Meditation is a practice intended to encourage a heightened state of awareness. It’s a way to train your mind to focus and redirect thoughts, to reduce stress, support emotional health, anchor yourself to the present and ultimately, be kinder to yourself.
How to meditate
Meditation is simpler (yet more challenging) than most people think. Whilst there aren’t really any hard and fast rules on how to meditate, there are a few basic meditation steps you can take to help ease you into the process.
- Find a quiet place, where you feel calm and are unlikely to be disturbed or distracted.
- If you’re new to meditation, set yourself a time-frame of between 5 to 10 minutes.
- Sit comfortably – cross-legged on a mat, or upright in a chair, whatever works for you.
- Notice your breathing – feel your breath as it goes in and out.
- Notice when your mind has wandered – it will! Your focus will move from your breath to elsewhere, your schedule for the day ahead, what time you have to be at work, what you’re having for dinner…
- Acknowledge your mind has wandered, don’t tell yourself off, just bring yourself back to your breathing.
- Close with kindness – open your eyes (if you’ve closed them, you don’t have to but it helps), take a moment to notice the room or space around you, and consider how your body and mind feel after just a few minutes of quiet.
There’s a good chance you’ll feel different after just a few minutes of meditation, but with regular practice, better still - you’ll be able to calm body and mind relatively quickly, and for longer.
Potential benefits of meditation
As with most things, the more you put in, the more you get back, and it’s no different with meditation. The more you practice meditation, the better you’ll become and the more you’ll benefit from meditation.
Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation, and there’s plenty of science to back this up. One 8-week study found that meditation can reduce the inflammatory response caused by stress  (raised cortisol levels and the production of inflammatory chemicals in the body called cytokines), which in turn are linked to stress-related symptoms, such as problems sleeping, depression, anxiety, fatigue and cloudy thinking.
Reduced stress translates to less anxiety. A large study involving 1,300 adults found that meditation may decrease anxiety with most noticeable improvements in those with the highest levels of anxiety . Another found that mindfulness meditation helped reduce anxiety symptoms in people with generalised anxiety disorder, resulting in increased positivity and improved stress reactivity and coping .
Enhance self-worth and mood
Meditation can also lead to improved self-image and a more positive outlook on life. Much has been written about the importance of driving out negative chatter.
By learning how to quieten your mind, you become more aware (and therefore in control of) the negative thought patterns that can lead to low self-esteem, low mood and depression. Meditation gives you greater awareness of your thought habits and helps you to steer them toward more constructive patterns.
Meditation can tether you to the present moment and often that’s exactly where you need to be to keep from feeling overwhelmed. When we focus on the past, we tend to feel depressed about the things we cannot change and when we focus on the future, we can feel anxious about events we cannot control. Swap your ‘what ifs’ for ‘what is’. By focusing on the present, you learn to focus on what’s real, what’s known and what you can do to influence it, as opposed to what might happen - which is nearly always much scarier and much worse.
Improve focus and attention span
Training your mind to focus on your breathing and not wander from the task at hand, helps to increase the strength and endurance of your attention. And the more often you practice, the better you’ll become and the less your mind will wander. One study found that people who listened to a meditation tape experienced improved attention and accuracy while completing a task, compared with those in a control group . Another showed that people who regularly practiced meditation performed better on a visual task and had a greater attention span than those without any meditation experience . What’s more, meditation may even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind-wandering, worrying, and poor attention .
Unsurprisingly perhaps, given that meditation can help to promote feelings of calm and reduce stress, but meditation has also been linked to improved sleeping patterns with one study finding that people who meditated stayed asleep longer with less severe insomnia, compared with those in the control group . Meditation may help you control the racing or runaway thoughts that can lead to insomnia, and relax body and mind, placing you in a restful state that enables you to fall asleep more easily.