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Beginners Guide To Understanding & Mastering Meditation

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 24 May 2020
Hits: 2633

Earlier this year we asked one of our trainers Kim Logan to write a detailed article about the various strategies she successfully used to improve her mental health, during a very tough time in her life. In that article (Changing mindset is the key to mental health) Kim discussed the value of using meditation as a way to control your emotions and thoughts to bring you back to the present moment. While many people are familiar with the concept of meditation there are many who have never tried it before and unsure of what it all means. So we asked Kim to follow up that article with a simple explanation of what meditation is all about, and more importantly how to learn meditation if you have never tried it before. This is the first in a three part series of articles discussing how to go from "Zero to Hero" with health and fitness methods. I hope you enjoy it.

Already before I even write this article I can feel the collective sceptical pressure on me from every person thinking some version of the thought “meditation is nonsense”. I fully understand where this idea comes from as meditation isn’t usually explained very well and the purpose of meditation isn’t clear to people unfamiliar with it.

Before I properly learnt how to meditate and what the intention of meditation was I struggled hard to mediate. I would sit cross legged on the floor with thumb and pointer finger pressed together making ridiculous “om” noises. After about 30 seconds I get bored and just stop because I couldn’t sit still or clear my mind I was always thinking! Which was very frustrating, and made me think I just couldn’t do it. Sound familiar?

Since that point, I spent considerable time researching and learning what it really means to meditate. I am happy to say that I am now at a place where I understand how to meditate, and know exactly what it means specifically to me and my health.

For me, meditation has been a big part of my journey to improve my mental health and has had a massive impact on reducing my experiences of anxiety and by extension depression. That’s not to claim the meditation is cure-all but it can help you improve your overall mental health.

What Is The Purpose Of Meditation?

Previously mediation has been described as “clearing your mind” which seems completely impossible and it kind of is. Your mind is meant to think just like ears are meant to hear and your eyes are meant to see, you can’t clear the world of sound so your ears to stop hearing nor can you stop yourself from thinking.

Depending on what kind of meditation you do there are different purposes for each, but the overall goal for any mediation is to be able to separate yourself from thoughts. The idea is not get lost in the overwhelming flow of chatter running through your mind, especially if you struggle with any variation of anxiety this can be difficult however meditation can teach you how to choose which thoughts are important and worth hanging onto and which you can let go.

My personal experience with meditation helping me with anxiety is I use to have an problem with something called “thought binges” where I would grab onto a thought in my mind and obsessively loop that thought around and around in my head leading my down what I called a thought vortex. I’d think myself into bad, sad or stressed mood which would go on for anywhere between 10 minutes and 2 hours, can you imagine being stuck on one stressful thought for 2 hours? How much it brings your whole mood down?

Just like any other version of binge whether that be food or Netflix, my thought binges were completely mindless and there wasn’t any point to them. I wasn’t trying figure out a solution to a complex problem or even creating hypotheticals. It was just one straight thought being replayed over and over in my mind.

The physical outcome of this was I would end up with a racing heart rate and restricted breathing feeling like I had a tight chest and completely drained of energy. This is how stressful thinking can dramatically impact your body physically. This happens because the brain can’t actually tell the difference between a real life threat and perceived threat, which is exactly what anxiety is a stress response to a perceived threat.

You may know logically that public speaking isn’t a threatening to you but that might not stop you from feeling a very strong stress response in the lead up to your talk. Nervousness can quickly escalate to anxiety if there is an underlying fear or uncertainty that hasn’t been addressed beforehand. Many people the idea of talking in front of a group of people is one of the most terrifying experiences they could endure.

How Does a Stress Response Work?

When we experience a stress response our body goes into “fight, flight or freeze” mode triggered by the sympathetic nervous system which is where I brain perceives a threat and our unconscious mind triggers one of these responses to get us away or protect ourselves from this threat. If we were out in a jungle and a wild animal came across our path our brain has to figure out how to protect ourselves from this animal.

In one of Nick’s articles from a few years ago, how to reduce stress he referred to a great book called – “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers” that shows how animals use the stress response more efficiently than humans. This is a great book to check out if you really want to understand the science  behind the stress response. 

Our body will release cortisol from the adrenal glands which helps supply glucose to the bloodstream, there will be a release of adrenaline which increases the heart rate and breathing rate to provide your muscles and brain with energy from the glucose and oxygen to either run from or fight this animal.

This is a good response to have when faced with a real short term threat because it get us away from danger, however the dangers we face these days have changed from wild animals to career uncertainty, money troubles and relationship issues which are typically long term ongoing problems.

These ongoing stressors we experience are leaving us pressing on the fight, flight or freeze gas pedal leading us to experiencing a build-up of cortisol in our brain and muscles because our stressor don’t require us to escape or fight a dangerous predator.

The long term effect of cortisol build up is believed to trigger an effect that creates pathways linking the hippocampus (responsible for learning and memory) and the amygdala (responsible for experiencing the perception of anger fear and sadness) leading to a predisposed loop of fight or flight. This is only one small part of the impact that constant stress has on the brain and body, ongoing stress can impact how parts of our brain grow or shrink, it can negatively impact digestion, heart health and seriously the list goes on. 

How Does Mediation Reduce Anxiety?

When you start learning to meditate one of the key components is breathing, taking controlled slow breaths triggers the parasympathetic nervous system which is responsible for calming you down after a stressful experience, the vagus nerve is triggered through taking slow deep breaths which then it slows your heart and breathing rate down returning the flow of blood to all areas of your body and conserve energy among other responses that help your body function properly.

Breathing slowly essentially sends a message to your brain that everything is okay so our brain won’t keep searching for danger and way out.

To read more about breathing I suggest to read this detailed article - Everything you need to know about breathing correctly

How Does Meditation Help With Depression?

The practise of meditation and learning to monitor our thoughts can create awareness of how we speak to ourselves which creates the beliefs we hold about how we are and what were capable of achieving.

Meditation has been linked to impacting the function and health of the prefrontal cortex which is the part of the brain that is responsible for planning, behaviour, personality, expression, decision making, and moderating social behaviours. Someone experiencing depression has an overactive prefrontal cortex as well as amygdala which can create the experience of fear, anger or sadness in how we see ourselves or our future.

The way we speak to ourselves influences our state, if we think negatively about ourselves we probably don’t think we’re worth or very capable of much. How we talk about ourselves impacts our beliefs, and our beliefs impacts our actions towards ourselves.

If we don’t believe we are worth much why would do anything to care for ourselves?

People who think like this usually don’t take care of themselves. This leads to low mood because they’re not participating in activities that can increase mood, like socialising and exercise, which then leads to severe depression. By becoming aware of you think about yourself, you have the capacity to take control of the thoughts we have about ourselves and transform them into empowering thoughts and beliefs.

This is one reason why exercise is a powerful way to treat depression in that it helps people to feel good about themselves. You can read more about this in the article – What you need to know about exercise and mental health

How To Start Meditating?

Above is a picture of myself meditating.

Learning to meditate isn’t the easiest skill to start learning even though is seems like doing nothing so it should be easy. One reason why it feels hard is because it’s the process of developing our focus but because of our fast paced multiple devices culture we lose our ability to focus on one thing for an extended time-frame.

I recommend starting with guided meditations because they help keep your attention and give gentle reminders throughout the practice. Whether that’s from YouTube, podcast, or an app on your phone, there are many to choose from that can help you get started.

My favourite app that taught me how to meditate the best and keep a routine with meditation is called “Smiling Mind”.

I recommend it to everyone who wants to get into meditation because they have very easy to follow programs, with a great intro to meditation that starts with a 30 second meditation practice. I love it because it is low pressure and progresses slowly, they talk you through everything. They offer different kinds of meditation that focuses on helping you find what works best for you, they even have active walking meditations for the people who struggle to sit still. For the numbers person it tracks how much you mediate every day and can be synced to the health app on smart phones.

I think it’s worth trying different apps and videos because different people like different things you may not like the voice of the person on smiling mind or you may find you want to focus on a specific kind of mediation, find what works for you.

Different Types of Meditation

If you’re not ready to jump into a practice you can start with mindfulness.

I know it’s a word that had become associated with selling a certain kind of lifestyle or image mostly on Instagram to millennials aspiring to achieve their “best self” that is to be honest cringy.

However it is a real practice that is actually does help improve out mental state and awareness, mindfulness is simply the practice of being conscious and aware of something.

Mindfulness can be used in day to day life whether that’s you working at your desk getting lost in thought and simply catching yourself and taking a moment to be aware of your surroundings to pull yourself back to the present moment. You could also use it when you’re out walking becoming aware of the noises around you to pull yourself out of thought.

The way I like to use mindfulness is when I’m exercising I often have my headphones on but throughout a lot of the workout I don’t have anything playing, I use headphones as a way to block out the world around me so I can be full focused and aware of my movement so I can put my full attention on each muscle and what it’s doing as I find I’m easily distracted by background noise.

Don’t Forget To Eat Well and Exercise

For many this may seem obvious but we cannot ignore the role that quality nutrition and exercise have on our ability to control stress. Meditation and mindfulness is great, but if you eat poorly and never exercise your body will still be in a constant state of stress.

A great quote from the book called “Spark’ by John Ratey MD states,

"Regular aerobic activity calms the body, so much that it can handle more stress before the serious response involving heart rate and stress hormones kick in. It raises the trigger point of the physical reaction. In the brain, the mild stress of exercise fortifies the infrastructure of our nerve cells by activating genes to produce certain proteins that protect the cells against damage and disease. It also raises our neurons stress threshold."

"Research from kinesiologists to epidemiologists shows again and again that the better your fitness level, the better your brain works. Charles Hillman provided that fit children score better than unfit children on cognitive tests of executive function; Arthur Kramer showed that getting in shape increases brain volume of older adults; and population studies including tens of thousands of people of every age show that higher fitness levels relate directly to positive mood and lower levels of anxiety and stress."

To keep this article from going too long I urge you to download the reports below that detail all you need to know regarding exercise and nutrition. You will also find our INDEX PAGE that features over 200 of our best articles in an easy to reference index an invaluable resource for everything to do with health and fitness.

  

Conclusion

I hope this article has given you a better understanding of meditation and given you some great ideas of how to get started if you are trying it for the first time. There is really no way to do it wrong as such, it is more to do with the intention and commitment to taking care of yourself that matters. Find what works for you out of the many ideas I have shared with you in this article and you will go from “Zero to Hero” in no time!

If you live in Melbourne and would like to know more about our personal training programs click the image below to request a free consultation.

About The Author

Kim Logan is a Personal Trainer at No Regrets Personal Training and has extensive experience in the area of mental health. Kim has been in the fitness industry since 2011 and loves to combine the benefits of a strong physical workout with a mental health approach

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, Level 2 Holistic Life Coach, Accredited Tai-Chi instructor, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specializes in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

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