What began many centuries ago as a spiritual practice has taken a comfortable seated position in mainstream culture. Praised by Silicon Valley CEOs and charismatic TV personalities alike, meditation is touted as not only the silver bullet for all that ails us, but also as a tool for maximizing productivity. Make no mistake, though, meditation is anything but snake oil. When practised regularly, it can lead to some pretty amazing results both mentally and physically, as demonstrated by numerous scientific studies. In particular, stress resilience and relief (something we could all use a little more of) is a common byproduct of a daily meditation practice. Yet many of us still haven’t tapped into its benefits because, well, meditation just isn’t our thing. If you fall into this category, fear not—it’s possible to reap the stress-relieving benefits of meditation without all the closed-eyed, cross-legged silence that fills some with dread.
In guided meditation, students are often asked to “empty” their minds, allowing their thoughts to enter and exit without attachment. For some, this can be very calming; however, for others who prefer activity over passivity, this can prove very difficult. Journalling mimics this process by allowing the journalist to empty their minds onto a page. As thoughts present themselves, rather than ruminating on them the journalist can release them, thereby also practising non-attachment. In terms of stress relief, gratitude journalling can be particularly beneficial. According to a 2016 study, those who participated in eight weeks of gratitude journalling demonstrated “increased parasympathetic [heart] responses,” which may be linked to stress resilience.
Those who regularly spend time in nature will often describe it as therapeutic or even meditative, so it’s no surprise that the positive effects of communing with nature mirror those of meditation. In a 2018 study, researchers found they could predict lower depression, anxiety, and stress scores in those with greater access and exposure to nature. Not only that, but according to data collected from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, study participants who were immersed in a virtual reality nature setting that included nature sounds demonstrated “enhanced stress recovery” based on cardiovascular data and saliva cortisol samples. Of course, if you have the choice between experiencing real or synthesized nature, choose the former to also get in some exercise. After all, if lack of time is the reason you don’t meditate, this is a great way to multitask your way to well-being.
We invite children to explore their creativity through finger painting, papier-mâché, and everything in between, but for some reason, we don’t extend this invitation to ourselves. Shauna Kaendo, a Vancouver-based art therapist and mixed-media artist, is challenging this narrative with her clients, supporting them through adversity with art. According to Kaendo, making art—especially when we don’t have a plan or expectations—“allows us to calm our brains” by giving us “space to notice colour, texture, and the sounds that different materials make.” Rather than intellectualizing everything, as we often do, Kaendo says art gets us into our bodies and allows us to observe our somatic responses, such as changes in breathing. “This process,” she says, “of pausing, creating, and noticing is meditative.”
Think back to your teenage days when you couldn’t get home fast enough to bliss out to your favourite album. Little did you know you were actively engaging in a meditative-like practice. In a 2015 study, researchers found that, among university students, listening to music for relaxation purposes was associated with reduced reported stress levels and lower cortisol concentrations. Another study looked at 52 trials to determine if music interventions improved psychological outcomes in cancer patients. Not only did the researchers’ analysis indicate music had a positive effect on anxiety and depression, but also that it may lead to “small reductions in heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood pressure.”
Just because Oprah and Ellen credit their success and happiness to daily meditation doesn’t mean that you’ll be a miserable failure without it. By expanding your definition of meditation beyond the standard trope, you start to see how any practice—when approached with intention and consistency—can be meditative. The key, then, is to find your unique version of meditation—because although we all experience stress, the ways in which we effectively manage it are completely up to us.
Smartphone owners can now access thousands of meditation apps, so you can take your meditation on the go, removing barriers of time and accessibility. Feeling overwhelmed by all the choices? Give Headspace (headspace.com) a try—it’s research-backed and offers a free version of the app. Art therapist Shauna Kaendo has some great recommendations here for anxiety or self-care and stress management.
Amy Wood is an on-again-off-again meditator, part-time dancer, and amateur uke player. Catch her on Twitter @amy_would.