Meditation offers practitioners powerful benefits, yet you may be confused as to what exactly those benefits are. You may even see meditation as new-age and “not for me.” You are not alone. What meditation is and it’s true benefits are not well known in the western world.
In a nutshell, meditation focuses attention in a deliberate manner, taking you from a state of noisy mental chatter to calm and quiet inner peace.
While meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in the east and – more recently – west as a way to grow spiritually, modern medicine is now finally extolling the numerous health benefits that meditation offers.
If meditation has been practiced for thousands of years, why are we so put off by it? Why do we not practice it more here in the west?
We have become so out of touch with our bodies throughout time that we have a hard time knowing what our bodies are telling us. Do you know what you “really” need when you are craving something? Maybe so, but maybe not. Do you know if you are achy because you slept wrong or because you sat too much yesterday? So many of us have a hard time focusing in on what our bodies are telling us.
We have also become dependent on “quick fixes” and often turn to medication instead of trying other techniques that will have not only lasting effects for us, but also for our future generations. What if you have that headache because you’re dehydrated and need water? What if you had a glass of water and got rid of that headache? But instead, we turn to medication to get rid of the headache.
Not only is this not good for us in the long run, we are teaching our children to turn to medication before checking in with themselves as well. We are not teaching our children how to self-regulate.
Our children are growing up with so much access to news, which we all know is not filled with positive, happy stories. They see it on the internet as well as on television. They hear it from parents, teachers, friends, and others. When something tragic happens, it is all over the news for months.
It is hard enough for an adult to process all of this and not get anxious, even to the point of paranoia. But children, who are just learning about the world, are learning that the world is unsafe and there is danger around every corner. They are not able to separate “there COULD be danger versus “there IS danger” as their amygdala’s are overactive.
This generation of children is the most anxious generation to date. We need to help them learn to self-regulate so they do not self-destruct as they become adults.
Meditation has the ability to reduce stress hormones by calming the sympathetic nervous system. This system is what activates our main panic responses (“fight,” “flight”, “freeze” or “friend”) to stressful situations.
The problem is that when the amygdala recognizes something in the environment as potentially dangerous, it activates the sympathetic nervous system before we are able to determine that right here, right now, we are actually safe.
Whereas the amygdala is our alarm system, and a needed part of our survival, it is becoming more difficult for our amygdalas to determine whether we are actually in danger or just worried about something potentially happening due to experiences we’ve had, including learned experiences (news reports, etc).
The parasympathetic nervous system is the system activated when we are calm and comfortable; feeling safe. Meditation has the ability to turn off the sympathetic nervous system and active the parasympathetic nervous system. Because of this, meditation can be a wonderful coping strategy for those suffering with trauma.
Trauma makes the sympathetic nervous system activate, even when we are not in danger. This is the shakiness, racing heart, inability to think clearly, etc that happens when we get startled. However, with those suffering from trauma reactions, the experience causing the sympathetic nervous system to activate may not be known.
The more we turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, the more we are teaching the brain that right here, right now, we are not in danger, thus retraining the brain that we are not in the same situation and do not have to respond as if we were.
The theory of neuroplasticity discusses this. Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to adapt and change. There is an abundance of evidence showing the brain’s ability to adapt and change in both directions (to more anxiety and to more calm).
Is Meditation Better than Medication?
Historically, people battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have been given medication to help alleviate unwanted and unpleasant symptoms. But a new study has found that regular practice of meditation enables some active duty service members battling PTSD to reduce, or even eliminate their need of psychotropic medications and to better control their often debilitating symptoms.
This is great news for service men and women, and anyone who is battling PTSD. Not only can meditation help to calm your nerves and rewire your brain, it can also reduce the risk of developing negative side effects to many psychotropic medications used to treat PTSD and anxiety disorders.
Beyond memory loss and erectile dysfunction, one of the biggest side effects of these medications is depression. That’s the last thing a person suffering from PTSD needs.
You may have tried medication and found it helpful. It is helpful. I am not discounting that. However, medication is putting a bandaid on the problem instead of actually helping you restore your confidence and control.
You may need medication at the beginning if your PTSD has gotten out of control. Wouldn’t it be great, however, if you didn’t need to take medication every day to feel normal? Wouldn’t it be great if you could stop the racing thoughts, panic, tense muscles, and irritability without relying on a doctor’s prescription pad?
How to Begin a Meditation Practice
If you are suffering from the effects of trauma and would like to try meditation, here are some steps you can take to get started:
Find a Group Practice
If you’re completely new to meditation, you may want to join a group meditation course that meets every week. You can usually find groups in your local area through online communities such as meetup.com.
Group practices can be helpful as you will have accountability because people will expect to see you there as well as the “buddy system” which has long been shown to be effective in helping people maintain motivation to continue a new habit.
Be open minded
Meditation as long been associated with new age movements. But you would be amazed at the different kids of people that now practice meditation. If you tend to be a skeptical person, try to have an open mind as you begin your practice.
Go with the flow and just see what happens. The best thing about meditation is there are no side effects. You cannot get hurt doing meditation and your PTSD cannot get worse because of it.
It’s called a practice for a reason. You won’t “get” meditation overnight. You’ll have to keep at it before it becomes natural for you and you really reap the benefits. Try to have patience and just keep at it.
As I said above, we are in a culture of quick fixes and instant gratification. These quick fixes are great rewards to the brain. The body and brain do not want to be in the fight/flight response. The body is in this response because something is wrong. When nothing is wrong, the body would rather be in a calm state.
When we get a quick fix, it rewards the brain quickly. We thrive on rewards. When something is good, we want to do it again. This is helpful in the longevity of our species. When we can get out of fight/flight immediately, why wouldn’t we want to do that?
As you’re doing your meditation practice, you will likely find it very difficult at first. Not only are new things difficult in general, but your brain will have a hard time letting the stress go because it is trying to protect you and keep you safe.
The longer you stick with it, the more benefits you will see from it.
How do I meditate?
There are a 7 simple steps to meditation. It is important to remember that everyone’s practice is different, but you do not need to sit in silence for 30 minutes to meditate.
- First decide if you want to do a silent meditation or a guided meditation (listening to someone guide you through the meditation).
- If you want to do a guided meditation, review all the options of where to find them. There are many on youtube as well as several apps on the phone that are free. Personally, I like insight timer. It is free and has over 12,000 meditations which can be filtered by length, what you are looking for help with (anxiety, sleep, relaxation, anger, etc), and many other filter options.
- If you want to do silent meditations, choose how you want to meditate (sitting outside, inside, daytime, nighttime and what you’re going to focus on – breathing, grounding exercises, body scan, etc)
- Choose when you’re going to meditate. Try to keep it at the same time every day. The more frequently you practice meditation, the faster you’ll reap the benefits.
- Choose a time that you will not be interrupted. If you might be interrupted, make sure you put a note on the door or remind people that you cannot be disturbed.
- Turn the ringer off on your phone.
- Get in the mindset of meditation “for the next 10 minutes, I am going to meditate.”
- Do a quick body scan – how are you feeling prior to your meditation? What muscles are tight? How are your thoughts?
- Do your meditation.
- Do another quick body scan – how do you feel now? What has changed?
- Challenge yourself to do this one day at a time. You do not need to set a goal that you will do this every day for the rest of your life. Once you have a time set, challenge yourself to sit down for it every day one day at a time.
I know that doing something new is very difficult. There is a reason for this. The brain does resist change as it is unknown and unknown can be scary (and potentially dangerous). You may still be on the fence about it. That is normal.
Right now you’re looking for some way to feel better – to feel more relaxed and in control. You’ve tried so many different things and may have found some relief, but each day seems to be a struggle.
As you start your meditation practice, acknowledge and accept the feelings that come up. Acknowledge and accept that it is going to feel weird and unknown. You may think that you are missing out on something by spending time meditating. The more that you acknowledge and accept these feelings and thoughts, the faster they will dissipate.
You absolutely can feel calm and in control most of the time by just doing meditation throughout the day. However, it does not happen over night and consistency is the key, just like it is for everything we do. Habits are built on what we do on a regular basis.
You may need medication at first as well as you start to build new habits. There is nothing wrong with taking medication as you need it. However, when you start to give your body and brain what it needs throughout the day, you may find that you need medication less and less until you no longer need it.
If you or a loved one are suffering from trauma symptoms or would like to learn more about meditation and would like to speak with someone who can help, please get in touch with me 941-462-4807. I’d be happy to discuss the treatment options that would work best for you.