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A Crash Course in Meditation for Anxiety and Depression in ME/CFS

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Meditation has been used for centuries as a way to promote both mental and spiritual health — two things that can help you on your road to recover from chronic illnesses like ME/CFS and others. More and more, meditation for depression and anxiety has become a therapeutic tool to ease and manage mental health symptoms, as well as symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome. It involves breathing exercises that are designed to help slow down your thinking, and also your body in the process. The practice itself has been known to produce many beneficial psychological, mental, and physical effects, including slowing the respiratory rate, reducing blood pressure, improving immune function, and minimizing sleep disturbances.

“Physically, meditation improves cardiovascular health, enhances immunity, reduces pain, and has endocrine effects. Mentally, meditation practice influences neuroplasticity, creating increased brain activity in areas of the brain associated with higher-level thinking and positive emotion, and decreasing activity in the areas of the brain associated with negative emotions and self-talk,”  said Diane Malaspina, Ph.D., a psychologist and Therapeutic Specialist of Yoga Medicine.

And, studies increasingly show that people who engage in regular mindfulness meditation, a practice that promotes self-awareness, demonstrate greatly reduce generalized anxiety and other anxiety conditions, as well as depression.

Today, more therapists and mental health professionals are realizing the extensive benefits this ancient practice can offer their patients and are starting to utilize it. Meditation can be extremely calming because it allows you to simply sit with yourself and be silent.

“Meditation can help ‘quiet the mind’ of the constant negative self-talk that is often a core component of anxiety and depression. Meditation also allows for a greater ability to concentrate on tasks at hand, which is often difficult with the distracting thoughts of anxiety or the loss of interest that comes with depression,” said psychotherapist Siobhan D. Flowers, Ph.D., LPC, NCC, CSC. Additionally, people with cognitive impairments related to ME/CFS may notice it’s difficult to concentrate for long periods of time, too. 

Like Dr. Malaspina and Dr. Flowers, many therapists are incorporating meditation into sessions with their patients. This can include breathing exercises during an appointment as well as guided visualizations. But if you’re battling fatigue or other debilitating symptoms, it might be difficult for you to a therapist’s office, so we’ve put together some basics to help you get started.   

How to Meditate if You’re Just Beginning

Learning how to meditate is as easy as 1-2-3! You can do it anywhere during any time of day. It can help you quiet your mind from the barrage of symptoms you may be experiencing and focus on what is right in front of you. If you are just getting started at addressing depression and anxiety in ME/CFS, Dr. Malaspina offered the following tips:

  • Start simple by giving yourself a goal of three minutes of quiet sitting practice per day.
  • Use a timer.
  • During the three minutes, focus your attention on your breath.
  • If your mind wanders, redirect your mind to your breath.

For anxiety, Dr. Malaspina recommends one-point focused meditation. This is where the participant uses an object to focus on and incorporates meditative breathing into it. Dr. Malaspina suggests using a candle because it helps focus an over-active mind and settles the nervous system.   

  • Sit about two feet away from the flame and then softly stare for a short period of time.
  • If thoughts arise, you can bring awareness back to the flame.

Additionally, Dr. Flowers stresses the importance of being consistent with a meditation practice, even if it’s just for five minutes a day. She also advised:

  • Patience with yourself is key. Remember, it takes practice to be able to calm your body and your mind.
  • Try not to be self-conscious or be afraid of “not doing it right.”

“Remind yourself that taking the time out to focus on yourself in whatever form of meditation you choose, is always better than not making any effort at all,” Dr. Flowers said.

Different Kinds of Meditation

All meditation typically involves aspects of focusing on your breath, which allows you to slow down and focus on the here and now. Over time, the practice of meditation helps to heighten your bodily awareness without expending a lot of precious energy. Read on to learn more about the different types.

Mantra

The word mantra can be translated to “transport” or “vehicle.” Mantras are typically one word or a short phrase that is repeated in an attempt to help the body relax and let you enter into a deeper state of meditation. It can be said both out loud or to yourself and can be used to help reinforce positive self-talk, self-esteem and more. “I like mantra meditation for coping with depression because it is the use of a positive or loving statement that is mentally repeated which is helpful for negative self-talk,” said Dr. Malaspina.

Moving meditation

For those who can tolerate some amount of physical activity, this kind of meditation often consists of both movement and meditation such as yoga, tai chi, walking, or running. Anything that requires movement and allows you to “get in the zone” and be super focused on the task at hand provides the same benefits as more traditional meditation.

Guided Meditation

Guided meditation is a practice in which participants are meditating under the supervision of a trained practitioner —typically one who uses a combination of written, visual, and musical accompaniment through verbal instruction. With guided meditation, the teacher will instruct participants on a specific visual exercise that results in deep breathing and other components. The goal of guided meditation is to relieve stress and work towards mental, emotional, or physical healing.   

Meditation Podcasts

There are numerous meditation podcasts to choose from that offer guided meditation as well as other breathing exercises, but here are a few to check out:

  • Meditation Minis  With Chel Hamilton: Trained hypnotist Chel Hamilton offers you a relaxing 10-15 meditation centered around certain themes. It’s great for on the go or wherever you find the need to cultivate a moment of peace. There are specific themes the podcast offers as well, and there are both paid and free versions.  

Dr. Flowers recommended the following meditation apps and podcasts:

  • Calm: There is a paid and free version, and it offers both video and audio meditation as well as other classes for people with anxiety, depression and more.
  • Headspace: This is a meditation and sleep app that helps you learn how to breathe, to meditate, and get the basics down. You can choose from more advanced options, too. It is by subscription at $12.99 per month but has thousands of meditation options, and there is usually a free trial.
  • Insight Timer: This free app is an amazing resource offering thousands of guided meditations and talks from experts in the field as well as psychologists, scientists and more.

 Meditation offers a wide range of positive physical and mental benefits for those who are dealing with anxiety, depression, and ME/CFS. While you may feel a little strange when you first start out, the more you do it, the more natural it will become in time. It can help you become more mindful, work on being in the moment, and improve your attitude, among many other great benefits. Although it cannot completely eliminate the significant impact of anxiety and depression, long-term use of meditation exercises can help you better cope with the challenges that may come your way.

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