Does meditation help us all?

More research is starting to show benefits from meditation. But the details can be tricky, and it may be helpful to get some guidance from a mental health professional.

What is meditation?

The practice of meditation (or mindfulness) involves focusing on one moment in time and trying to let that moment slip away, said Judy Adkins, who founded the Emory Stress Management Center, which has a studio in Atlanta. Instead of being consumed by thoughts about your job, your family, your finances or your problems, you’re focusing on the present. It can be very tough, she said, especially when you’re having difficulty forgetting your problems or dealing with them.

How can you meditate?

To get good at mindfulness, “you have to apply it to your day-to-day life,” said Patricia Lawrence, a clinical psychologist with the Kaiser Permanente Center for Health Research in San Francisco. In other words, you have to cultivate new skills. To help you develop those skills, Lawrence advises people to get up every morning and go for a walk. They can also learn to pay attention to their breath. “Once you do that, you’ll be practicing mindfulness every minute of the day,” she said.

Sara Totonchi is also a clinical psychologist in Philadelphia, where she has practiced for 28 years. Before she started practicing psychology, she spent five years working in a post-doctoral program on mindfulness and digestive health at New York University’s Winthrop Center for Digestive Diseases and Digestive Disorders.

How does meditation benefit us?

Research suggests that meditation can boost concentration, memory and creativity, and it can help lower stress, according to an article in March in Scientific American. And it has other benefits, too, such as lowering stress hormones and relieving pain. A study published in April in The Lancet found that patients who meditated experienced fewer falls, lower levels of anxiety and better sleep than those who didn’t meditate. They also made fewer frequent doctor visits — and spent less time in the hospital. Another study published in May in the journal BMJ Open found that adults who meditated regularly over a 10-year period were more likely to take fewer medications and less likely to have been hospitalized for medical conditions.

“Meditation is not so much a question of practice as a question of adaptation,” said Lee Carter, a clinical neuropsychologist in New York.

What are some guidelines?

Doctors can help you focus on skills that work for you and can help you meditate well, as can a therapist, Adkins said. If you’re having a hard time letting go of stresses, she advises starting with a relaxation exercise, for example, or eating to calm your mind. If stress is interfering with your performance in school or work, getting professional help might be in order.

Is it for everyone?

It’s hard to know how many people meditate, Adkins said, because most people aren’t talking about it. The three studies she cited found that nearly 10 percent of people said they meditated. “But you see the signs that people are engaged in it,” she said. Psychologists tell her they see a lot of people in their practice who say they meditate. She said she doesn’t believe some of the better-known meditation practices — which tend to be heavily focused on belief and faith and may not be scientifically rigorous — are helpful.

“I’m not sure that yoga or meditation really are the right models to cultivate mindfulness,” Adkins said.

Also read: How mindfulness can transform your family life

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