If you’re stressed, anxious, exhausted, burnt out, depleted – meditation is the first thing I would recommend trying.
Sleep is important, but try getting a good night’s sleep if you’re anxious! Finding the time and energy to exercise can be hard when you’re overwhelmed and exhausted. Eating well can take planning, headspace, resources.
But meditation is something you CAN do, no matter what constraints you’re under. You can find ten minutes, or five, or three. And it will help you be in a better place to do those other things.
A couple of years ago I decided to start doing mindfulness meditation (as opposed to any other type) because it’s simple, accessible, and there are good apps. Also once you develop the skill, you can bring mindfulness into your everyday life.
If you’re new to meditation I would recommend starting with an app as a way of learning how to do it. Later, you can learn to do it on your own but apps really help get you started.
If you have a monkey mind like mine, with thoughts whirring at an alarming pace, you may really struggle with the idea of how you would EVER switch that off.
In fact, it’s not about stopping your thoughts but letting them pass by and not getting caught up in them. Meditation apps explain this really well.
I would highly recommend Headspace and Calm, and the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World, which has free meditations you can find on the website to accompany the book.
There are many benefits of mindfulness meditation, and I will summarise a few below. For me personally, the biggest benefit I found in the past was that it helped enormously with negative thoughts.
What happens is one negative thought activates similar memories, until you find yourself drowning in thoughts of every mistake you ever made, and all that is wrong with you. Learning not to follow those thoughts saves a lot of pain.
This time around, restarting meditation after the habit had lapsed, I’ve found I’m more able to concentrate and focus, and my mind feels clearer. I feel calmer and more able to enjoy the moment I’m in. Which changes everything.
Meditation has been shown to:
- lower stress levels
- promote health and wellbeing
- improve sleep
- reduce anxiety
- decrease depressive symptoms
- prevent depression relapse
- improve attention
- manage chronic pain
- plus a whole host of health benefits relating to specific conditions
Mindfulness meditation has also been shown to increase grey matter in the brain in regions involved in memory and learning, regulation of emotion and taking perspective. This helps you to regulate negative thoughts, regulate emotions, and increases compassionate behaviour towards others.
Kelly Brogan talks about meditation giving your body a signal of safety, via the vagus nerve which communicates between the brain and body. It is a key part of the parasympathetic nervous system which regulates rest and digestion (as opposed to more active and alert body functions). The vagus nerve interfaces with parasympathetic control of the heart, lungs and digestive tract. So the nature of your breath has a huge impact on your mental and emotional state.
This is so important if you are constantly ON and pumping out cortisol, which had widespread negative effects. Your digestion and immune system suffer, and your body puts many functions on hold. Even 5 or 10 minutes where you can switch off tells your body you’re not in constant danger. (Although Kelly Brogan recommend Kundalini Yoga meditation, these benefits apply regardless of the specific form of meditation practice you do.)
Showing yourself that your thoughts aren’t YOU, they aren’t necessarily true, and you don’t have to get caught up in them is an absolute game-changer. You learn to be in the moment, and I can’t overstate how helpful that is. A lot of anxiety is about the future, and depression can involve running over and over the past and your own shortcomings. Often right now, things are not as bad as the thoughts you have of the future and the past. This is at the heart of mindfulness, and meditation really strengthens your ability to be in the present moment.
HEADSPACE – you can access 10 free sessions (you can repeat them as much as you like afterwards) then it costs £9.99 per month or £6.25 per month if you commit to a year. There are 10, 5 and 3 minute meditations. It is narrated by an English man, the former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe whose voice I find spectacularly calming. He breaks the techniques down very simply with little animations.
There are sections for foundations, health, brave, happiness, work & performance, headspace pro, and sport, plus a few other standalone meditations. You can access a free meditation in most sections. I found it was the best app for learning initially, but it’s expensive to continue with. It would be a good app not only for someone experiencing stress or struggling in some way, but also people wanting to optimise their health and performance.
CALM – you can access 7 days of calm for free (you can repeat these after the 7 days) then it costs £35.99 per year. Narrated by an American woman, the meditation instructor Tamara Levitt, with a male narrator voice available too. The app is well laid out with really pretty visuals.
There are different types of meditation for anxiety, stress, self-care, inner peace, focus, emotions, relationships, personal growth and kids. There are sleep stories which work surprisingly well, relaxing music and nature sounds. You get free access to one meditation in most sections and if you do choose to pay, the price seems accessible. I felt that the focus was more on stress and anxiety, so it’s a good fit for me personally based on my reasons for meditating.
Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World – I highly, highly recommend this book. It explains everything so well, and it’s backed by research and written by Mark Williams, the co-founder of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy. His description of the burnout spiral was so helpful to me when I was experiencing just that. The book includes free meditation audio which you can get on the website to accompany the book. Some of the meditations may seem a little odd out of context (they make perfect sense if you read the book) but numbers 1, 2 & 4 stand alone perfectly.
If you’re feeling so anxious or low that being up close and quiet with your own mind is frankly terrifying – *please* read First We Make the Beast Beautiful by Sarah Wilson. This book is one of the best things I’ve ever read, and specifically, she gives tips for what to do when meditation is too much. But there are so many more reasons to read it. It’s a beautiful book which helps you reframe anxiety and start to value yourself as you are.
Grass and Sunset photograph by Lorraine Boss at Passionatelyfe – shared with permission