Take a Few Mindful Moments to Meditate for Heart Health
Meditation is a wonder drug: it relieves stress, helps you live in the present moment, can help sort through difficult emotions and is a great way to improve your sleep. Did you know that it can also help improve your heart health?
When we’re stressed, our bodies release cortisol, adrenaline and norepinephrine. These stress hormones are part of the fight or flight response, which helps prepare the body to face danger. This “animal instinct” is designed to keep us safe during physical harm. While most of us aren’t encountering real danger on a regular basis, our brains can’t tell the difference between “stressful day at work” and “this bear thinks of me as lunch.”
Unfortunately for us, all that stress adds up. When you’re constantly in fight or flight mode, your body diverts all its energy to keeping you alive. That’s why you can literally make yourself sick from worrying. Your body ignores everything but its most basic functions. Your immune system, digestive system, reproductive and growth systems are all deemed unimportant for the time being, but that can’t last forever. Chronic stress can lead to cardiovascular disease, stroke and kidney disease—some of the top killers in the United States.
Meditation can help soothe those stress hormones, and prevent future stress from taking such a significant toll. Here’s how to harness the power of meditation for heart health.
Why meditation works
Meditation isn’t a cure-all or instant fix, although you may feel its effects right away. Many people get impatient or bored—“I’m meditating through a panic attack! Why isn’t it working?” It does take time to stimulate your body’s parasympathetic (rest and digest) mode. That’s why it’s better to start a meditation practice when you’re already feeling calm.
Scientists still disagree on whether meditation can really benefit your physical health, and to what extent. However, the vast majority of people can benefit from establishing their own practice. Meditation is an effective way to work through negative emotions, improve sleep, reduce stress, increase self-awareness and experience mindfulness. The more you encourage your parasympathetic system to take over, the calmer and more relaxed you’ll feel—and the better your heart health will be.
How to start a meditation practice
There are dozens of ways to meditate, depending on your preferences and spiritual beliefs. While meditation can be an excellent tool for getting in touch with your spirituality, you don’t have to believe in chakras or spirit guides to enjoy a good session. At its most basic, meditation is sitting quietly and focusing on what you’re experiencing in this present moment (mindfulness).
To get started, you might look for guided meditations on YouTube or wellness apps: there are hundreds of free meditations for every possible circumstance. (Pro tip: some yoga routines function as meditative sessions.) Keep going until you find someone whose voice and technique is soothing to you.
Next, commit to meditating every day—but it’s okay to start small. Even a five-minute meditation in the morning will help you relieve stress and improve your heart health. As you become more experienced, you might find that these meditation sessions naturally become longer.
That’s it. As your meditation practice builds, you might want to try new techniques like breathwork, affirmations and guided visualizations.
Tips and tricks
Just like diet and exercise, meditation can be tricky at first. Here are some tips and tricks to help you get started:
- Wandering mind: Don’t worry if your mind wanders—it happens to everyone. Guided meditations can help you stay on track.
- Boredom: Sometimes meditation can feel boring. Not everyone has a comforting, transcendental experience on their first try (or ever). Setting a timer can help you stick to your time goals.
- Focus objects: Some people find it’s easier to focus on an object, like a candle flame or staring at a tree. The idea is to be fully in the moment, rather than running through your mental to-do list the whole time. If objects or nature help, try those.
- Schedule: Commit to a real schedule, such as, “I will meditate for ten minutes every day before bed.” Don’t let temporary setbacks or missed days discourage you from trying again.
Consistency is the key to getting the most out of your meditation practice, especially if you have chronic stress. Meditation is a skill, and each session builds upon the previous for a positive cumulative effect. If you’re committed to heart health, you owe it to yourself to try meditation: it might just change your life.