The Health Benefits of Meditation

 
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The final area of wellness that I will address here that is essential to living a long, healthy, happy life of vitality is developing and using a consistent meditation practice. Just as a reminder, the foundations of physical wellness that I have addressed so far are sleep, nutrition, and exercise/movement. The foundations of mental wellness that I have addressed here are the benefits of a strong social support, core relationships, remaining open-minded and curious, and the willingness to take on challenges and life-long learning.

Meditation offers health benefits that impact mind and body. Meditation addresses the stress response allowing us to access the relaxation response which creates increased mental wellness, creative expansion while releasing uncomfortable and non-useful thoughts and emotions.

Meditation is certainly not something new that I have talked about here! In fact, I’ve mentioned it over and over (as it is one of the primary ways that I keep myself sane) because I’ve see the direct impact that it can have on a variety of struggles for those that I work with, including anxiety, emotional eating, eating disorders, panic attacks, depression and limiting thoughts and beliefs—which directly impact the ability to take action. Meditation is one of the core practices that I have studied both in relation to my yoga studies along with all of the emerging research within the therapy, mental health and wellness world—and all of the benefits really are pretty vast and astounding.

When you are able to add in even just a small amount of meditation daily, you can have a tremendous return on your time investment in the way of health and wellness benefits. As little as five minutes a day can impact stress hormones, neurotransmitter production and circadian rhythms. Twelve minutes a day has shown an even greater impact such as improving telomere length of neurons in the brain (which indicates a younger brain!) increasing focus and concentration and decreased cognitive decline. Not to mention that meditation improves your self-awareness and reduces emotional reactivity which is one of the most valuable ways to improve the quality of your life on a daily basis.

There is often a lot of confusion about meditation. People tell me all the time, “I can’t meditate, I can’t get my mind to be quiet.” This is the primary misconception of meditation. The fact is that meditation is not about turning off your thoughts and sitting in perfect silence. I can tell you from experience that this is not what happens, and definitely not when you are just beginning the practice. Now maybe a long-long time meditator can silence their mind for long periods of time, but most of us have A LOT of thoughts constantly running through our minds. So let’s say that you generally have 100 thoughts a minute, and through a concentration and meditation practice you have 60. That will still feel like A LOT of thoughts, but it is still an improvement! With more practice maybe you’ll have 45 thoughts a minute, and with more 30, but again, that may still feel like a pretty active mind.

The purpose is not to silence your thoughts, the purpose is to distance yourself from the thoughts, to not be so reactive to the constant stream of emotionally provoking thoughts which may only cause stress and tension. In meditation you learn how to witness your thoughts rather than respond to them. This is the true practice, to recognize that you are not your thoughts and that they do not define you. Traditionally meditation is done in a seated posture and connecting with a single point of focus. This single point of focus could be your breath, a word or phrase, an image, a candle flame, or an image you create in your mind such as a sphere of light.

Mindfulness meditation is about being aware of all external and internal potential distractions, such as sounds, body sensations, thoughts and emotions and the mindfulness process invites you to simply notice them. You can even label them for exactly what they are. Here’s an example, as you sit and observe your internal and external space, if you hear the sound of a car, plane, ticking clock or someone talking, you simply label it as a sound rather than letting your mind consider the story of the sound. When you get into the story of the sound you will most likely evoke emotions and then thoughts, such as “ugg, that’s so annoying, I’m trying to meditate and that car keeps honking it’s horn.” That’s how we typically address annoyances in life, however mindfulness invites you see the honking just a sound, no thoughts or emotions necessary. Do you see how this may help improve your response to other potential annoyances in your life?

Meditation is allowing your mind to fully focus on one thing, and when you find you are distracted, you bring your focus back to that single point of awareness—that one thing. It really doesn’t matter so much what your point of focus is so long as you make a consistent effort to maintain it. Not judging your experience or getting involved in your emotions is helpful as well.

The most important element in order to reap the benefits of the practice is to be consistent. Daily is ideal, and even 1-15 minutes is great. If daily does not feel doable quite yet, you might start with 3 days a week and increase as you are ready. I am planning to roll out some support for those interested in a supportive community of beginning/skeptical/interested meditators in the fall! Stay tuned for updates! If you find you’d like some support getting started now, feel free to reach out. No matter how you start, try not to get caught up in the details, it is the experience and practice that matters most, not that you have the right chair, lighting, props or anything else!

If you have been implementing these eight areas of wellness that help support a long, healthy and happy life I’d love to hear how they are working for you!

The Health Benefits of Remaining Curious and Open-Minded Throughout Your Life

 
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Being curious and open minded is yet another wellness essential that supports living a long, healthy, happy life of vitality. While it may seem obvious that eating well, exercising, restful sleep and even sound relationships improve longevity and wellbeing, keeping your mind curious and open may not be as obviously linked to wellbeing. When you consider the mind-body connection, yes, reduced stress is a primary focus which can be supported through maintaining a sharp, active, curious mind. Flexibility in your viewpoints and perspectives allows for longevity and vitality as well.

When you spend time with a child who is just beginning to learn about the world, they ask a million questions. Then those questions are followed up with “why?” At some point we stop asking why and just respond to life based on what we think we know. Being curious and asking why can increase your learning and personal growth and wellbeing.

When you are considering a viewpoint contradictory to your own in a curious and open-minded way, rather than becoming defensive and possessive of your views, you maintain lower stress levels because the defensiveness causes your stress levels to rise. You also create more awareness and understanding of the other person or groups viewpoint which allowing for less of a sense of “us against them” which also is associated with stress. Knowing that we can improve our wellbeing by moving from a fixed, negative world view to a more positive, flexible one allows for personal growth by increasing kindness, tolerance and acceptance.

Life can become rudimentary and mundane so easily. Becoming entrenched in a certain routine and way of being and not creating the energy or time to expand your mind can happen without even noticing it. Life is busy and these days can get filled up with a lot of seemingly important tasks. When was the last time you asked why?

The first 20-25 years of our lives are often dedicated to learning and expanding our minds. Beginning a career requires new learning until the skills are mastered and then we just kinda settle in and cruise for a while. This is where life can get filled up and your time gets taken over by daily chores and responsibilities. The next thing you know you surround yourself with people with similar viewpoints that you have and your work and/or family life and remain tightly bound in that bubble. If you are ready to get back to curiosity, growing your mind and increasing your vitality through the process of expanding your awareness here are some ideas:

 -       Ask questions and listen to the answers without offering your own opinion on a topic, keep asking questions until you feel you have a solid take on the other persons opinion. Only offer your own if asked, and if then, remain non-defensive, have a conversation about expanding your viewpoint rather than trying to convince another person to take yours as their own

-       Talk to someone from a different cultural background than your own and be curious about how their culture impacted their personal experience, viewpoint and life in a way that is different from your own

-       Volunteer at a community recreational center, after school program or anywhere with those with less fortunate financial means than your own

-       Go to an art museum

- Go to a science museum

-       Go to a musical event that you might not normally attend

- Take a class

-       If you go to a house of worship, try a different one from a different denomination or if you are comfortable with it, even a different faith than your own and talk to at least one person from that new environment. Listen only, be curious and open to hearing about someone else’s experience, viewpoint and lifestyle. Try not to judge, remain curious and open to understanding another person’s perspective.

-       Learn a new skill in an area of interest (art, craft, new instrument, sport, cooking, technology…)

-       Read anything

-       Watch a sunrise and/or sunset

- Never stop asking why?!

This is a short list of ways to begin thinking about how to remain curious, open-minded, interested and engaged with the mysteries of life and a worldview beyond your own. When you think about traditional learning, it was to master a skill or get a certain grade in order to achieve something else, not necessarily just for the sake of learning or growing. This is a new way to approach learning—simply for the sake of expanding your mind and intellect and sense of being a human. Just listening to and being curious about someone else’s view of life and overall perspective can be amazingly expansive.

For the past 18 years I have worked as a therapist in several different capacities, from a homeless shelter in Brooklyn, to working with at-risk youth from the inner city and outer counties of Richmond Virginia, to people of all walks of life who desire to decrease their emotional distress, heal their relationship with food, themselves and others and feel more confident and well. One thing I know for sure is that we have way more alike than we have differences and yet culturally we are set up to feel that any difference is a potential threat to us.

When you expand on this personal level, your mind naturally begins to open and create less anxiety and fear surrounding others. With this you create less internal struggle which only enhances you life and helps you grow in your vitality.

The Health Benefits of Moving Your Body

 
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Having a healthy balance between activity and rest is essential to living a long, healthy life of vitality. Over the past several blog posts I’ve been outlining a variety of areas of wellness necessary to live well, feel well and be well on all levels. The area of movement and exercise is one that is commonly focused on in the wellness world, but often one that is difficult to create a routine around that sticks for the long term.

Our bodies are designed to move. Haven’t you heard that sitting is the new smoking? Yikes, that makes sitting sound super unhealthy! There’s a ton of information out there about the optimal type and amount of exercise and movement that we need. However, really the best kind of movement is movement you actually enjoy doing and the best amount of time is how much time will realistically fit into your current schedule—without creating any additional stress.

Beyond identifying what you like to—and are willing to do—and the realistic amount of time you can commit to it within your schedule, the next most important aspect of movement and exercise is consistency. If you only sporadically move your body, you will not receive the same level of long-term benefits that come along with consistent exercise. These benefits are well researched, vast and most impressive. Some of the benefits of movement and exercise include improved sleep, increased energy, reduced cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, reduced cognitive decline, increased mobility throughout your lifespan, increased mood stabilization, and reduced stress levels. These are all pretty convincing reasons to get off the couch and get moving. 

I find the most difficult part of being consistent is that I don’t ever really feel like exercising. Now, if you suggest taking a restorative yoga class, to that I say, yes please! Doing thirty minutes on the elliptical machine and 15 minutes of strength training, not quite as exciting to me. While yoga can absolutely serve as exercise (and so much more!) for me, it’s more of a relaxation practice, and I find that to get in exercise I personally need to more traditional movement. To shake the low motivation I have to remind myself that I am most likely never gonna feel like it (at least not very often.) So, to stay motivated, I find it is super helpful to focus on the benefits, including how I feel after I complete a workout. I want to be healthy—health and vitality are two of my personal values—so this means I need to exercise. I have to plan it and prepare for it so I don’t talk myself out of it. When I do move my body, I feel accomplished, stronger and more emotionally balanced. Focusing on those super valuable positives helps me to get off the couch and to the gym.

If you are struggling to get exercise into your routine, I suggest that you keep an exercise log. First, plan out what days you will exercise, what form of movement you will do, and for how long you will do the exercises directly onto your calendar. If you put it into your mindset by writing it out and planning ahead of time, you are far more likely to make it happen. Then, keep a log of how you feel before you exercise, how you feel after you exercise, and what motivated you to do if you didn’t feel like. When you reflect on this log it will serve as a helpful reminder of why you are choosing your health and vitality over a temporary feeling of laziness—or even dread.

If you are just not a gym person, the most effective way to start the process of moving is finding a form of movement that you really enjoy. (You can catch an older blog on 5 ways to get more movement without the gym here!) This could be dancing, joining a community sports team, walking, yoga, pilates, signing up for a community 5k and training for it (with a friend makes it even better!), swim, hike, taking a dance class… Finding something you enjoy and doing it along with a buddy can make it something you actually look forward to doing regularly! 

When you commit to regular movement and exercise you are committing to your health and wellbeing and creating a greater life of longevity and vitality. To begin to make it happen for you, first identify what movement you actually enjoy, then the amount of time you can dedicate to doing it. Create your exercise log and plan for exactly when you will do it. Begin using these tools and see the impact moving your body can have on your life for the better beginning today!