Tune out that mental chatter and create a healthier environment.
What is meditation?
Meditation is really just a way of systematically tuning out mental chatter. We all meditate from time to time, but the term itself is usually used to describe an exercise in sustained concentration that you can use to calm your body and quiet your mind -- in short, to reduce stress. Historically, meditation has roots in both Eastern and Western spiritual traditions, but you don't have to be Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, or religious at all to practice it.
How does it work?
Researchers say that meditation works at least in part by lowering your body's responsiveness to the stress hormone norepinephrine. Normally, stress triggers the release of these hormones, which in turn causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise (the "fight or flight" response). But meditation interrupts that flood of stress chemicals, so you don't feel on guard or tense. In short, when you meditate regularly, you're able to control your body's reaction to stress instead of it controlling you.
What are the health benefits?
Research shows that meditation can help ease a host of stress-related problems, including chronic pain, headaches, anxiety, PMS, sleep disorders, even infertility (the stresses of infertility can interfere with the release of hormones that regulate ovulation). In a study on anxiety at the University of Massachusetts, for example, 20 out of 22 anxiety-prone volunteers showed marked improvement after taking an eight-week class in meditation. And in a study on headaches, 72 percent of headache sufferers reported "moderate to great" improvement after learning how to meditate.
How do I do it?
Choose a quiet place where you won't be distracted or disturbed. Sit on the floor, or if that's not comfortable, use a chair or lie down. Close your eyes, and gently begin taking slow deep breaths, in and out. To guide yourself into the meditative state, let your mind begin to say a simple word or phrase (meditation experts refer to this word as a "mantra"). You can achieve the same thing by focusing your "mind's eye" on your breathing, on a symbol, or even an image. When thoughts come to mind, ignore them without judging them and return to your mantra. It can be a little tricky at first, but with a little practice, you should feel yourself slipping into a pleasant, relaxed state. Some people start with short, five-minute sessions and gradually build up to 20 minutes or longer. Most regular mediators make it a point to meditate for 20 to 30 minutes every day, but consistency is more important than duration. If you don't have 30 minutes, try to give it five or ten.
Should I take a class?
You don't have to, but many people find it's a helpful way to start. A good teacher can walk you through the technique, dispel concerns you might have about "doing it wrong," and answer questions that come up. You can sometimes find a class through adult or continuing education programs at your local high school or college, or try yoga studios or your YMCA. Some hospitals and HMOs offer meditation and relaxation classes as part of wellness or preventive medicine programs. Most 60-minute classes cost $15 to $35 a session. There are also many books, audio and video tapes on meditation techniques that can help you get started.