The holidays are often a time of joy, but they can also be an enormous source of stress. For many of us, the two create an interesting mix and may cause your emotions to fluctuate. No matter what particular blend of emotions you experienced this year, the holidays are over, and we are entering a new decade.
The new year is generally regarded as an excellent time to start a new activity or make changes in your life. The opportunity provided at the beginning of a new decade may be even more impactful in your life and mind. Perhaps this would be an opportune time to begin incorporating practices that help you learn to manage stress more effectively, so you can enjoy a healthier, happier life in this new decade.
Over the past few months, we have discussed the physical toll that stress can have on your body and ways to manage that stress. Specific techniques we have examined include deep breathing, using time in nature, which includes forest bathing and earthing, grounding techniques, and journaling. Each of these techniques has been proven through scientific research to have a positive physical effect on your body in a variety of ways. Today we are going to finish the series by explaining the effects of meditation and prayer on stress management and physical and mental health. As with the other ways mentioned, meditation and prayer have an abundance of research proving that they create measurable, beneficial changes in the human body.
Why is it important to manage stress?
Stress creates a fight or flight response. During this response, the body releases hormones that cause your blood pressure to speed up, your heart to race, and breathing rate to increase. Your muscles tense and they receive increased blood flow. This is great when your life is in danger, but it becomes harmful when you experience the reaction multiple times a day or week because of modern stressors, creating a condition known as chronic stress.
Chronic stress often causes physical, emotional, cognitive, and behavioral symptoms and conditions. A few examples are obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attack, menstrual problems, sexual dysfunction, and mental health problems. Chronic stress also impacts your immune system, allowing you to become ill more easily, and results in higher levels of inflammation. Chronic inflammation can worsen existing health problems and lead to arthritis, lupus, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, and irritable bowel syndrome.
On the other hand, learning and utilizing stress management techniques will help you reduce the impact of chronic stress. Each of the techniques we have discussed has been proven to alleviate many physical and mental symptoms.
Benefits of Meditation
Researchers have discovered that meditation produces many beneficial changes in the human body. A few changes that are significant in improving health include reductions in blood pressure (1), heart rate (2), stress (3), anxiety and pain (4), altered levels of melatonin and serotonin (5), and boosted immune response (6). It has also been proven to be as effective in managing anxiety and depression as using an antidepressant, without the toxicities associated with antidepressant medications (7). Keep in mind that anytime you stop taking medication it is important to do so under the care of your doctor. While meditation works to create these changes in many people, you do need to remain under the care of a doctor for the management of physical and mental symptoms and to determine what medications you need.
Meditation does take some practice, but you can spend as little as 10 minutes a day to gain health benefits. Even a few minutes can restore mental calm. Meditating once or twice a day for 20 to 30 minutes is recommended for optimal results.
How to Meditate.
Find a quiet place. As meditation becomes familiar to you, it will be easier to practice anywhere. It is helpful for beginners to learn to meditate in a calm, quiet environment.
Sit in a comfortable position with good posture. Meditation can be done while lying down, but you are more likely to fall asleep.
Close your eyes, breathe deeply through your nose and relax your muscles.
Begin meditating using your chosen technique.
Try to let go of your thoughts and worries. It is common for your mind to wander. When it does, stay calm and return your mind to the focus of your meditation.
When your time is finished, allow your thoughts to slowly return to the present.
Stay consistent. Research shows that meditation is most effective when practiced regularly over time.
There are many different techniques of meditation. Try some and begin practicing the one that is most comfortable for you. Here are descriptions of a few of the most commonly practiced forms.
This may also be called visualization or guided meditation. It is often led by a guide or teacher but there are also many apps and online resources to guide you, or you can try it on your own as well. In this method, all your senses, body, and emotions are involved. Your body interprets the sensations that you create in your mind as real, and this can have an impact on your physical health.
Once you have begun the meditation process, imagine a place or situation that is safe, calm, and peaceful for you. Imagine it vividly. Remember the sights, smells, sounds, tastes, and the way your body and skin feel in this place. It is helpful to add as many details as you can to make it feel like you are truly there. Some people enjoy imagining walking slowly on a path through their peaceful place. Allow your mind and body to become calm and relaxed. Stay there as long as you want.
Once mentally immersed in this place, think of a word or sound that your mind can link to it. In the future, you can use this word or sound when you begin meditating to return to your peaceful setting more easily.
When you are ready, slowly leave the place and return to the present. As you return, tell yourself that you are bringing the sense of calm with you, that you will feel refreshed and alert. Many people find it helpful to count backward from 10 or 20 and reenter the present when they reach zero.
In this form of meditation, you focus on your breathing and engage your mind fully on your breath and what your body is doing. Notice the way your chest and belly move with each breath, or the way the air moves in and out of your nose. Once you have a focal point, focus on the in and out of each breath. You can even think words like “in, out” or “breathing in, breathing out” to help focus your mind on the act of breathing. Free your mind from all thoughts of the past, future, and anything outside of your body.
Another form of mindfulness meditation is practicing it while doing activities such as eating, running, or any other activity. The trick here is to keep your mind fully focused on your task, and the movements and sensations it creates in your body.
Tai Chi, Yoga, and Qi gong.
Tai Chi, Yoga, and Qi gong are ancient arts that combine breathing, physical movement, mental focus, and meditation. They are helpful for many people and often improve flexibility and balance but may not be a great choice for people with some health problems. It is best to consult your doctor before you start one of these activities if you have any medical conditions.
The role of Prayer in managing stress.
Meditation has many proven benefits, and spiritual meditation has been found to create an even greater decrease in anxiety and improved tolerance to pain (8). Prayer is one of the most common forms of spiritual meditation.
Prayer is widely practiced, and more than half of Americans pray every day. Even 20% of people who are not affiliated with any religion report that they pray every day. Prayer and meditation are complementary practices, and prayer confers many of the same health benefits found in meditation. Prayer is an easy way to reduce stress. It is simply addressing your thoughts and concerns to a higher power.
Interestingly, researchers have found that the way a person views the deity they pray to has an impact on their mental health. Those who view God as loving gain benefit from prayer, but those who view God as distant or unresponsive are more likely to experience anxiety.
The focus of your prayer also impacts physical outcomes. In a study on the impact of prayer in the depressive symptoms of cancer patients, those whose prayers were focused on thankfulness and concern for others had lower levels of depressive symptoms.
Another noteworthy study discovered that people who prayed about a concern for 10 minutes performed better on a cognitive task immediately afterward than those who thought about a concern or completed a puzzle for the 10 minutes.
Incorporating stress management techniques into your life.
Just as everyone has a unique personality and responds to stressors differently, each person will gain the most benefit from various stress management techniques or a specific mix of them. Try out a few and see which are most effective for you. If one does not work, then try another. Reducing the mental, physical, and emotional toll caused by chronic stress is worth the effort to find techniques that work for you. It is important to remember that certain techniques do require practice and consistency to create optimal results.
If you need help or support in learning to manage stress, our lifestyle coaches are here to help. Chronic stress leads to many health consequences and learning to manage your response to stress will often lead to better physical and mental health. We are here to partner with you so that you can enjoy optimal health in the new decade. From all of us at Temecula Center for Integrative Medicine, we wish you a healthy, joyous New Year!
Melynda has been practicing Family and Pediatric Medicine since 1995 as a Certified Family and Pediatric Nurse Practitioner. She is a compassionate healthcare provider who believes in caring for each patient in a unique, holistic and individualized manner. She specializes in Preventative and Integrative healthcare for the entire family and believes that educating her patients to prevent disease and promote health is of the utmost importance. She previously practiced in San Diego, California, and has enjoyed serving patients in her local community of Temecula since 2000.
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