Stress is an important risk factor for a number of health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. Meditation is one of the most effective tools you can use to manage your stress—and it helps reduce anxiety and depression as well, which often co-occur with stress.
Although meditation was, just a couple of decades ago, considered a novel practice in the United States, it has been used in Eastern religions for millennia to connect with spirituality—much in the same way contemplative prayer is used in the Christian tradition. In recent years, as a result of scientific research on meditation, it’s become a mainstream practice in the West as a complementary treatment therapy to help reduce stress and anxiety, relieve pain, and promote better sleep.
Here, we look at what scientific research says about the effectiveness of meditation for stress management—and how to get started with your own meditation practice.
What science says about meditation for reducing stress
A groundbreaking study by Massachusetts General Hospital in 2011 was the first to document the physical effects of meditation on the brain. Participants underwent a pre-meditation MRI two weeks before and two weeks after attending an eight-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program, during which they spent an average of 27 minutes each day practicing mindfulness meditation exercises.
The post-meditation MRIs showed increases in gray matter in four brain regions that play major roles in emotional regulation, self-awareness, memory, learning, introspection, and automatic body functions like blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing. Researchers also found decreases in the volume of gray matter in the amygdala—the part of the brain that governs anxiety, fear, and stress. None of these differences in pre- and post-MRIs were present in the non-meditating control group.
A 2015 scientific review found that meditation affects the activity of brain chemicals, or neurotransmitters, that play a key role in stress, anxiety, and depression, including:
- GABA, which promotes feelings of calm and wellbeing. Meditation increases blood flow to the prefrontal cortex, which activates the brain region that produces GABA.
- Serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter. Low levels of serotonin are associated with anxiety and depression, and meditation increases serotonin production.
- Norepinephrine, a stress hormone associated with anxiety. Meditation reduces norepinephrine levels in the blood.
People who meditate regularly have increased levels of GABA and serotonin and lower levels of norepinephrine—even when they’re not meditating. Meditation also increases melatonin, which governs your body’s circadian rhythms and promotes sleep, but only immediately after meditating.
An older study published in the journal Cognitive Brain Research found that active meditation corresponds to a 65 percent increase in the release of the neurotransmitter dopamine, which produces feelings of pleasure.
A 2014 study by Johns Hopkins University showed that a half hour of meditation each day reduced some symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as antidepressant medications, and a study published in the Journal of Addiction Medicine found that daily meditation improves self-awareness and promotes a mindful response to stressors—even when you aren’t actively meditating—to help you better manage stress levels.
If you’re trying to quit smoking, drinking, or bingeing to improve your health, meditation may not only help reduce the stress that can trigger cravings, but it can also help ease cravings for alcohol, nicotine, and food, according to a review of 30 studies on meditation.
How to meditate to reduce stress and anxiety
Mindfulness meditation is one of many different types of meditation, and it’s the most widely practiced for the purpose of reducing stress, anxiety, and depression.
Most types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation, have four elements in common:
- A quiet place with few distractions
- A comfortable position—sitting, lying down, standing, walking
- Focused attention
- A relaxed, open attitude
Use the information below as your guide, and start by meditating for 10 to 15 minutes a day. As you become more comfortable, increase your time by five-minute increments until you’re up to 20 to 30 minutes each day. Daily practice is best, even if some days you only have time to meditate for five minutes.
If you wish to meditate for longer than a half hour, find a meditation guide or community you can practice with—even many smaller cities have meditation centers and studios, both online and brick-and-mortar.
Here’s how to meditate:
1. Choose your quiet place, and get comfortable
Although you can meditate anywhere, a quiet place is best. Ideally, this is a place where you naturally feel relaxed and comfortable, like your home office, sitting room, or bedroom.
The quieter and more soothing the environment, the easier it will be to stay focused. Dim the lights, set the right temperature or grab a blanket, and close the door. Set a timer on your phone—preferably one with a gentle alarm. If you don’t like the silence, put on some non-intrusive music at a low volume—binaural beats fit the bill perfectly and may even have positive effects on memory, creativity, anxiety, and mood.
You may have a hard time meditating if you’re uncomfortable. Find a comfortable spot to sit or lie down, and situate yourself in a relaxed position—but with good posture. Keep your back straight, chest open, shoulders relaxed.
2. Start with a few deep breaths to relax and “clear” your mind
It’s easy to take breathing for granted, but along with the beating of your heart, it’s fundamental to life—it supplies your blood with the oxygen that fuels your body. Most of us tend to breathe shallowly from the chest, which limits the expansion of the diaphragm—and the amount of oxygen your body gets.
Once you’re comfortably situated, take a couple of slow, deep breaths. Inhale through your nose, directing the air toward your diaphragm so that your belly rises. At the top of the breath, pause for a moment, then exhale slowly through your nose or mouth—whichever feels most natural to you. Once you’ve been meditating for a while, you may find it interesting to explore various methods of breathing, including diaphragmatic breathing, or deep breathing, which is shown to have numerous positive effects on the mind and body.
As you exhale, relax your muscles, and imagine your thoughts dissipating into the air. If something particular is on your mind that feels distracting, let it go with the agreement that you’ll come back to it when you’re done meditating.
3. Turn your attention to your breath
Settle into a rhythm of breathing that’s comfortable and natural for you—you’ll continue breathing this way throughout your meditation session.
Gently turn your focus to your breathing. Feel the air moving in through your nose, filling your lungs and expanding your abdomen. Then, feel it moving out of your lungs, back through your nose or mouth, and into the room as your abdomen deflates like a balloon. Keep the attention on your breathing relaxed—don’t focus so hard that you’re clenching your eyes shut or tensing your muscles.
4. Let thoughts come and go
A misconception about meditation is that you have to clear thoughts out of your mind and keep them out. This isn’t the case—and if it were, nobody would be successful at meditation, because thoughts moving through your mind as you meditate is where the magic happens.
Keep your relaxed focus on your breathing. Soon, you’ll realize you’re actively thinking about something else. As soon as you become aware of the thought—and the emotions and physical sensations that may come with it—regard it without judgment or reaction, and gently move your focus back to your breathing. This will happen again and again, and each time it does, acknowledge the thought, and gently redirect your attention to your breath.
Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh explains mindfulness meditation in two sentences: “Feelings come and go like clouds on a windy day. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”
It may help to visualize your thoughts and feelings as clouds moving across the sky and out of sight, or as leaves in a stream floating peacefully by. The most important thing is to keep bringing your focus back to your breathing.
Need a little help? Try guided meditation
Meditation is like exercise for the brain, and just like physical exercise, it takes practice. In the beginning, you’ll likely get distracted by your thoughts and emotions more easily. If you feel too distracted, or aren’t sure you’re “doing it right,” try a guided meditation that walks you through it. Experienced and new meditators alike find value in guided meditation, and you’ll find scores of them , both secular and spiritual, on sites like Headspace, Calm, and Ten Percent Happier.
Over time, as you continue your meditation practice, you’ll begin to recognize distractions quickly and learn to let them pass by easily. Soon, you may even notice that this awareness of your thoughts and emotions—and the ability to react to them more objectively—will carry into the rest of your day-to-day life. By learning to observe, rather than engage with, emotions like stress, anxiety, and depression, you can develop more and more control over your own happiness.
Forward can help you manage stress, too
Mindfulness meditation is a powerful tool for reducing stress and improving your overall health and quality of life. Forward’s focus on prevention encompasses physical and mental health. A range of assessments guide the creation of a personalized plan that incorporates tools like meditation, nutrition, exercise, supplements, and in some cases, medication to help you reduce your stress and improve your mental health. If stress is causing problems for your health, relationships, work, or quality of life, we can help you create a path to better mental health moving forward.