If you feel aches and pain, you might find yourself reaching for a bottle of pain relievers more than you’d like. But there is a free and simple way to feel better: meditation.
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Meditation is a great tool that can help ease pain — and can reduce your overall stress, too.
What is meditation?
Meditation is focusing your attention on one thing for a period of time, says lifestyle medical expert Jane Ehrman, MEd.
“When you’re stressed, your body triggers the release of stress hormones, causing inflammation, and increasing pain to your already irritated joints,” Ehrman says. Meditation shifts your focus to something quiet and calm, reducing inflammation and pain. And Ehrman says when you can get into that quieter state of mind through meditation, your body isn’t releasing stress hormones into your bloodstream.
“Meditation can help your brain release endorphins, natural pain relievers,” she says. Muscles and tissues around your joints are more relaxed, and your brain can be in a calmer state so you’ll feel less pain.
One study showed that mindfulness-based stress reduction, which combines meditation and yoga, was more effective than drugs and surgery for alleviating chronic low-back pain. In addition to reducing the release of stress hormones, with practice, meditation can increase your pain tolerance, lower hypertension and deepen respirations, Ehrman says.
“You’re shifting your focus away from the pain,” she says. “Your mind responds to what you give attention. Meditation helps you to use your mind in a powerful, helpful, positive way. ”
How do I begin to meditate?
Getting started with meditation is simple.
Sit comfortably or lie down in a quiet place with few interruptions. Close your eyes and focus on your breath.
“Breathe normally and notice the rhythm of your breaths—your chest expanding and contracting. On deeper breaths, focus your mind on letting go of bodily tension as you exhale slowly,” Ehrman says.
Begin by meditating for just five minutes. You can use a kitchen timer or the timer on your smart phone or watch. Practice meditating a few times a week to start, working up to 15 or 20 minutes. During practice, when you notice your thoughts beginning to wander, redirect your attention back to your breathing.
“Meditation is a practice,” Ehrman emphasizes. Your body and mind experience benefits even when it feels as though you didn’t meditate well.
“There is no perfection to achieve, just a practice of being aware and present,” she says. “Thoughts coming and going are normal,” she says. “Observe the thought, without judgment or engaging with it, and go back to your breathing.”
Ehrman says within three weeks of daily meditation for 15 minutes to 20 minutes, you can rewire your brain to be less stressed and more responsive. “And then,” she says “you are more present, calmer and can function better.”