by Dr. Rick Morris
2002 was terrible, a year filled with stress and culminating with my heart seeming to jump right out of my chest.
The cardiologist confirmed my assumption—atrial fibrillation. An irregular heart beat usually effecting older and less conditioned people. In fact, my heart should have been great! I’ve been an athlete my entire life completing such events as the Ironman Triathlon and several marathons. Oh well, I learned that it also effects those who train too much. Moderation was never my thing.
The doctor prescribed medicines—they didn’t help. He then suggested, “A sure-fire, simple surgery”, but being reluctant, I held off for 10 years opting for safer, natural remedies; still my condition worsened. Eventually I acquiesced to the surgery, but that didn’t work either. The doctor’s were undeterred and suggested another “sure-fire, surgery”. There must be a better way.
Having just read a study demonstrating the benefits of meditation on atrial fibrillation, I decided to give it a serious try. Although I dabbled in it before, this time I’d dedicate myself to two, 15-20 minutes sessions each day. Somehow, I’d make the time.
Within a few weeks, my “a-fib” attacks were less frequent and usually less severe. 2 ½ years later, I’m still improved. Meditation was the most effective approach of all those I tried; yet was never recommended by my doctors. I will not make that mistake with my patients.
Dr. Rick Morris Director of The Morris Spinal Stenosis and Disc Center
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years and is a central part of many religions and philosophies. This probably explains why science has been slow to study its effects and even slower in implementing it in treatment. Several major research centers, including The National Academy of Science, Mayo Clinic, The National Institute of Health and The American Heart Association have documented its benefits as do many of the world’s most successful people and businesses, including:
- Bill Ford, Executive Chairman, Ford Motor Company
- Oprah Winfrey, CEO, Harpo Productions
- Arianna Huffington, President, Huffington Post
- Rupert Murdoch, CEO, News Corp
- The executives leaders at Google, AOL, Apple and Aetna
What Are The Proven Benefits of Meditation?
10-20 minutes of meditation, one to two times/day, is shown to:
- Decrease stress and anxiety levels (including lowering stress hormones like Cortisol).
- Increase “neuroplasticity” (i.e. your brains ability to change, grow and adapt), thereby, decreasing or reversing brain aging, thickening the cerebral cortex and improving learning and concentration.
- Decrease emotional “reactivity” and volatility.
- Increase telomerase activity, which slows cell aging and decreases the risk of obesity and depression.
- Lower blood pressure.
- Slow disease progression in HIV patients.
- Decrease inflammation and pain perception (possibly more than morphine).
- Improve heart diseases (including atrial fibrillation).
How, Physiologically, Does Meditation Work (…for the nerds)?
The worrying centers in the brain are located in the prefrontal lobe (specifically in the The Anterior Cingulate Gyrus and Ventromedial Prefrontal Cortex). These areas rationalize stressful situations and determine their importance. They underperform in panic disorders and phobias, and work overtime in Generalized Anxiety Disorders causing rumination and excessive, mental preoccupation.
In new or severely, fearful situations, another worrying center is activated. It’s located in the Basal Ganglia portion of our brains, called the Amygdala. This center are hyperresponsive in people suffering with phobias. Meditation seems to normalize and balance these brain centers.
The slow breathing, used in meditation (emphasizing prolonged expiration), quiets our flight or fight responses (i.e. sympathetic nervous system) lowering our blood pressure, slowing our pulse and improving our digestion and sense of well-being.
All Right, I Believe You, So How Do I Meditate?
All forms of meditation aim to quiet the counterproductive noises in your mind (to “unstick” your thoughts) so you can enjoy the gifts life offers. Shanna Hughes, MA, Y-TRX-500, professor of yoga studies at Loyola Marymount University, describes meditation as a time to "let the mud settle" in our minds so we can see clearly. So here’s how you do it:
- Start by spending a few minutes to stretch and loosen-up.
- Find a quiet place where you won’t be disturbed.
- Sit or lie down, whatever’s most comfortable (but try not to fall asleep).
- Focus on your breath: Inhale while expanding your abdomen (rather than your chest) and exhale slowly through your nose (your exhale should be about twice as long as your inhale).
- Try to start with 5 minutes and increase, as you can, to 20 minutes.
- Either close your eyes or softly watch an object, such as a candle, the ocean or anything you’d like.
- You will continually have intrusive thoughts--that’s fine. Gently shift your thoughts back to your breath. The process of mindshifting decreases the worrying patterns of your brain. Don’t mind it. Some days will be easier while others will be more difficult. Either way, they both create the benefits you wish.
Are There Different Types of Meditation?
There are many types of meditation, try them all. Mix and match and use the ones that help you the most. Incorporate the above rules with the different styles described below. Have fun experiencing them all.
Transcendental Meditation: Focus on a mantra, such as a word, sound or phrase that you repeat with or between each breath.
Mindfulness Meditation: Focus on what you are experiencing during your meditation as well as your breath. Just observe the thoughts and sensations and let them pass without judgment. Watch it as an observer and without trying to solve anything. Use this approach at rest or while walking, swimming and other activities that don’t require focus (e.g. notice the sensations to your feet while walking, the sounds of the bubbles while swimming, the sounds of the wind or smells while outside…).
Sensory Meditation: Form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing. Imagine many different senses such as smells, sights, sounds and textures. A guide or teacher may lead you through this process.
Design Your Own: Play classical music, light a scented candle, repeat a mantra, play nature sounds (eg. rain, waves, thunder, birds…these are available for free as meditation apps on your smart phone or Google it as guided imagery or meditation sounds). Although you will enjoy the backrounds senses, remember to focus on your breath.
The point is to get your mind out of its rut and to instead focus on the present. To quiet our fight and flight responses, lower our stress hormones and balance the anxiety centers in our brain. That’s it! Don’t worry about feeling blissful, it’s not necessary. The point is to teach our brains to turn down the noise and enjoy the present. Practice it daily, even for just a few minutes, and increase as you can. It will have benefits, I promise.