Many forms of meditation originated from Eastern religious practices, but simply practicing meditation techniques is a non-religious activity requiring no specific belief system or lifestyle change. Most people find it very easy to learn and it certainly requires no special ability. Meditation is practiced by people of all ages (including children), education levels, cultures, religions, and countries worldwide. It can be appropriate for people of any background.
There are many different approaches to meditation, each with a different name and technique. While they vary in complexity from strictly disciplined practices to general recommendations, all seem to achieve similar physical and psychological benefits. In general, the calming mental exercises of meditation have several elements in common:
* A quiet, peaceful environment for practicing
* A consistent time of day for practice
* A set length of time for practice (often 15-20 minutes, twice daily)
* A comfortable upright, straight-backed position
* A mental focal point of concentration
* Slow, rhythmic breathing
* Eyes closed to turn attention inward
* Physical stillness and passivity
Why should you bother? Well, meditation offers a simple, well-proven means of reducing the risk for or even reversing health problems associated with stress, including: high blood pressure; chronic respiratory problems such as emphysema and asthma;cardiovascular disease; anxiety and panic attacks; mild depression; insomnia; substance abuse; tension migraines; premenstrual syndrome; and, last but not least, IBS.
How is this possible? Meditation has been shown to actually induce physical changes in the body associated with rest and relaxation, including: a rise in the intensity of brain alpha waves characterizing quiet, receptive states; lower levels of stress hormones; improved circulation; lower levels of lactic acid, a by-product of tension and anxiety; reduced oxygen consumption; and a slower heart rate. It's easy to see why health improvements directly follow.
Meditation is also an excellent means for managing chronic pain and achieving pain relief, a top priority for many IBS sufferers. In addition to alleviating the pain itself, meditation also helps people cope with unrelieved pain (and its anticipation) by reducing tension and anxiety. What's interesting is that no one really knows how or why meditation provides pain relief, despite its well-established success rate. Research has suggested several probable mechanisms, however, and their relationship to the type of pain characterized by Irritable Bowel Syndrome is striking.
Primarily, the very heart of meditation is relaxation, which indisputably helps relieve and prevent the muscle tension or spasms contributing to (or, in IBS, directly causing) pain. The addition of anxiety, inevitable when people are anticipating pain, as IBS sufferers so often do, increases muscle tension further. By relieving that anxiety meditation offers another route to pain relief. In addition, meditation can also alter someone's emotional reaction to pain, a component as important as the physical element. Meditation can simply make pain more bearable, enabling people to successfully live with it and manage it.
This is an important point, because in physiological terms, the physical sensations and emotions associated with pain are processed by different parts of the brain. Meditation may simply allow people to tolerate pain previously perceived as unbearable, by altering the manner in which the brain responds to it. In fact, meditation may actually change the neural pathways that control the physical sensation of pain, by stimulating the inhibitory nerves that extend from the brain to the spinal cord. Given that current IBS research indicates a problem with the processing of gut neural impulses in the brain, and resultant pain, it is easy to see how meditation may well be one of the best strategies for coping with or altogether eliminating IBS attacks.
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 Howard Fields, MD, University of California, San Francisco. NIH Technology Assessment Panel for Meditation.
 Catherine Bushnell, PhD, McGill University.
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