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Stressed Out, Anxious or Sad? Try Meditating

Meditation can make you more compassionate and ease depression.

Stressed Out, Anxious or Sad? Try Meditating
 Illustration: JEAN TUTTLE

Psychologist Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ on the benefits of focusing the mind

Should you meditate?

Psychologist and author Daniel Goleman—well-known for his 1995 book “Emotional Intelligence”—spent almost two years combing through more than 6,000 academic studies on meditation with a team of researchers to sort through the hype and discover the real benefits. He wrote about his findings in a new book, “Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body,” which he co-authored with Richard J. Davidson, a neuroscientist who directs a brain lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Dr. Goleman, who has been meditating for almost 50 years and wrote his 1973 psychology dissertation at Harvard on meditation and stress, says that research shows meditation can decrease symptoms of depression and anxiety. A specific practice called loving-kindness meditation can boost compassion. And people who meditate regularly will have lasting positive changes in their brain.

Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ (1995) and co-author of the coming book, ‘Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body.’
Daniel Goleman, author of ‘Emotional Intelligence,’ (1995) and co-author of the coming book, ‘Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain and Body.’

Here are edited excerpts from an interview with Dr. Goleman:

What are the key elements of meditation?

Every kind of meditation retrains attention. It’s the basic mental-fitness exercise. Ordinarily, our mind wanders half the time. In meditation, you bring discipline to the mind and try to keep it focused on one thing. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to that thing. This is roughly parallel to going to the gym and lifting weights. Every time you lift the weight, you make that muscle a little stronger. And every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuity in your brain a little stronger.

There are many beneficial effects of this simple exercise. Attention strengthens. Concentration improves. Memory improves. Learning improves. And because the same circuitry in the brain that focuses your attention also manages the amygdala, which causes you to get anxious or upset or depressed, people have a double benefit: They react less strongly to things that used to upset them and recover more quickly when they do get upset.

Can everyone benefit from meditation?

I just taught a 5-year-old. He was at Thanksgiving with a Batman costume on. I said: “Do you want to know how Batman got his powers?” He sat still watching his breath for a half-hour.

Everyone’s mind can become more quiet. Often people have the wrong idea that meditation is about thinking no thoughts, that your mind is totally quiet. It isn’t about that. It’s about noticing when your mind wanders and bringing it back.

What are the main types of meditation?

There is concentration—keeping your focus on one point, such as your breath. Transcendental Meditation is one variety of this, where you use a Sanskrit sound—a mantra—as your point of focus. Visualization is where you use an image, such as the Buddha, or something you find pleasant. Movement meditation can be used while you are walking or doing Tai chi. In mindfulness, you don’t try to control what comes into your mind but rather try not to get caught up in it. You watch your thoughts come and go.

Stressed Out, Anxious or Sad? Try Meditating

Can meditation be used in therapy for depression?

One of the new findings is a meta-analysis that shows that meditation decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as medication. Another study shows that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) lowers the relapse rates of chronic depression. Cognitive therapy encourages people to counter their negative thoughts, but doesn’t give them a method for first recognizing them. Mindfulness helps you spot the thought as it is happening. You use it like a radar.

Let’s say it’s Christmas and you’re alone and have the repetitive thought that no one loves you, your life is worthless. If you get sunk in those thoughts, that is a recipe for a very blue holiday. Mindfulness allows you to notice when you have those thoughts and not get lost in them, and to challenge them using methods from cognitive therapy.

How can we use meditation to make us more compassionate?

This is called loving-kindness meditation. You think of people who have been kind to you in your life and feel gratitude and wish them well. Then you think of yourself, and you send yourself those feelings—you wish yourself well.

Research shows this activates the dopamine circuitry in your brain, strengthens the regulatory circuits that manage stress and lowers your stress hormones. It makes you more generous and more likely to help others. And it lessens activity for self-focus, which also helps you become more compassionate because you are more open to noticing people around you and what their needs are.

How can someone start meditating?

If you have a good meditation center near you, go there. If that’s not easily done, you can get a number of apps. The way you evaluate an app is to evaluate the person teaching the meditation: How long have they been doing this? What is their reputation? How serious are they?

What are the key elements of meditation?

Every kind of meditation retrains attention. It’s the basic mental-fitness exercise. Ordinarily, our mind wanders half the time. In meditation, you bring discipline to the mind and try to keep it focused on one thing. When your mind wanders, you bring it back to that thing. This is roughly parallel to going to the gym and lifting weights. Every time you lift the weight, you make that muscle a little stronger. And every time you bring your mind back to your meditation, you make the neural circuity in your brain a little stronger.

There are many beneficial effects of this simple exercise. Attention strengthens. Concentration improves. Memory improves. Learning improves. And because the same circuitry in the brain that focuses your attention also manages the amygdala, which causes you to get anxious or upset or depressed, people have a double benefit: They react less strongly to things that used to upset them and recover more quickly when they do get upset.

Can everyone benefit from meditation?

I just taught a 5-year-old. He was at Thanksgiving with a Batman costume on. I said: “Do you want to know how Batman got his powers?” He sat still watching his breath for a half-hour.

Everyone’s mind can become more quiet. Often people have the wrong idea that meditation is about thinking no thoughts, that your mind is totally quiet. It isn’t about that. It’s about noticing when your mind wanders and bringing it back.

What are the main types of meditation?

There is concentration—keeping your focus on one point, such as your breath. Transcendental Meditation is one variety of this, where you use a Sanskrit sound—a mantra—as your point of focus. Visualization is where you use an image, such as the Buddha, or something you find pleasant. Movement meditation can be used while you are walking or doing Tai chi. In mindfulness, you don’t try to control what comes into your mind but rather try not to get caught up in it. You watch your thoughts come and go.

 Can meditation be used in therapy for depression?

One of the new findings is a meta-analysis that shows that meditation decreases symptoms of anxiety and depression as well as medication. Another study shows that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) lowers the relapse rates of chronic depression. Cognitive therapy encourages people to counter their negative thoughts, but doesn’t give them a method for first recognizing them. Mindfulness helps you spot the thought as it is happening. You use it like a radar.

Let’s say it’s Christmas and you’re alone and have the repetitive thought that no one loves you, your life is worthless. If you get sunk in those thoughts, that is a recipe for a very blue holiday. Mindfulness allows you to notice when you have those thoughts and not get lost in them, and to challenge them using methods from cognitive therapy.

How can we use meditation to make us more compassionate?

This is called loving-kindness meditation. You think of people who have been kind to you in your life and feel gratitude and wish them well. Then you think of yourself, and you send yourself those feelings—you wish yourself well.

Research shows this activates the dopamine circuitry in your brain, strengthens the regulatory circuits that manage stress and lowers your stress hormones. It makes you more generous and more likely to help others. And it lessens activity for self-focus, which also helps you become more compassionate because you are more open to noticing people around you and what their needs are.

How can someone start meditating?

If you have a good meditation center near you, go there. If that’s not easily done, you can get a number of apps. The way you evaluate an app is to evaluate the person teaching the meditation: How long have they been doing this? What is their reputation? How serious are they?

How quickly can we feel positive effects from meditation?

The compassion studies show effects within seven minutes, although they’re short-lived. The longer you do it, the stronger the benefits. This is why we called the book “Altered Traits.” A trait is a lasting change. Every time you meditate you strengthen the neural circuits that are used during that meditation. At a certain point, this becomes lasting. We think this happens gradually—the more hours you put into it, the stronger the effect is, just like strengthening a muscle.

Getting Going

Dr. Goleman’s tips on how to use meditation to help you this holiday season.

Start with your breath.

Find a quiet place where you won’t be distracted. Sit upright in a comfortable chair. Close your eyes, relax and bring your full focus to your breath. Don’t try and control it. Just notice your natural inhales and exhales. Do this for at least 10 minutes.

Notice if your mind wanders. And rein it back in. Refocus on your breath. Dr. Goleman says that paying attention to each breath takes your mind off the thoughts that are troubling you. Think of them as distractions.

Don’t judge yourself. Your mind is going to wander continuously.

Don’t get frustrated. The challenge is to notice that your mind has wandered and bring it back. That’s just another thought, and there are no good or bad thoughts.

Use flashcards. If you have recurring thoughts that are particularly troubling, write them down on one side, then write your counter-thoughts on the other. (If you feel lonely or unloved this holiday season, write down all the people who do love you.) Carry the card with you and pull it out and focus on it when you need to.

Send yourself love. Remember all the people in your life who have been kind to you and loved you. Focus on feeling that love again, from them.

Accept that your mind is normal. When you start meditation, you feel like it is out of control. In the East, they call this your monkey mind. Realize everyone is like this. And it’s a good sign that you are feeling it. It means that you’re aware of how the mind behaves and trying to tame it a bit.

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