When Sean Thompson developed a stress-related ulcer in college in 1988, a psychology professor recommended he try one simple practice to find relief: meditation. After trying out the professor’s …
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There are two main branches of the body's autonomic nervous system, which regulates its unconscious functions, such as digestion and heart rate.
These branches are the sympathetic — the fight-or-flight system — and the parasympathetic — the rest and digest system.
“Meditation helps us tap into the parasympathetic nervous system,” said Dr. Justin Ross, a psychologist at UCHealth’s Center for Integrative Medicine. “Think about the sympathetic system being the gas on a car and the parasympathetic system being the brake … you need to learn how to use the brake appropriately.”
By engaging the parasympathetic system, the body’s rhythms become more balanced. The heart rate slows and the sympathetic system no longer pushes stress chemicals — such as adrenaline — into the bloodstream. Meditation also decreases cortisol, the main hormone contributing to long-term stress.
“You’re going to feel a better sense of focus and calm and relaxation,” Ross said.
Many professionals agree that guided meditations, which are widely available, can be a great way to begin practicing meditation. Here are a few options:
• Insight Timer (smartphone app)
• Headspace (smartphone app)
• Calm (smartphone app)
• Three-minute breathing space (multiple videos available on Youtube)
• Ask an Amazon Alexa device for a guided meditation
The Jefferson County Public Library, in coordination with Jefferson Center for Mental Health, is hosting a weekly, phone conference with a guided meditation while the buildings are closed due to COVID-19. The sessions are Thursdays at 10 a.m. and can be joined by calling 303-502-5189.
The Centered Path Buddhist Meditation Center, based in Parker, is hosting online meditations via Zoom video meetings periodically. Details are available at Facebook.com/thecenteredpath.
Children and teenagers can benefit from meditation, said Mary Dohrmann, a psychologist with the Golden Wellness Center.
“Being body-aware and breath-aware can really be taught even to a 1-year-old,” she said.
For children this age, Dohrmann recommends parents hold the child in front of them and take deep, calming breaths, she said.
“They will mirror that and it will help them calm down,” she said.
With older kids, parents can sit in front of them and hold their hands as they breathe together, she said.
“It helps because attachment and touch calm anxiety,” Dohrmann said. “When in crisis ... they don’t have an adult brain to calm down. They need touch from a steady adult.”
Teenagers tend to do well with guided meditations, which are available through smartphone apps or Youtube videos.
These strategies don’t need to consume much time — they can be as brief as one minute, Dohrmann said.
“Everybody has a minute,” she said.
“If you're outside, don't listen to music. Listen to wherever you are because that's going to ground you in your environment. If inside, play some music that's very calming. I wouldn't meditate to classical music because it's extremely stimulating.” — Mary Dohrmann, psychologist, Golden Wellness Center
“If you're experiencing depression, introduce an outside space during meditation. Stand in the grass.” — Dohrmann
“Watch your mind like you're watching a science project — sometimes you'll get insights,” — Sean Thompson, The Centered Path
When Sean Thompson developed a stress-related ulcer in college in 1988, a psychology professor recommended he try one simple practice to find relief: meditation.
After trying out the professor’s tape of a guided meditation, Thompson made a life-altering discovery.
“What happened was it worked,” he said. “I started feeling more relaxed.”
Twenty-four years later, Thompson founded the Centered Path Buddhist meditation center in Parker. The center, which he describes as more of a study group than a religious organization, teaches folks of all backgrounds how to harness the power of meditation.
“The only people who it can’t help are those who aren’t willing to try,” said Thompson.
Many psychologists, including Dr. Justin Ross at UCHealth’s Center for Integrative Medicine, also recommend the practice to reduce stress.
“There are tens of thousands of published studies on this,” Ross said. “The research at this point is pretty extensive and comprehensive across a wide range of conditions and concerns.”
Mindfulness meditation can reduce stress, anxiety and depression and improve wellness and the ability to cope with disease, he said.
“We talk about meditation as being a core pillar of wellness for all of us,” Ross said.
Especially now, as many people’s mental health is strained by the anxieties and uncertainties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, meditation can help everyone find a sense of peace, he said.
“This is going to help (people) better manage this unprecedented time we’re in,” Ross said. “It’s such a high time of anxiety, this is a really easy place to get relief.”
Mary Dohrmann, a psychologist with The Golden Wellness Center, encourages meditation as a way to cope with all of the daily changes prompted by COVID-19, she said.
“When something gets taken away from you, that causes grief,” she said. “People are trying to function in this new way of being, and that causes anxiety ... for that it would be wonderful to use these techniques to ground yourself every day.”
Dohrmann, Ross and Thompson agree that meditation can be extremely beneficial for those finding themselves frequently worried.
When anxious, “you’re like a bag in a windstorm,” Dohrmann said. “You’re not very rational, you can’t think clearly. Grounding yourself brings you back to (earth).”
While meditation can be practiced anywhere, it’s best to find a quiet place to sit or lie down, Dohrmann said.
“Ideally you’re sitting comfortably on a cushion or against a wall or in a chair — with feet on the ground, not hanging,” she said. “And then just kind of rest your hands where they feel comfortable.”
Thompson recommends those interested in beginning a practice start by choosing a quiet spot in their home that’s used solely for meditation, he said.
Once comfortable, the first thing to do is simply become aware of your body, thoughts and breaths.
“The only thing they need to learn how to do is shift their focus to the breath,” Ross said. “Every meditation practice has the foundational component of bringing awareness to the present moment.”
After that, the goal is to identify whenever a distraction comes up.
“It’s about recognizing when you’re not present and learning that you have the ability to bring your awareness back to something occurring right now,” Ross said. “That’s why the breath is so powerful, it can only occur right now.”
Often, beginners will notice their brain coming up with all sorts of distractions.
Thoughts and feelings like these are normal and will likely always come up. The hallmark of meditation isn’t halting these, but learning to recognize them and then return to the breath, Ross said.
It can be useful to identify where in the body the breath is most intensely felt, whether that be in the belly, the nostrils or the chest, Thompson said. He also recommends trying to identify when there is a long or short breath.
“That gets the mind to calm down,” Thompson said.
Dohrmann suggests beginning with a simple technique of inhaling for four seconds, then exhaling for four seconds, repeating the breath pattern for two minutes.
Many people say the reason they haven’t tried meditation is because they can’t find the time, Ross said.
“The reality is … it can be as simple as three to five minutes a day,” he said.
It’s best to try to fit in a brief meditation every day, Dohrmann said, “But whenever you can do it is also best.”
Another reason people give for not wanting to try out meditation is because they worry they won’t do it correctly. But Thompson, Ross and Dohrmann agree there really isn’t a downside to trying.
“There really is no failure in meditation, there’s just observation and awareness,” Ross said.
Thompson points out that even if things don’t go according to plan, it still isn’t a failure.
“Worst-case scenario,” Thompson said, “you fall asleep.”
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