It seems many of us are experiencing heightened stress and anxiety these days. That’s not all that surprising, given the rising number of COVID-19 cases in many communities and the continued stressors that come with working from home, supporting kids in virtual learning and, of course, the worry that we, or a loved one, will become ill with the virus.
Research supports this consensus. The American Psychology Association’s annual Stress in America survey found that nearly eight in 10 Americans say the pandemic is a significant source of stress. Another poll, from the American Psychiatric Association, found that one in three Americans say the COVID-19 pandemic is having a serious impact on their mental health.
To cope, some of us are turning to less-than-ideal habits, such as binge-watching TV, eating junk food or drinking alcohol.
Abby Lott, PhD, psychologist and researcher at Emory Brain Health Center, suggests a healthier habit: meditation and mindfulness. Learn more about these two skills, including how to begin your practice and their health benefits.
What is Meditation and Mindfulness?
Meditation and mindfulness may sound similar, but they are not interchangeable terms.
“Mindfulness is just being aware in the present moment in a non-judgmental way,” she says. “That can look like a lot of different things but it is surprisingly hard and challenging to do.”
You can do anything mindfully: take a shower, go for a walk or even wash dishes. The key is to stay in the moment and pay attention to the sights, sounds, smells and colors around you.
Meditation is one way to be present in the moment. It’s a very focused approach, and often revolves around breathing or a mantra.
Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness
Research on meditation and mindfulness is growing. From 1995-1997, there was only one randomized controlled trial that investigated meditation. That number jumped to 216 randomized controlled studies from 2013-2015.
These studies have pointed to the clear benefits of meditation. Meditation can help:
- Reduce pain
- Manage depression or anxiety
- Enhance creativity
- Improve sleep
- Improve focus and concentration
- Increase work productivity
Another fascinating area of meditation research indicates meditation can even help thicken regions of the brain associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.
Mindfulness, too, has many benefits, starting with allowing yourself to have a more positive outlook.
“The idea of mindfulness is being in the present moment and experiencing things as they are – without trying to change things, rush through them or hold onto them,” explains Dr. Lott. “This can actually reduce negative experiences and enhance your ability to enjoy things in a different way.”
How to Practice Meditation
It may feel overwhelming or even impossible to carve out time in our busy, hectic days to practice a mindful skill like meditation.
“One of my biggest recommendations is that you need to embrace the chaos and be flexible in your practice,” says Dr. Lott.
Start with one minute of meditation, perhaps first thing in the morning.
“Give yourself just one minute when it feels like five minutes is too much and see what happens,” Dr. Lott encourages. “Pay attention to what’s happening: notice what’s going on in your body, where your mind is going and where your anxieties lie. Even one minute of meditation makes a difference.”
Here are a few other tips to keep in mind as you start your practice:
- Find a comfortable, quiet space
- Set a time limit
- Notice your body – how your arms, legs, head and feet feel
- Follow your breath as you inhale and exhale
- When your mind wanders, redirect it back to your breath and body
- At the end of your practice, notice how you feel and pay attention to your surroundings
One of the most common misconceptions is that when you meditate, you shouldn’t have any thoughts.
“Meditation is not about how many times your mind wanders or how many thoughts you have,” Dr. Lott says. “It’s actually about that act of noticing non-judgmentally and bringing your attention back to the present.”
Dr. Lott often compares meditation to exercise. “The act of gently bringing yourself back to the present is like doing reps in any workout,” she notes. “That practice is what strengthens you and enables you to be more present in your daily life.”
Give meditation and mindfulness a try. It may not change your circumstances, but, as Dr. Lott says, it may help lead to less suffering.
Learn more about the psychiatric conditions and services offered at Emory Healthcare or call 404-778-7777 for additional information.
About Your Fantastic Mind
Emory University and the Emory Brain Health Center have partnered with Georgia Public Broadcasting (GPB) on a television series, Your Fantastic Mind, which features compelling stories about brain-related health and wellness.
Your Fantastic Mind began airing Season 2 in September 2020 on GPB’s statewide television network. The Emmy-winning news magazine-style show highlights patient stories and reports on cutting-edge science and clinical advances in neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry, sleep medicine and rehabilitation medicine.
For a complete listing of Season 2 episode air dates and times, visit emoryhealthcare.org/yfm.
Season 1 of Your Fantastic Mind examined topics including sleep apnea, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, PTSD, Huntington’s disease, migraines and video gaming disorder, which has been designated a mental health disorder by the World Health Organization.
Jaye Watson is the show’s host, writer and executive producer. She is an Emmy- and Edward R. Murrow award-winning veteran Atlanta journalist and video producer for the Emory Brain Health Center.
Emory Brain Health Center
The Emory Brain Health Center uniquely integrates neurology, neurosurgery, psychiatry and behavioral sciences, rehabilitation medicine and sleep medicine and transforms patient-centered care for brain and spinal cord conditions through research and discovery.
Bringing these specialties together allows more than 400 researchers and clinicians from different areas to collaborate to predict, prevent, treat or cure devastating diseases and disorders of the brain more rapidly. These collaborations are demonstrated in numerous centers and programs across the Brain Health Center, including the Epilepsy Center, Pituitary Center, Stroke Center, Treatment-Resistant Depression Program and Veterans Program.
Emory’s multidisciplinary approach is transforming the world’s understanding of the vast frontiers of the brain, harnessing imagination and discovery to address 21st century challenges.
Learn more about comprehensive, diagnostic and innovative treatment options at the Emory Brain Health Center.