As anyone who’s ever had that frazzled, fried feeling can attest, stress makes you feel pretty darn awful. But recent research reveals that it isn’t just exhausting — it can actually contribute to a host of chronic conditions too, including depression and heart disease. “Stress causes chemical reactions within your body that lead to inflammation, and that can contribute to and even trigger disease,” explains Elizabeth Ricanati, MD, medical director for the Cleveland Clinic’s Lifestyle 180 program. “Plus, it’s common to try to reduce stress by making other unhealthy choices, like drinking alcohol or overeating, which can make health problems even worse.”
Simply telling yourself not to stress isn’t going to do the trick. But that’s not to say you’re destined to remain a ball of nerves. Research shows that one of the most effective ways to reduce stress is through meditation. “The human mind is a factory of negative thoughts,” says psychotherapist Jean Fain, an instructor at Harvard Medical School. “It’s difficult to stop thinking negative thoughts or ignore them. But meditation can allow you to be less influenced by those thoughts, and that can dramatically lower your stress levels.” Meditation, Fain says, allows you to see less-than-healthy feelings — like “I’m never going to get this project done” or “I can’t stop overeating” — for what they are: thoughts, rather than facts.
Once you begin meditating, “You’ll breathe more deeply, feel more relaxed, think more clearly and take better care of yourself,” Fain says. “A regular meditation practice makes other healthy habits — like exercising, sleeping and eating healthfully — not only more doable, but more appealing too.” That may explain why a wealth of research has shown that meditation has amazing health effects: Not only does it decrease stress, anxiety and depression, it’s been shown to reduce the amount of disease-causing free radicals in the body and reduce cardiovascular risk factors like high blood pressure and high levels of LDL (unhealthy) cholesterol. Here’s how to cleanse your mind of negative thoughts with meditation:
Take five. Many people fear meditation because they think that it involves sitting in silence for an hour at a time — which, let’s face it, not only sounds difficult but is nearly impossible to fit into a super-busy schedule. But even taking five minutes out of your day to sit quietly while focusing on your breathing (which should be deep and steady but comfortable) can reduce stress levels significantly, Fain says. “The act of not doing anything can have a profoundly relaxing effect on the body and mind,” she explains. As you become more accustomed to meditating, try to fit in five to 10 minutes of meditation two to three times a day.
Close your eyes and clear your mind: If you’re ready to move past deep breathing, Fain suggests trying metta, or “loving kindness meditation,” which is one of the easier (yet effective) types of meditation. In metta meditation, you sit silently in a comfortable position, close your eyes and repeat, “May I be healthy, may I be happy, may I be fully at ease.” After a few minutes, change the pronoun to you: May you be healthy, etc. Then, after a few more minutes, switch the pronoun to we, Fain instructs. “The goal is to move your focus away from negative, self-centered thinking and toward loving, peaceful thoughts.” For more information on expanding your meditation practice, Fain recommends Narayan Liebenson Grady’s free online lectures, which you can find here.