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The Medical Minute: Making a holiday present of being present

Some people can’t wait for the end of the season of yuletide peace so they can have a little actual peace.

Forty-four percent of women and 31% of men in the U.S. say their stress levels actually increase during the holidays, according to data from the American Psychological Association. And only 4% of women and 12% of men say life calms down during what TV commercials would have you believe is a time of serenity.

For many, all the shopping, snow shoveling, food, family, travel, traffic, parties and partridges in pear trees add up to one big holiday ball of pressure. But Dr. Ramnarine Boodoo, a child psychiatrist at Penn State Health Children’s Hospital, suggests adding one more gift to your list this year. Make this one just for you – mindfulness meditation.

During the past couple of decades, both words have become well worn in self help circles, but they might still sound a little strange to some ears. You might be thinking robes, incense and monks twisting themselves into pretzels. But you don’t have to be a guru to meditate, Boodoo said.

“All you really need to practice meditation,” he said, “is to be a human being.”

Try this

  • Find a quiet place. “You can listen to music,” Boodoo said, “but you don’t really need anything.”
  • Sit down or lie down. Get comfortable.
  • Close your eyes.
  • Pay attention to your breathing. Feel the cool air go in and warm air go out. Pay attention to the sensations in your belly. “Don’t try to manipulate them,” Boodoo said. Just be aware of them.
  • If you’re like most people, your thoughts will run. Probably, they’ll keep orbiting around whatever you’re stressed about. That’s OK, Boodoo says. Just gently call them back to your breathing and the sensations to which you’re paying attention.
  • Do this for as long as you want, but a few minutes is probably best to start with. More time is often better as you progress.
  • Open your eyes and go about your day.

OK, so what’s the point?

It’s not as spooky as it sounds.

“What all meditation has in common is that it deals with paying attention in a certain way,” Boodoo said. “As you pay attention to something in a certain way, it starts to exclude extraneous things that don’t matter a whole lot.”

Mindfulness meditation in particular, Boodoo says, is all about paying attention to a specific thing. In this case, your breath.

Say it’s a typical December day. You’re running 150 miles an hour, you need to get a gift for your grandmother, you’ve got work, caroling practice and the list goes on. Your brain keeps ticking off tasks in an endless loop. “All these things clutter up our stream of consciousness,” Boodoo said.

If each list item carries stress along with it, people can develop anxiety as it builds. Mindfulness meditation breaks the cycle. By focusing on something other than your problems, their importance diminishes. You are teaching your brain that it’s OK to let go of some of these thoughts, if only for a few minutes.

Does it really work?

A 2020 National Institutes of Health (NIH) review of 14 studies including more than 1,100 participants showed that practicing mindfulness among people with health conditions like cancer, diabetes and hypertension led to significant reduction in blood pressure. Other studies connect mindfulness meditation to relief from chronic pain; reduction in stress, anxiety and depression; and recovery from sleep problems and substance abuse disorders.

None of that means you should drop your treatment plans and focus entirely on meditation as a cure-all. In fact, another NIH review found that 8% of study participants reported negative effects from some forms of meditation, so proceed with caution.

But even with that caveat, the benefits are worth exploring. “It may help improve your quality of life,” Boodoo said.

So, all I have to do is lie there one time, breathe, and my life will suddenly be better?

Well, not exactly.

If you’re looking for a little holiday stress relief, then yes, you could do worse than a few minutes of meditation to calm your mind. But regular practice holds greater benefits, Boodoo said.

“Part of what we’re doing when we’re meditating is taking ourselves outside of that cycle of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain,” he said. “And we’re starting to focus on what’s really going on here. Why are we doing this?”

Adherents say regular practice increases clarity and sparks reprioritization. You ask yourself important questions that can reach into spiritual and existential planes – your place in the universe.

“You might start asking more important questions,” Boodoo said. “Like what is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of existence?”

For many, meditation helps improve focus on what’s important and put what’s unimportant in its proper place. Boodoo says it might even help you in your quest to find meaning in what you’re so stressed about celebrating – the real reason for the season.

And what could be a better holiday gift than that?

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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