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Does meditation really work?

July 23, 2020 • read

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Does meditation really work?

The merits of meditation have been preached by everyone from LeBron James to Oprah. Disciples of the practice claim that its benefits are seemingly endless — from lowering stress to making you a better person. But to the casual participant, meditation can feel weird and even increase the irritability and frustration it’s supposed to help control. We’re looking at some of the claims surrounding meditation to find out if it actually works.

What is meditation?

Most of us sort of know what meditation is. But, between the claims that it involves transcending our bodies to reach nirvana or that we can use it to stave off ageing, its exact definition can get lost. The basic idea is that meditation helps you focus your attention inward so you can calm yourself and quiet your mind. It’s important to note that it’s a practice — you’re not supposed to do it just once. A meditation practice is like exercise for your mind. It helps you strengthen the mental muscles that allow you to achieve peace and calm. Eventually, those muscles become so strong that you can enter a peaceful and focused state whenever you need to.

How do you meditate?

There are a number of different kinds of meditations, so if you’ve tried meditating before and hated it, it might be worth giving another kind of practice a shot. A popular one involves eating chocolate and paying attention to the sensations that elicits. Others can involve a guided audio narrative, exercising or reciting certain mantras — the list goes on.

What do you use meditation for?

Some meditation advocates claim that its uses are pretty much infinite. But while some studies are promising, other research is scanty and downright problematic. Certain claims, however, are scientifically backed. It looks like meditation can increase happiness, decrease blood pressure, increase alertness and focus attention, and reduce pain. How it compares to other interventions for these issues, like medication, isn’t always clear.

Other claims, however, are completely bogus. For example, meditation does nothing to help treat or prevent cancer, despite what certain internet activists say. It also doesn’t make you a better person

A third category of claims about the benefits of meditation seem promising, but doesn’t yet have large-scale research results. Meditation may help to stave off cognitive decline. Even if this claim is true, meditation should only be used as one of many tools to fight dementia. 

What are the side-effects of meditation?

While it might seem like meditation is risk-free, small studies and anecdotes have exposed negative side-effects. Some individuals report experiencing racing thoughts, anxiety, paranoia, depression and panic. Sitting with yourself and “watching” the thoughts that come up without judgment can actually be quite difficult. For individuals who have survived trauma, or who are struggling with mental illness, meditation can be quite intense. In certain individuals it doesn’t always provide the benefits it claims, and it might actually do harm by providing a space for things to surface that are difficult to process without additional support.

For individuals dealing with chronic stress or suffering from depression, meditation alone may not be enough. These people might feel like something is wrong with them if meditation isn’t bringing about profound improvements in their work performance, marriage, sleep, and so on. If you’re looking for a quick way to destress but are concerned that meditation might be too intense for you, progressive muscle relaxation and simple breathing exercises are good alternatives. For those grappling with heavier issues, however, additional mental health support can help.

If meditation is your cup of tea then go for it — there’s a meditation out there for every day of the year. Meditation can be a powerful mental practice. But there are a lot of other ways to calm yourself and focus your awareness if it’s not for you. 

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