Does meditation improve mental health?

While it’s still a bit of a fad here in Australia, meditation has been practised by people all over the world for thousands of years. The appeal behind meditation is that it teaches those who practice it to step out of the white noise inside of their heads for a moment, and to step into some detached, non-judgemental peacefulness. But is meditation good for mental health? And if it is, how the heck do we do it? 

There are studies that have shown the health benefits of meditation for different conditions, such as reducing blood pressure, reducing the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and reducing flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. Not surprisingly, studies show that the benefits may extend into various areas of mental health, as it may ease symptoms of anxiety, depression, and help people with insomnia (the latter plagued me for years).

While that’s excellent news, as it provides us with an accessible and free tool to create some level of improvement in our own lives, meditation doesn’t come easily for many of us. It has certainly never come easily for me. The analogy I like to use is that it’s akin to “trying to push a peanut up Mt Everest with your nose” (Psst: I stole this saying from someone, but I can’t remember who). 

My mental health colleague who is a big fan of meditation advised the trick is not to try to clear your thoughts, but to shift your focus. When the thoughts come (and they will), don’t try to fight them. Gently set them aside and go back to focusing on the breath – the sensation of it travelling down through your body and coming back out through your nose. Every time the thoughts come up, she says, it’s a win, because you get the opportunity to train your brain to gently shift focus back to the breath.

For me, I did find that advice useful, as it meant I was no longer  fighting with my thoughts. Over time, I did begin to find myself feeling more centred and relaxed after a session. That said, I still can’t commit to long meditation sessions (I stick to 5-10 minutes maximum, but started with only 1 minute!), and I still prefer to have guided sessions rather than go it alone. For those, I use an app. 

Even though I admire people who can meditate diligently for 15 to 20 mins of a morning every day without fail, with no assistance, it’s just not for me. And I know for a fact that making myself feel guilty about not doing a thing is incredibly counterproductive. Guilt is one of those emotions I feel from time-to-time, but I refuse to indulge.  

And you know what? Even though I certainly cannot call myself a good meditator (and I’m completely OK with that), my quick half-arsed practices do absolutely make a difference to my day. It’s as though I’m starting my day from a calmer space, and since I’ve already flexed my “focus muscle” it’s easier to not get lost in negative thoughts as the day unfolds. 

If you’re a terrible meditator, and you’d like to get better at it, let go of the guilt for starters. Secondly, I strongly encourage you to drop the “I must have no thoughts” narrative and allow thoughts to be part of your practice. Finally, remember to start where you are: even 1 minute is great. 

Here’s a very simple ‘Leaves on a Stream’ meditation; an exercise from Acceptance and Commitment therapy. It’s a great starting point for anyone wanting to give meditation a try, and it only goes for 7 minutes. 

Finally, remember that if you don’t want to meditate it’s not the end of the world. There’s a lot of science behind the benefits of meditation in reducing anxiety and depression, but there’s also a lot of science about other forms of mindfulness. Thankfully, mindfulness is not only about meditation. 

Simply paying attention to your thoughts and noticing when they aren’t serving you, and switching your focus accordingly, is an easy mindfulness activity that will have some very big benefits. I’ll write more on that soon. 

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