The benefits of meditation

The benefits of meditation

The prevalence of anxiety disorders and depression continues to increase.  

This trend is the most exaggerated in young adults. In the years to come, if we hope to send these statistics back in the opposite direction, it’s important to gain an understanding of what could be partially responsible for this upward swing.

Obviously, the reason for these changes is complex and multifaceted, as is the answer to solving the problem. Even still, viewing depression and anxiety as a disease of modernity gives insight into some fairly simple changes we can make in our lives to keep these symptoms at bay.

An article published in the Journal of Affective Disorders by Hidaka (2012) describes depression as a disease of modernity.  Hidaka (2012) states, “Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially isolated.” It is well known that these changes have plagued society with a plethora of chronic diseases including diabetes, cancer, atherosclerosis, cardiovascular disease, chronic pain, osteoporosis and more.  Not surprisingly, there is also a profound, and detrimental impact on not only our physical, but also our mental health.

The human species has spent the vast majority of its existence living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle.  The days were spent engaging in vigorous physical activity to feed our families. We lived in very close quarters with extended family members. The sun regulated our sleep-wake cycle. We didn’t have to worry about insurance, retirement, what college our children will get into or how bad the traffic is on any given morning.  We existed day-to-day and led simple lives with very few decisions to make.

An increasing amount of evidence is showing that being focused on the present - not on the future or past - is ideal for our mental health. Unfortunately, living in today’s society makes this incredibly difficult.  To prepare for the future, we must spend sizable amounts of time fretting, catastrophizing, analyzing and obsessing, right? How else would we make ourselves ready? Fortunately, the answer to that question is a big no. Ironically, rather than building a path for a brighter life, this will only lead to mental and physical exhaustion.  If we allow this detrimental and cyclical path to continue, there is a high probability we will spin ourselves into a life of chronic health conditions and mental illness. So, in short, rather than creating a bright, vibrant future, we are leading ourselves down a path towards a rather bleak existence.

Obviously, we are not able to live as hunter-gatherer societies in the woods, nor would many of us want to. However, we can take steps to calm our frantic bodies and minds in this frantic world.  The answer is meditation. I am not talking about sitting in a quiet room with your legs crossed for hours while quieting your brain. If you’re able to do this, wonderful, but for the other 99.9% of us this could be taking walks where you focus on the air you’re breathing or following your breath as you’re trying to fall asleep at night. Throughout your day, make a conscious effort to pull yourself back to the present moment. When you catch yourself thinking about those bills at the end of the month, or notice that static buzz in your brain, take a few moments to feel your breath.

At nearly every visit with patients, I provide education on the benefits of meditation and encourage patients to engage in this practice.  Many people are skeptical. I certainly was when I first learned about it, but the expansive body of evidence overpowered my initial eye-rolling response.  Many studies have shown that meditation provides relief for not only mental health symptoms but also physical ailments that are exacerbated by stress.  Examples include chronic pain, high blood pressure, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, anxiety, depression, and insomnia (Meditation, 2018).

This may seem like a simple answer, though as most of us know, achieving any level of stillness in our brain is incredibly difficult. You will fail many times, but each time you try, you have created a micro change in your brain that over time will add up. As with all good things, the path is not linear. The journey involves many twists, turns, and setbacks. It is not easy. It takes practice. You did not build these unhealthy thought patterns or coping skills overnight, just as you cannot undo them overnight. Utilize any resource you can, including medication. Most importantly, remember to be persistent, and to be kind to your self.  Setting unachievable goals and beating yourself up when you fail does nothing but further perpetuate symptoms of anxiety and depression.

Hidaka, B. H. (2012). Depression as a disease of modernity: explanations for increasing prevalence. Journal of Affective Disorders140(3), 205–214.

Meditation: In depth. National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Accessed August 20, 2018.