, and smells.
Such exercises quiet the mind, providing a sense of detachment from thoughts that normally cause stress. Many experts believe that regular meditation – even if only for 20 minutes once or twice a day – can eventually result in not only psychological but also physiological benefits.
As a stress-management technique, meditation may make it easier for some people to stick with weight-loss and exercise programs that contribute to the prevention or reduction of high blood pressure. And several studies suggest that regular meditation may benefit people with heart disease when used as part of a larger treatment approach (one that addresses such risk factors as smoking, high blood pressure, and elevated cholesterol levels). It may even help reduce the risk of a second heart attack.
Research indicates that meditation may reduce chronic pain, especially that associated with cancer. It can also take the edge off pain during childbirth; relieve headaches, particularly migraines; ease mild depression; alleviate hot flashes; and help control some symptoms of anxiety, such as rapid heartbeat. (Of course, it should be used in conjunction with appropriate medical care.)
Not everyone agrees that meditation qualifies as medical therapy. Critics believe that much of what seems to be accomplished by meditation may instead be caused by the placebo effect, in which health improves because people have faith in the treatment. They are also concerned about the possibility of misuse of the practice, believing that meditating can cause a sort of trance that makes a person overly susceptible to the suggestions of a group or therapist.
Nevertheless, many people are convinced that meditation leads to better emotional and physical health – and, at the very least, increases your sense of serenity and control. If you want to join a meditation program, call a teaching hospital or adult-education school, check the phone book for meditation classes, or buy a book on the subject.