It wasn't so long ago that Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey was being mocked for his fasting and meditation regimen. But by the middle of 2020, with the pandemic in full swing, “meditation” was among the most-searched terms on Google.
Distance from our loved ones, social isolation and general feelings of fear and uncertainty saw cases of anxiety and depression skyrocket around the world – so much so that scientists coined a new term for it: COVID-19 anxiety syndrome.
Now, even as lockdowns and restrictions ease, the pandemic is continuing to affect mental health. Whether it's the loss of a job or a family member, the struggle of remote schooling, or simply living with day-to-day anxiety, for many of us, there is no acclimatising to the new normal.
Worryingly, it's not only adults who are reporting more stress and anxiety. According to the New York Times, mental health providers and hospitals across the US are witnessing a surge in teenagers visiting the emergency room with mental health problems. Even worse, the number of children under the age of 13 experiencing crisis is also on the rise.
How meditation can help
Today, it’s not just Jack Dorsey extolling the benefits of meditation. It's Michelle Obama, Bill Gates, Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry. It's companies like Nike, Google, and IBM.
What was once considered a wellness fad is now backed by scientific research. Neuroscientists have confirmed what Buddhist monks have known for millennia: practicing meditation has profound benefits on mental health. Studies show that meditation can ease depression, chronic pain and anxiety, and improve your quality of sleep. It can significantly reduce the release of the stress hormone cortisol.
Meditating for just ten minutes a day can also boost the brain’s ability to concentrate, and prevent age-related cognitive decline. Importantly, it can build emotional resilience, which is something we all need more of nowadays. Best of all, it's available to everyone.
Here's how to get started with meditation – and how to maintain it as a daily practice.
Get some guidance
The guidance of an experienced meditation teacher can be invaluable, especially if you’re getting started, though the global popularity of meditation has led to an upswell of mobile apps like Headspace (“your gym membership for the mind”), Calm, Chopra, Waking Up (launched by neuroscientist Sam Harris) and Aura, just to name a few. These apps are convenient, accessible and user-friendly, and offer high-calibre guided and unguided practices as well as courses, binaural beats and music playlists, and even goodnight stories read aloud by actors like Matthew McConaughey.
The ease and immediacy of being able to meditate on demand is a game changer. Subscription fees are reasonable, and most offer a free trial so you can find one that suits your needs.
Set the scene
Find somewhere you can sit or lie still for a few minutes, ideally somewhere silent and away from noise or interruptions. Put your phone on silent or switch off notifications. If you can, close the curtains or blinds, or dim the lights. Get comfortable – grab some pillows to prop up your body, or lie beneath a light blanket. If you feel particularly edgy, you can diffuse essential oils that have specific calming properties, or try a weighted eye mask.
Start with five minutes
If you’re new to meditation, an hour-long session can seem overwhelming but don't worry – it's not necessary to meditate that long to feel the benefits. Even just a few minutes of practice is an accomplishment. After getting used to five minutes, you might find you’re ready to dive deeper into a longer session.
Don’t try to switch off or empty your mind
It's normal that your mind will roam. Don't try to extinguish every mundane thought that pops into your head, simply acknowledge it, and gently return your focus to your breath. Placing a hand on your belly can help you feel more aware of each inhalation and exhalation and in tune with your body as it relaxes.
Try box breathing
Box breathing stimulates the parasympathetic (rest) nervous system and promotes feelings of relaxation. It's a simple yet effective way to reduce cortisol and calm the body – little wonder the technique is used by elite U.S. Navy SEALs. To try it, simply inhale slowly and deeply through your nose to the count of four, hold for four seconds, and then exhale from your mouth for four seconds. Wait for a count of four, and repeat.
According to BJ Fogg, a behavioural scientist at Stanford University and author of Tiny Habits: The Small Changes That Change Everything, forming a new habit is about starting small and being consistent. Establish a moment in your day, whether it's before you get out of bed in the morning, or during your coffee break to practice. Keeping your meditation short but regular will make it seem more achievable and eventually, it will become part of your everyday routine.
Take a mental health day
If you find that you're putting it off, try taking a day off. Setting aside a day to meditate without the pressure or constraints of work or a commute can often be exactly what you need to get started. Even if your workplace doesn't yet recognise the value of a duvet day or a sad day, go ahead and take a sick day. Self-care is not selfish. Consider it mental housekeeping.
Meditate with your kids
Encourage your kids to join you and build meditation into your family routine. Headspace is particularly good for age-group specific meditations and wind-downs. For the little ones, the Headspace series on Netflix is a wonderful way to introduce them to the concept of meditation at bedtime, with each short episode accompanied by colourful animations and soothing music.
And finally, don't give up
Meditation takes practice. According to behavioural experts, it takes time to form a new healthy habit (on average, 66 days) but they form faster when we do them more often and remove any obstacles. Go easy on yourself, and give it time.