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If you think you need a quiet garden, beach, or comfy yoga mat to reap the stress-reducing benefits of meditation, this might surprise you: meditation can take place anywhere—on a bus, at work, or in a crowded mall. It does require some practice to clear the mind of racing thoughts. That said, it’s a simple process that doesn’t have to take a lot of time. Five minutes may be all it takes.
One small study of meditation beginners showed that just 5–12 minutes of daily meditation, six days a week, for eight weeks reduced their levels of stress and anxiety (Burgstahler, 2019). Additionally, just a single 10-minute session of guided meditation helped beginners improve attention, showing it’s possible to see benefits quickly (Norris, 2018).
Millions of people use meditation to help manage stress, and studies show it works (Fujino, 2018). But how does meditation work? How does practicing meditation manage stress? First, you have to understand what the act of meditation is.
What is meditation, and how does it help with managing stress?
Meditation originated in India and has been practiced for thousands of years. It focuses the mind away from daily thoughts to boost self-awareness and inner peace. Its calming effects make meditation a popular way to manage stress, reduce negative emotions, and promote overall wellness (Sharma, 2015).
One of the health benefits of a meditation session is that it helps shut down the fight-or-flight stress response. It lowers blood pressure and the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline (Marquez, 2019; Turakitwanakan, 2013; Sharma, 2015). Those with high stress levels may see the biggest change after starting regular meditation (Koncz, 2021).
The length of telomeres, the caps at the end of chromosomes, has also been linked to stress and overall health. Several studies found that stress is associated with short telomeres, which could be a sign of worsening health (Epel, 2018). Preliminary research shows that those who spent the most hours meditating had the longest and healthiest telomeres (Schutte, 2020).
Meditation: what it is, types, benefits, techniques
Types of meditation
There are more than 300 meditation techniques that are commonly organized into the following categories (Matko, 2019, Burke, 2017, Fujino, 218):
- Focused attention meditation (FAM): FAM focuses one’s attention on breathing, the body, or another source; the goal is to clear the mind of random thoughts. Studies show FAM improves concentration, problem-solving, and impulse control. Having a focus like breathing can be the simplest way to start meditating.
- Open monitoring meditation (OMM): During OMM, thoughts can pass through the mind in a non-judgemental way. OMM is thought to help boost creativity, find solutions, and prevent negative thoughts from becoming negative emotions.
- Mindfulness meditation: Mindfulness meditation combines FAM and OMM. The goal is to direct attention to the present moment by focusing on an object, scene, or experience. The priority is to keep the mind from wandering by focusing on the present in a non-judgmental way.
- Compassion/Loving-kindness meditation (LKM): Loving-kindness meditation uses empathy and concern to lower stress and boost well-being (Roca, 2021). One study showed combining mindfulness-based cognitive treatment and LKM reduced depression and negative thoughts (Wang, 2021).
- Mantra meditation: Mantra meditation involves silently repeating a word, sound, or phrase. These can be single words or phrases such as “I am calm.” The idea is to boost focus and reprogram thoughts. Transcendental Meditation® is the most well-known example.
- Spiritual meditation: Spiritual meditation has similar techniques to other meditation forms but adds spiritual or religious meaning. The goal of spiritual meditation is to connect with a higher power. Contemplative prayer is one example.
- Moving meditation: Mindful movement techniques that involve meditation offer stress reduction and improvements in balance and flexibility. The most common are yoga, tai chi, and qigong.
- Guided meditation: With guided imagery or visualization, you experience mental images of places or situations that are relaxing. Guided meditations are helpful for beginners because a guide or teacher leads them, usually via a recording. You can also be your own guide. Imagine a beautiful place and think of the sights, sounds, smells, and textures you would experience. (Giacobbi, 2017; Krau, 2020).
Meditation techniques for stress relief
All types of meditation can help manage the effects of stress. So any type you choose will likely offer benefits. Also, techniques are often combined. For instance, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction and Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy bring together various mental and meditative practices (Kok, 2016).
Overall, it’s best to choose a stress management meditation technique you’re most likely to practice daily. Consider your available locations, schedule, and goals. Here are some popular meditation techniques for stress relief that you can do in a short time period:
Many meditation techniques put a focus on breathing. Deep breathing exercises reverse the body’s stress response (Perciavalle, 2017; Ma, 2017).
5 best breathing exercises for anxiety and stress
Pranayama yoga, also known as yogic breathing, offers a variety of breathing exercises. One technique involves a slow, deep inhale, holding the breath, then a slow exhale. That pranayama technique, when done regularly, helped students reduce test-taking anxiety and perform better (Nemati, 2013).
Box breathing is another exercise that you can use to counter stressful situations. Here are the steps (Norelli, 2020):
- Inhale through the nose for a count of four
- Hold the breath for a count of four
- Exhale for a count of four
- Keep lung deflated for a count of four
Note: A count of two can replace a count of four.
Mindful body scan
The practice of mindful body scan is another type of focused attention meditation. It’s often done while focusing on breathing. It brings awareness to each part of the body, usually starting with the head.
During a body scan, you observe sensations, and if the mind wanders, you return thoughts to the target body part. The practice has been shown to reduce anxiety levels (Roll, 2020).
Progressive muscle relaxation
Progressive muscle relaxation can reduce the tension linked to stress. Start by taking slow, deep breaths, and tense and release muscles throughout the body. The key is doing it one muscle group at a time.
The formula is: tense for five seconds; slowly release for 10 seconds. During the release, focus on the tension dissolving. Here are muscle groups to cycle through (Norelli, 2020):
- Feet (curl toes)
- Lower legs
- Hips and buttocks
- Stomach and chest
- Face (squeezing eyes)
- Hands (clench fist)
With loving-kindness meditation, you focus on developing love and compassion for yourself. You then extend feelings of love to others, such as friends and strangers. Eventually, you extend love to all living beings, even those you may not like. You replace those negative feelings with feelings of empathy (Lippelt, 2014).
Yoga, tai chi, and qigong
Engaging in yoga, tai chi, or qigong is a form of moving meditation. Each has its unique benefits and techniques:
- Yoga: Yoga involves a series of postures and poses that require concentration and balance. The focus is on the movement and controlled breathing exercises (Maddux, 2018; Polsgrove, 2018).
- Tai Chi: Tai Chi (TIE-CHEE) is a slow and graceful Chinese martial art that involves postures and movements while practicing deep breathing (Zheng, 2018; Huang, 2015)
- Qigong: Qigong (SHEE-gung) is part of the Chinese medicine tradition and combines movement, meditation, relaxation, and breathing exercises to restore and maintain balance (Wang, 2014; Stahl, 2020).
Yoga meditation: what is it, benefits, techniques
Getting started: reducing stress with meditation
Here are some helpful tips to get started with meditation (NCCIH, 2021):
- Locate a quiet location
- Find a comfortable position
- Choose a focus of attention (breath, word, object, sensation)
- Have an open attitude
- Let thoughts pass without judgment
- Return to your focus
- Don’t judge yourself
- Start with 5 minutes and work up
- Aim for at least 10 minutes a day (Moore, 2012)
- Don’t give up! Meditation takes practice.
With regular practice, it gets easier to tune out noise and meditate anywhere and for longer periods.
Of course, if you have a physical or mental health condition, check with your healthcare provider before starting a new meditation practice. There have been rare reports of meditation causing or worsening mental health symptoms, and yoga can impact a physical condition.
If you receive the green light, meditation is one way to boost your resilience to stress. All you need is five minutes.
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Felix Gussone is a physician, health journalist and a Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.