How to make the most of meditation with science

Your zen will have no limits this year.
a woman sits with her eyes closed and her hands folded in front of her to meditate
Take a deep breath and give meditation a try. Deposit Photo

If you’re reading this, you’re probably stressed. Never fear: We’ve dug through the evidence to reveal what science really says about finding zen—and holding onto it through tough times. Want to try meditation? Take better baths? Stop anxiety in its tracks? Welcome to Calm Month.

2020 definitely threw a lot of us off of our groove, so there’s never been a better time to look for moments of zen. After all, studies show mindfulness and meditation can reduce blood pressure, symptoms of anxiety and depression, and stress overall. But with more than 1,300 meditation apps available for download (not to mention countless books on the practice), it might seem a little daunting to dive into these practices—or even decide where to dip your toes in. Here’s how to navigate this cluttered landscape and recenter your 2021 headspace using science.

What is mindfulness and meditation, and how can it help my brain?

There are a few different kinds of meditation, but perhaps the most widely talked about these days is mindfulness meditation. It takes many forms, but at its core, it’s about focusing on letting go of the past, not worrying about the future, and just letting yourself exist in the present. That awareness of yourself in the current moment, in addition to becoming aware of and accepting any thoughts and feelings that come to you there, is what psychologists call mindfulness.

Mindfulness can have significant effects on the brain and overall bodily health. The practice has shown promise in helping people who have chronic pain, addiction, irritable bowel syndrome, and even tinnitus.

We don’t know exactly how mindfulness can improve these conditions, but researchers do know the practice can change the brain. For example, among a group of study participants who underwent an eight-week mindfulness class, MRIs showed their amygdalae shrank. The amygdala is known as the “fight-or-flight center” of the brain, and is highly involved in stress reactions. Shrinkage there could translate into feeling calmer. The same study found that the prefrontal cortex, responsible for things like concentration and decision-making, became thicker.

While we still have a lot to learn about the mechanism by which meditation can improve our minds and bodies, the evidence that it does something positive is definitely there. If you don’t have a regular meditation practice in place, it’s worth trying.

How do I meditate?

Mindfulness meditation can be shockingly simple. Find a quiet place (or turn on some white noise if you need to), sit on the floor or the edge of your bed, and close your eyes.

The most bare-bones way to meditate is to focus on your breathing. Relax and clear your mind—not ignoring all of your thoughts and pushing them down, but accepting them, and attempting to let them go instead of dwelling on them. Taking note of how you feel and acknowledging your existence in that one moment is key to being “mindful.”

You could also try a more advanced mindfulness technique called visualization. If there’s something you want to excel in—whether that’s running a faster mile, better connecting with a friend, or even navigating the grocery store in a pandemic with less anxiety—you can get situated in a quiet place, close your eyes, and imagine, in detail, the events playing out successfully. Plenty of professional athletes make use of this technique to perform under pressure, and one study found that you can instigate some small but significant muscle growth by simply visualizing an exercise.

Even if there’s no specific task you have in mind, you can still do mindful visualization meditation. Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and imagine your body is slowly being filled with warm, bright sunlight from the tip of your head. It will fill up each toe, move up your legs, through your abdomen, into each fingertip, and finally fill your shoulders, neck, and head. The whole process should take anywhere from three to ten minutes—Headspace has a free guided version linked on their website, if you’d like some guidance. This technique makes you more aware of your body as it exists currently in space and your own connection to it, which can boost your feelings of mindfulness and can eventually offer up the accompanying benefits.

What apps can I use to help me meditate?

Meditation has been around for thousands of years—the ancient Buddhists were very into it. In our modern digital world, though, the easiest way to get started is with an app to guide you. Apps like Headspace, Calm, and JourneyLive are all excellent places to start. The first two offer on-demand guided meditations, whereas the third also has Peloton-style live classes you can join with an instructor on the other side of the screen. (You can read more about each option in Eleanor Cummins’ excellent PopSci story on meditation apps here.)

However, as Eleanor mentions in her piece, meditating using your phone—a device that regularly stresses you out with emails and work notifications and Twitter pings—almost defeats the purpose. Maintaining mental distance from those distractions is crucial for reaping the benefits of mindfulness. For the best results, consider turning off all push notifications at least while you’re meditating, and perhaps even for longer stretches of time surrounding your practice.

You can also learn how to meditate without the help of a guide and keep phones and screens out of the equation entirely. Meditating in a room with no distractions whatsoever is a transcendent experience, and I urge you to try it out if you can. Plus, you can be free of paid subscriptions to apps like Calm, Headspace, and JourneyLive. Game the system by doing free trials for each one, compiling techniques and strategies that you like, and rotating those components into your own personal practice.

Between all of these resources, you can make your own handbook on what works for you, and then forgo the apps. Set a schedule for yourself and stick to it.

What if I hate meditating no matter what I do?

If you’ve tried meditating and it’s truly not for you, there’s still a way to get a taste of mindfulness. You can, at the very least, just allocate some leisure time, or a chunk of the week where you literally do nothing. Taking time to space out and just be in the moment by doing things like taking a long shower, petting a dog, or doing some gardening also offers a boost in brain health.

As Eleanor Cummins wrote in a piece appearing in our most recent print issue, researchers aren’t 100 percent sure how exactly this down time helps us feel less stressed. They do, however, recognize that the time spent pushing aside active tasks like work deadlines and who’s picking up the kids from soccer practice to instead think about current feelings, reflecting on the past, and planning for the future is key to a healthy brain. This makeshift mindfulness activates a region of the brain called the default mode network, which helps make sense out of the constant chaos reigning over our lives.

It can sometimes be hard to to do nothing, but three easy boxes to tick are turning off devices that will ping and distract you, finding a chill hobby that doesn’t overlap with your day job, and locating new surroundings to spend time in—even if it’s in a car or a different corner of your house. These will all help your noggin relax as best as it can, and you’ll be finding little moments of zen in no time.