Celebrities and influencers swear by its benefits. Yogis advocate for it and incorporate it into their yoga practice. Psychologists and therapists recommend it and use it as a treatment approach. Popular apps like Hallow and Calm promote it. They are all talking about meditation and how amazing it is for both your mental and physical health.
But is meditation just a fad? Or does it actually have benefits supported by research?
While meditation is definitely trending right now, there are actually several research-backed benefits that make it worth considering incorporating into your wellness practice.
What is meditation, anyway?
You might be wondering what meditation actually is — the term is used in many different contexts, ranging from prayer to exercise to general wellness practices. Meditation is the practice of quieting one’s mind for the purpose of relaxation, prayer, or increased concentration.
For some, the term conjures up images of a yogi, seated with crossed legs, closed eyes, relaxed arms with the index finger and thumbs touching each other, and an overall peaceful look. For others, the term is met with skepticism or wariness because of its promises of New Age-style enlightenment. But meditation can actually take many forms, including mindfulness, guided imagery, and prayer — all of which have benefits supported by research.
Mindfulness is the practice of noticing bodily sensations and thoughts in a non-judgmental way for the purposes of promoting relaxation, tolerating uncomfortable thoughts, sensations, or emotions; and increasing self-awareness and self-acceptance. Popular forms of mindfulness meditation include deep breathing and body scans.
A guided-imagery relaxation technique uses all five senses along with your imagination to place yourself in a relaxing or inspiring environment. This form of meditation can be used not only for promoting calmness and relaxation but also for entering into prayer. And meditation can be even more directly used to quiet one’s mind in order to ready oneself for prayer and conversation with God.
All of these forms of meditation can be used in your everyday life to help improve your physical and mental health, as these benefits attest:
Increase emotional awareness
Practicing particular forms of meditation — such as mindfulness and compassion meditation — has been found to lead to positive changes in the parts of your brain that promote empathy and recognize the thoughts and emotions in others. These forms of meditation help you to better understand and have empathy for those around you. This can be particularly beneficial for your relationships with your family, your friends, and your significant others because it helps you to better understand their perspective which, in turn, improves your communication.
Meditation not only increases your capacity for empathy toward others, but it also increases your capacity to be compassionate toward yourself. This is especially important because we all struggle with the voice of our inner critic to some degree. Your inner critic is that voice that chips away at your self-confidence and self-esteem. It whispers that you’ll never be good enough or you’ll never achieve your goals. Practicing meditation helps you challenge your inner critic by increasing your capacity for empathy toward yourself and by increasing your ability to take a non-judgmental stance toward yourself and others. When you are able to direct the compassion that you readily extend to others to yourself as well, you are cultivating self-compassion and diminishing the power of your inner critic.
Decrease depression, anxiety, and stress symptoms
Practicing mindfulness has been shown to help reduce some of the symptoms of anxiety and depression. One common symptom of both depression and anxiety is ruminating thoughts: the experience of worrying and negative thoughts running through your mind over and over again, which contributes to a depressed or anxious mood. Practicing meditation has been shown to improve your ability to cope with depressive and anxious thoughts because it increases your ability to tolerate uncomfortable thoughts and emotions as well as your ability to turn your attention away from these distressing thoughts and toward more empowering or relaxing ones. Techniques like deep breathing help to activate the parasympathetic nervous system to promote a feeling of relaxation and calm.
Improve your prayer life
In the Catholic tradition, "imaginative prayer" is a way of entering into a particular scene from Scripture in order to deepen one’s own relationship with God. Although it is not the same as guided imagery, it is similar in the sense that you have to calm your mind and then use your imagination and your senses to place yourself in the Scripture passage. Utilizing mindfulness techniques, like deep breathing and observing your thoughts, can help you prepare your mind for a fruitful experience of prayer, whether you are simply conversing with God or entering into imaginative prayer. The goal is to prepare your mind for a rich, active, and engaging experience through prayer, as opposed to clearing your mind and aiming for an experience of “emptiness.''
Improve your physical health
Mindfulness meditation is also beneficial for your physical health. Studies have shown that it reduces blood pressure, can decrease cognitive decline, and reduces pain sensations. It has also been shown to increase your ability to focus and concentrate, making it a useful exercise if you find yourself frequently distracted at work or school.
If you are interested in trying out mindful meditation, a great place to start is with a simple deep breathing exercise. This is the exercise I most frequently recommend to my psychotherapy clients because it is simple, straightforward, and beneficial. You can use a simple script or use an app like Calm to get started. And, if you are looking for more guidance for incorporating mindfulness into your prayer life, Hallow is a great app to offer a solid start.