Ask Mr. Dad: Meditation not what you think
Dear Mr. Dad: A few years ago, you wrote about the benefits of meditation for children. I honestly thought you were joking. But a counselor at my son’s school just recommended it, saying it could help my son’s severe anxiety. When I asked how to do it, he handed me a copy of your article. For the benefits of other readers, would you please review the benefits and how-to?
A: A lot of people (including me) are skeptical when they hear about the benefits of meditation. After all, we’re told that when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. However, in the case of meditation, many of the benefits have been scientifically proven. And it’s not just people who’ve been doing it for 20 years who benefit. In many cases, you can see the results in as little as a week.
Over the course of thousands of studies, meditation has been shown to: Reduce anxiety, depression and feelings of stress; increase focus and reduce the symptoms of ADHD; increase immune-system function and reduce inflammation; lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke; reduce the amount of sleep you need to feel rested; make your brain bigger and increase your IQ; improve memory and recall and lower the risk of developing dementia; boost creativity; reduce the likelihood of becoming addicted to drugs or alcohol; improve your ability to cope with pain; prevent asthma and a variety of conditions caused by inflammation in the body; reduce loneliness and social isolation; and, overall, help you live a longer, healthier life. Pretty impressive, right?
As someone who’s obsessed with research, I wanted to know exactly how something as simple as meditation could possibly produce some many positive outcomes. It turns out that meditating changes blood flow in the brain, increasing it in certain areas (such as the ones that govern memory and social function) and reducing it in others (such as the ones that regulate anxiety, stress and depression). It also changes blood flow in other parts of the body (hence heart- and stroke-related benefits). But at the end of the day, the how and why aren’t important. What really counts is that in addition to the many documented benefits, there have been no documented risks. So why not give it a try? Here’s how:
— Make it a regular thing. For kids or adults who are just starting, five to 10 minutes once or twice a day is fine. Gradually increase to 15 to 20 minutes if you’re able.
— Do it together. Everyone in your family can benefit from meditating, so why not make it a regular family activity?
— Shhh. Turn off your phone (except the countdown timer).
— Get comfortable. No contortions or special clothing are required. While you can meditate in the lotus position, you can just as easily do it sitting in a chair, lying down in bed or walking.
— Go! There are more than a dozen types of meditation. Some, including transcendental meditation, involve focusing your mind on a particular word or phrase (called a mantra). But you can just as easily start by focusing on your breath. Slowly count “one” for the first inhale, hold for two seconds, and then exhale. Count “two” for the next set, and so on. Chances are that you won’t get to “three” before your mind starts heading off in 127 different directions at the same time. When that happens, resist the urge to criticize yourself for losing focus. This happens to everyone. Just observe that your mind has wandered and gently bring yourself back to your breathing and start counting again. Over time, you’ll find that you’re able to clear your mind of many of those distractions.