In the first of our What’s the deal with… series we welcome the lovely Helen Morris to take us through meditation in more detail.
Anyone feeling anxious, stressed, depressed or burnt out? I would hazard a guess that the majority of us are (because, life). And it’s no surprise – living in the relentless pace of the 21st century is incredibly draining. The good news is, that meditation can help you deal with stress, rewire your brain for happiness, help you chill the f*ck out and generally be a nicer, healthier person.
A few years ago, I used to thrive on stress and adrenaline. I was working for an insanely busy PR agency under immense pressure and self-medicating with alcohol, caffeine and sugar to deal with it all and get myself through the week. I had little sense of who I was, what I wanted or what being healthy meant. I was depressed and anxious and I didn’t even know it; I had normalised feeling pretty rubbish every day.
Nowadays, after a lot of trial and error with various adventures in how to look after myself properly, I’m happy to say that things look a lot different. I am much healthier, mentally and physically, run my own wellness marketing company, have trained as a yoga teacher and have a clearer sense of purpose. I still have occasional anxiety, but it is much less intense than it used to be and I can now deal with it before it becomes debilitating.
By far one of the most profound tools I have used has been learning Vedic meditation with Will Williams Meditation and sticking to a daily meditation practice. If someone had told me before I learnt Vedic meditation (a simple technique rooted in ancient India) that repeating a mantra, silently in my head for twenty minutes twice a day was going to completely transform my health, happiness, confidence, productivity, self esteem, relationships, career and body image – I would have walked away thinking they were some delusional hippie on acid or something. But all of the former is true – it even cured my IBS!
So how does meditation have such a powerful effect? Well, it all comes down to a part of the brain called the amygdala. This is our fear centre – it’s responsible for the flight or fight response, or survival mechanism in the body. This was really useful when we were cave men and women having to deal with occasional real threats like sabre tooth tigers, as the fight or flight floods our bodies with stress hormones and adrenaline to prepare us to fight the threat or run away for survival.
The issue now is that this same response is being fired off multiple times a day – sometimes up to 50! Our 21st century sabre tooth tigers are now in the form of emails, car alarms, arguments, deadlines, delayed trains etc etc. Combine this with the over-stimulation of our nervous systems via excessive caffeine, blue light from smartphones and laptops and lack of sleep and you can begin to start feeling sorry for your body.
You can also start to understand why so many of us are feeling anxious or suffering with stress-related conditions (migraines, sleep disorders, mental health issues etc) – we have all of these stress hormones pumping round our systems all day and hijacking our health.
The good news is – there is hope! When you practice meditation, and in particular Vedic meditation, you have a personalised mantra that acts a vehicle to transport your nervous system into a profound state of rest (33% deeper than the deepest state of sleep). It also reduces levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) by 30%.
It’s like a shower for the brain – with time, your nervous system frees itself of accumulated stress. The area of your brain responsible for planning, prioritising, organising (the pre-frontal cortex) actually starts to thicken. So you become more efficient, productive, better able to switch between tasks and fly through your to do list. You become less affected by stressful events. The levels of neurotransmitters (happy hormones) such as dopamine and serotonin also naturally start to rise. You become happier, for no reason! You sleep better, have more energy and start tuning in to who you really are, the true essence of your self – beyond society’s expectations and work / social / life demands.
Meditation has equipped me with a very practical tool to deal with everything life throws at me. I can have a difficult day, come home, do my 20 minute meditation and then I have wiped the day’s stress away and started again with a fresh slate.
If you’re interested in seeing how meditation can help you, my top tips are:
1. See what resonates with you – I had tried various different methods like Buddhist and mindfulness but nothing stuck until I learnt Vedic meditation and had support from a teacher. Have a look around for what’s available in your area and chat to different teachers. Any teacher worth their salt will take time to answer all your questions.
2. If you can’t get to a course, there are lots of guided meditations available online. I used to listen to Linda Hall to help me get off to sleep every night.
3. You don’t have to change your lifestyle to meditate – there’s no need to give up alcohol, coffee or having fun! You can meditate on the bus, on your way into work, sitting up in bed and work it into your lifestyle to best support you.
4. Taking a mini-meditation break at around 3/4pm when your energy levels start to slump is a great way to refresh yourself and return to work more productive.