Is Meditation Magical for Mental Health?

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Yup, I’m one of those. Believers and zealous missionaries re: meditation. I practice twice almost daily now. Ten minutes every morning, sometimes more in the afternoon/evening. Because when I don’t meditate, I feel it. It’s crummy. I’m irritable, jangly. Not so kind. It’s not good for anyone — my friends, my family, or my patients and students — if I don’t sit.

Long ago and far away, I came of age in California in the mid-1970s. Pretty much all the flower-power, marijuana, LSD, love-is-all-you-need rumors are true. I took a “Mandala” class in high school in the Bay Area. We stared at and colored those groovy round, geometric shapes, probably to some John Cage or synthesizer music. I obsessed about colors and widths of my pen-nibs to be the most exacting for this critical task. I don’t think that was the point of the exercise, but I could be wrong.

At the same school, I took yoga for PE. Yoga stuck with me as a lifelong pursuit. At 62 I still stand on my head, or hands, regularly. Meditation, surely introduced to me at the same time, didn’t stick. At all. “Clear my mind”? Are you kidding me? I had to ruminate over the finest-lined Rapidograph pens available, in rubine or vermillion; my intense crush on Stevie Wonder, who I felt truly understood me; or niggly body-loathing thoughts with which every female who has ever been a teen in America unfortunately is familiar.

Through the years, I tried to meditate. Many times. We all know the benefits: Improved heart rate and blood pressure, better sleep; mindfulness, self-awareness, decreased stress. Blah blah blah. That’s not why I wanted to meditate. Well, okay, the stress part. Anxiety. Over time, obsessing over pen nibs morphed into haunting scenarios of crisis OB outcomes at the tertiary care center where I delivered babies. Or being convinced that look the attending shot me was loaded with meaning (not the good kind). Or waking in the night wondering if I’d remembered to tell that high-risk patient to count fetal movements. OK, I was anxious. But I ask you: Have you ever met a health professional who was not?

Meditation still didn’t stick. I tried it while raising two children, then had two more. I learned worrying about my kids went way beyond anything my brain could have possibly cooked up before. Was their development normal? How do I teach them to be emotionally intelligent? Were they being bullied at school for being the only Jewish kids in a small, rural town? How could I protect them? Was I spending too much time at the clinic and not enough time caring for them?

Still, have you ever tried to sit quietly for 20 minutes with a squirming newborn in your lap? Or to “clear your mind” when you have mastitis and a 103-degree fever and a newborn rooting for your nipple? I decided men invented meditation, and it was just a misogynist trap that women were supposed to be able to do it too. Men seem to be able to “clear their minds” more effectively than women. The research actually supports this, and I figured it’s evolutionarily adaptive. Think of the benefits of laser-focused attention in ancient times when men hunted woolly mammoth…or when, as a CEO of a multi-million-dollar healthcare system, a man simply couldn’t be distracted about what to make for dinner.

Meditation simply never worked for me. For years, I wouldn’t even try. Meditating while parenting, caring for patients, householding? I figured those acts in themselves are the modern or not-so-modern equivalent of “chop wood, carry water” and left it at that. It wasn’t until I was in my 50s that I finally tried again.

About 5 years ago, several things were different. Yes, markedly increased quiet and stillness in the house, I admit. Remaining kids old enough to understand “meditating!” as code for “Go away, at least for a few minutes!” But besides all that, something else had revolutionized meditation (though it sounds like an oxymoron): smart phones. Meditation apps, to be exact.

Two specific changes fundamentally revolutionized meditation for me. First, lowering my expectations on myself to only meditate for 10 minutes to begin. Between back to back patients at work and other duties, 20 minutes as a minimum had been far too lofty a goal. And second, an app. I used one of the first ones, Headspace, because Andy, the founder and narrator whose voice was all things Headspace, had a lovely British accent. And for the first 10 days — 10 minutes of meditation building on the prior day, in sequence, teaching you the basics — it was free. If I had access to apps all those years ago, it may have stuck even with the busy patient roster, noisy kids, and landline ringing.

I never used Headspace after those 10 days. I didn’t need to. In the morning, after brushing and flossing, I became comfortingly used to sitting quietly in bed, reading a daily inspirational bit, then sitting. Fidgety, not worrying about clearing my mind, trying to focus on the breath, noticing thoughts, coming back to the breath, thinking, coming back to the breath, just…sitting. Ten minutes of sitting. Then launching my day.

During the pandemic I was asked to participate in a study that involved a free year of the Calm app. I sometimes listen to the founder’s 10-minute “Daily Calm” when I sit in the morning, but when my subscription runs out in a few months, I won’t renew. I will just go back to…sitting.

And in the afternoon? I like Insight Timer. It’s free, and full of content for any occasion: Anxiety, stress? You bet. Joy? Yup. Need some breath work? Want to energize or wind down? That too. There are apps of every flavor for any meditation seeker. Some have meditations starting at just 1 to 3 minutes!

I work in the office less now. And after 31 years of in-home parenting, none of the kids live with me (secret happy dance!). In the afternoons, I lay on my couch with my feet up, light or sun streaming through the window, and meditate. Or, if it freaks you out to call it “meditation,” you could say I just listen to someone talking quietly about mindfulness, or affirmations, or joy, or letting go of anger, or worry, or….

It’s worth a try. For anyone. But especially anyone in healthcare, generally pummeled by stress and crises and left with precious little time to debrief. Got 3 minutes? Personally, if I miss an afternoon meditation, I’m not as patient in the evening with those I love (or those I don’t even know, such as new patients). I’m not as likely to assume good intent, of myself or others. My thoughts are apt to wander into negative territory. Even the next morning when I wake up, I am less optimistic about the day.

I didn’t try to make this happen. I just kept sitting, not giving up, 10 minutes every morning, not getting discouraged by the constant thoughts flitting through my mind. Until it felt so good I wanted to try it for a reset in the afternoon too.

It’s not magic, but then again, it is. Don’t take my word for it. Just take 3 minutes and sit. Any of us in healthcare — nurse, physician, nurse practitioner, RD, OT, PT, and so on — could all spend a bit more time just sitting. Just, simply, keep sitting.

Diane N. Solomon, PhD, PMHNP-BC, runs a private psychiatry practice in Portland, Oregon and is associate professor at the Oregon Health & Sciences University School of Nursing. She is also a certified nurse-midwife, chair of Nurse Practitioners of Oregon, and on the executive committee of the Oregon Wellness Program, offering free mental healthcare to healthcare professionals in Oregon. She does not have a business relationship with any meditation app or company.

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