Mental Health

Making meditation work for you: A physician’s perspective

Mental Health

Meditation is a “practice.” It cannot be mastered in a few days. So don't get frustrated as you try to integrate it into your daily health routine.

You’ve read another article about the benefits of meditation, and how at least 20% of adults in the U.S. are practicing the ancient mind-body therapies to reduce their stress.

At lunch, a co-worker raves about her new mantra, and on the way home you notice a tai chi class blissfully shadow dancing in the park. And you begin to wonder: “Am I the only one not meditating?”

So, you decide to give it a try. But three days after downloading the latest buzzworthy meditation app, you’ve barely carved out five minutes to try it, and when you do you can’t concentrate. Ultimately, you resolve meditation just isn’t for you – because this is hardly the first time you’ve wrestled with the Meditation Maybes.

It’s important to know you are not alone. I can tell you from personal experience that these perceived “meditation fails” are not failures at all. They are the fundamental building blocks to creating a meaningful change in your life.

As I tell my patients, meditation is a “practice.” It cannot be learned overnight or mastered in a few days. It needs to be defined, understood, and experienced – over and over again – until it becomes an innate part of your daily health routine. May is Mental Health Awareness Month – a perfect time to take a closer look at meditation that makes sense for you.

What is Meditation?

To meditate simply means to calm, silence, or train the mind. It originated in the early civilizations of India, approximately 5,000 years ago. Meditation was a major modality of Ayurvedic medicine. Its original purpose was to connect to a deeper existence, and meditation was intimately intertwined with the religious and philosophical practices of the time. It is also thought to have been a heavy influence on Chinese medicine and philosophy.

As a physician, I see meditation as a form of valuable exercise for the mind that can also have beneficial effects on the body.

Types of meditation

The most popular forms of meditation can be divided into three categories: concentrative, expressive, and movement.

Concentrative meditation

Probably the most common form practiced today, concentrative meditation involves actively focusing on the mind with minimal influence from other parts of the body. Concentrative meditation includes:

Concentrative meditation focuses on breathing and mantras to calm the mind.

  • Mindfulness meditation, which originated from Buddhism. It teaches us to focus on our breath and guides us to observe our thoughts, but to let them pass without judgment.
  • Transcendental meditation, another common practice, utilizes a mantra – a word, phrase, or sound that is repeated – to narrow our consciousness and silence the mind.
  • Progressive relaxation is the practice of scanning the body, giving each individual part attention and focus to promote relaxation. Some people experience tingling sensations and a gradual release of tension.
  • Guided meditation, also called imagery or visualization meditation, frequently requires a guide or teacher who will provide cues and context so you can form mental images that are calming and relaxing.
  • Spiritual meditation, similar to prayer, is the practice of silencing the mind at home or in a place of worship for the purpose of spiritual growth. Many who practice this form of meditation use essential oils, candles, sculptures, or handheld objects to enhance the experience.

Expressive meditation

The opposite of concentrative, expressive meditation involves voluntary and involuntary physical movements to expel stresses or tensions from the body. For some people, this is an easier form of meditation to start with because it involves activities – such as dancing, chanting, shaking, and deep breathing – that are believed to be cathartic and cleansing.

Frequently after expressive meditation, you will lie down and rest your mind or practice a concentrative form of meditation.

Yoga and tai chi are among the most popular forms of movement meditation.

Movement meditation

Qi gong and Tai chi are popular examples of this form of meditation, where choreographed movements are purposefully combined with concentrative practices and deep breathing to obtain harmony between the mind and body.

Yoga is another very popular form of movement meditation. It involves various postures and flow with controlled breathing to promote physical health and mental clarity.

Certainly, there are many other types of meditation, but this snapshot demonstrates the vastness of practices, which should make it easy to tailor meditation to your lifestyle and physical activity level.

What are the proven effects of meditation?

Many followers and teachers of meditation boast about the physiological effects without much evidence to support them, but in the last 40 years the medical community has conducted multiple studies that have shown meditation can be an effective tool in maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Most of these studies have examined the most common types of meditation, including mindfulness, transcendental meditation, yoga, qi gong and tai chi.

Positive effects

Meditation is most often cited as a tool to improve mental health – reducing stress, anxiety, and depression. But research in recent years has also shown its benefits for reducing heart disease and hypertension, as well as chronic pain, gastrointestinal conditions, and asthma.

A 2014 review published in the Journal of American Medical Association Internal Medicine examined 47 trials consisting of 3,515 participants and demonstrated evidence to support its use in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and pain. Meditation faired similar to medication, exercise, and other behavioral therapies – with lower costs and fewer side effects.

Another review of randomized controlled studies in 2016 examined the benefit of mindfulness meditation and the immune system. Twenty randomized controlled trials with 1,602 participants showed positive effects of mindful meditation on cellular markers for inflammation, immunity, and biological aging.

There are also multiple studies examining the benefit of movement meditation on treatment for pain and general health. Yoga, for instance, can lead to improvement in function and reduction of back pain. Tai chi, which can improve balance and help treat spine pain, has even been endorsed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for the prevention of falls in the elderly. Studies support the use of tai chi to reduce pain and disability in those with chronic neck and back pain as well.

Adverse effects

A systematic review published in 2020 examining adverse events in meditation practices and meditation-based therapies showed some rare instances of psychosis, mania, anxiety, and depression. Physiologic effects reported included pain and gastrointestinal complaints, but most were short-term, and experienced during the meditation or soon after.

In general, meditation is a very safe way to improve health and wellness. Being aware of potential side effects can help guide you to find the most effective form of meditation for you.

Failure is an option – and a stepping stone

The road to meditation success can be a long one, but it can have positive effects on your mental and physical well-being.

I failed many times at meditation before I found the best practice that worked for me. My mind tends to wander to my mental to-do list, especially when trying to “silence my thoughts.” After trial and error, I learned that I focus best with auditory cues. Thus, transcendental meditation is my choice of practice. It allows me to concentrate on a particular sound that puts my mind and body in complete relaxation … sometimes.

Meditation is a marathon, not a sprint. So, take your time and try not to get frustrated if you don’t immediately connect with a particular form of meditation. Our minds and bodies take time to adapt to change. Both want to be balanced, so take things slow and give yourself time to recalibrate. That’s what meditation is all about, after all.

I strongly encourage my patients to look at all forms of treatment to help with some of their ailments, including meditation. And I am not alone. There are other physicians in multiple departments incorporating mindfulness and meditation in their practice.

If you’d like to talk with a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at UT Southwestern about meditation and how it can improve your health and well-being, please call 214-645-8300 or request an appointment online.