Q: My doctor told me to meditate to help me reduce my anxiety and blood pressure. My mind is always racing with things I need to do, fears and worry. I’ve tried meditating, but I can’t just stare at a candle or sit with my eyes closed and spontaneously stop my thoughts. Failing just makes me more anxious. Why should I meditate and how can I do it successfully?
A: Meditation is an excellent way to relieve stress and improve symptoms of a variety of conditions. It is not only useful to reduce anxiety and high blood pressure, it also stimulates your immune system (which is especially important during the pandemic).
Meditation can help people with depression, chronic pain, addictions, hot flashes, symptoms of asthma and a variety of other chronic illnesses.
There are many forms of meditation so find one that works for you. It is difficult for many people to quiet their minds and go into a deep state of relaxation. All forms of meditation include focusing your attention on the present moment instead of worrying about the past or fast forwarding your thoughts into the future. Don’t worry if your thoughts wander, just notice it and resume your chosen meditation.
One of the easiest ways to focus your attention into the present moment is to concentrate on your breath.
You can slow your respirations and actually create calming changes in your body’s physiology. Breathing exercises alter the pH of your blood (acid/base balance) which calms you and lowers your blood pressure. Slow deep breathing reverses the nervous system’s fight or flight response to stress.
Chronic stress is especially harmful to the body so a daily meditation practice is advisable. Creating a daily meditation time once or twice a day, even for 5 minutes is a good practice, but you can meditate anytime.
My preferred breathing meditation is focusing on breathing slowly and deeply in through my nose to a count of six, expanding my belly and holding my breath for four counts, then exhaling for a count of six and holding my breath again for four counts. Even one minute of this breathing pattern can calm me.
Try checking your blood pressure and pulse before and after this breathing meditation.
There are many Youtube videos available for a variety of meditation techniques. You can choose meditations for sleep, for anxiety, weight loss, immunity, peace of mind, and well being, to name a few.
Guided imagery helps you focus on relaxing music and guiding your thoughts into a deeply meditative, peaceful, restorative space. Guided imagery may aid the healing process. Sound bowl (or sound bath) meditations are another delightful option.
There are multiple meditation apps on your smartphone so help with meditation is readily available wherever you are (do not meditate while driving).
UCSF studied an mHealth meditation app that helped technology overloaded millennials focus and improved their attention spans. Yoganidra is a form of meditation also known as awake sleep. It is deeply relaxing and guides your attention to your intentions and to various body parts. It has been used effectively to treat PTSD. Some people prefer mantra meditations such as transcendental meditation where a word or phrase is repeated again and again to crowd out distracting thoughts.
Yoga, tai chi, Qi Gong are exercises that include mental focus, breathing and movement.
Mindfulness meditation involves concentrating on the present moment, the taste of your food, listening intently to the person you’re talking to, noticing birds, breezes, plants and other things around you instead of being trapped in your thoughts. Mindfulness meditation can be combined with walking for exercise.
I find that dancing with a partner is a wonderful opportunity to be focused on the present and exercising at the same time. Some exercises, like surfing or tennis, are meditative because they require your full attention in the present moment. Hobbies such as painting, singing, playing an instrument or a sport like running can also bring your mental focus into the present moment.
Be careful though, if these activities are stressful for you, you won’t get the positive benefits. Do things you enjoy and you find relaxing.
Prayer can be a form of meditation and generally promotes wellbeing.
Focusing your mind on things you are grateful for is a good way to take your attention off worries and problems. Young children and pets can also be our mindfulness guides as they are always focused on the present moment.