Feeling stressed? You’re not alone. Anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the United States, affecting 40 million adults. And while anxiety disorders can develop from a variety of risk factors–such as genetics, brain chemistry, and environmental factors–stress is a big antagonist.
Physical, emotional, and mental stress leads to higher levels of cortisol, a hormone produced by the adrenal gland. Over time, the continual release of this stress hormone can contribute to a variety of adverse effects on our physiological systems.
While medications often play an important role in magazine anxiety and depression, there are also a number of natural ways to help ease your body and mind.
Mindfulness Meditation Lowers Stress Hormones
Mindfulness meditation, the practice of focusing your attention on your breath and the present moment, helps lower stress hormones, thereby decreasing inflammation in the body.
The topic has gained a lot of scientific interest in the past decade, with numerous studies pointing toward these findings. According to a study conducted by Georgetown University Medical Center’s Department of Psychiatry, mindfulness meditation can help lower inflammation and stress hormones by around 15%.
The findings were echoed by a study in the journal Health Psychology, which showed an association between increased mindfulness and decreased levels of cortisol.
“This is the first study to show a direct relation between resting cortisol and scores on any type of mindfulness scale,” study researcher Tonya Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Davis Center for Mind and Brain, said in a statement. Participants in the meditation group showed reductions in their levels of ACTH, IL-6 and TNF-alpha during the stress test.
How to Begin a Meditation Practice
So how does one mindfully meditate? While the notion may conjure visions of distant monasteries and daily devotion, meditation is for everyone. And it’s not as hard as you think. Here are 7 tips for getting started with your own practice today.
1. Choose the right location.
Find a soothing spot for your meditation practice. It might be a room in your home, or a corner of your office or apartment. It’s best if this nook is free of clutter, has nice natural light and is quiet and free of distractions. You may want to place some water features or green plants in this area or, if the weather allows, you might prefer to sit outdoors. You may choose to set a gentle alarm to sound after five or ten minutes. With practice, you can work up to longer sessions, but in the beginning, keep the short and focused.
2. How to Prepare for Sitting Meditation
Whether you choose to sit on a mat, a cushion, a chair or a park bench, find a seat that offers stable, upright sitting. If you’re on a cushion or mat on the floor, cross your legs in front of you. If you opt for a chair or bench, make sure your feet are resting on the floor to ground you.
The general idea here is to sit comfortably straight and upright, although not rigid. Your natural spinal curve should feel flexible, but take care that you are not slouching.
Let your arms and hands softly rest on the tops of your thighs.
3. Lower Your Gaze.
Allow your chin to drop a little, softening your gaze downward, out in front of you. While you may wish to close your eyes, it’s not necessary for meditation. However, your gaze should soften and become somewhat unfocused.
4. Focus on your Breath.
Take a deep breath and relax. Begin to tune into your mind and body by focusing on your breath–the way it moves in and out. Notice your bodily sensations as you inhale and exhale.
Notice how the breath moves through your nose or mouth, how it feels as your chest inflates, and notice the rise and fall of your belly.
Since anxiety and stress can often cause shallow breathing, focus on deep inhales and long, slow exhales. Feel your lungs fill up with air and expand… hold it… and then release.
You may wish to simply focus on this breathing, or you may want to mentally repeat a mantra such as “I breathe out stress, I breathe in peace.”
5. How to Respond to a Wandering Mind
In the earlier stages of meditation, wandering thoughts can feel like a frustrating distraction. It is completely normal. If you find your mind wandering or thoughts intruding on your space, let them come. Acknowledge them, and let them pass by like clouds. Return your focus to your breathing.
Especially when dealing with heightened anxiety, you may find that you are needing to redirect your focus to your breath every few seconds or minutes. Rather than become discouraged, accept that this is a normal part of beginning a meditation practice.
Observe this cycle of thoughts and refocusing without judgement or expectation. Simply notice it, and then focus on your breath. It is really as simple as that.
6. Ending a Meditation Session
Once your timer is up, gently and slowly open your eyes or lift your gaze to take in the space around you. Notice any sounds, sights and scents in your environment. The breeze, the sound of children laughing down the street. Notice how your body feels in this moment. Notice your thoughts and emotions.
There are no right or wrong ways to feel in this moment; just simply notice the sensations without judgement.
Then, set an intention for how you’d like to proceed with your day. Set an intention to bring compassion, love and understanding to your interactions.
7. Practice Consistently
While meditating in itself is a very simple act, that doesn’t mean it’s easy! Our overworked and often overwhelmed minds can be hard to quiet, and sitting in silence with ourselves can sometimes feel uneasy. Stick with it. Even just 15 minutes a day can make a positive impact on your hormone health and wellbeing!