Does Meditation Work? Why It’s Not Working for You

Amber Murphy
Amber Murphy

Meditation and mindfulness – these are two words you’ve probably encountered a lot over the years. For at least the past decade, meditation and the idea of “being mindful” have become much more mainstream. But, does meditation work?

These exercises, which ultimately have their roots in Eastern religions, have been steadily making their way into the Western consciousness. Meditation and mindfulness are concepts that have found themselves promoted not only by pop self-help authors but, increasingly, clinicians as well. They’re claimed to reduce stress, improve quality of life, and, in some cases, even improve physical health.

In the post below, we’ll take a look at some of the scientifically-backed evidence for meditation and the scientific benefits of meditation. We’ll also look at some reasons why meditation might not be “working” for you if you’ve tried it before and not had any luck with some meditation tips.

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Meditation does work

Abstract tree

It’s easy to think that meditation is just another fad – after all, the word “mindfulness” is thrown around quite a bit these days. However, there’s actually a lot of evidence – both anecdotal and peer-reviewed – that it can be useful. So, in answer to the question posed earlier – does meditation work? – the answer is yes, yes, and again yes. Meditation does work!

What does it work for, though? The most discussed benefit of meditation is stress reduction – God knows many of us could use that! It can also improve a person’s outlook on life and relationships with others and our ability to focus.

Meditation can reduce stress and anxiety

There are at least a few prominent studies that support the idea meditation can alleviate stress. One study from Johns Hopkins University evaluated over 3,500 meditation practitioners. It showed that, after 8 weeks of regular practice, levels of anxiety and depression were positively affected. Another showed that meditation combined with consistent, clinical treatment for anxiety was more effective than the clinical treatment on its own.

The stress reduction provided through meditation is a benefit in itself, but also opens the door to a slew of other benefits.

One is increasing the duration and improving the quality of sleep. We’re sure you’ve had a night where you were incredibly stressed out, tossing and turning in bed. Maybe you were worried about an upcoming presentation or some other future or past issue. You weren’t able to get quality sleep – if any – and, as a result, had a horrible time the next day. Meditation works by helping you be more peaceful overall, and fall and stay asleep. Sleep doesn’t just help you get through the day – it’s also essential for overall bodily health. Many studies have shown that people who get inadequate sleep are at higher risk of disease.

Chronic stress is also related to inflammation, so meditation can indirectly reduce this. Of course, many physical health conditions can be exacerbated by stress – irritable bowel syndrome or IBS comes to mind. A peaceful mind, can, in a lot of cases, lead to a tranquil body.

Meditation can improve your outlook on life

Still body of water against a calm sky

It’s all-too-common for us to beat ourselves up, but this is rarely productive. Loving-kindness meditation is a specific type of meditation that emphasizes – you guessed it – loving and kindness. One large study evaluated its effects and determined that it improved the compassion individuals had for themselves and others.

Maybe you’re in a situation in which you’d otherwise get angry but, since you’re less tense than you’d typically be – thanks to meditation – the situation de-escalates. For example, one study showed that loving-kindness meditation reduces marital conflict – think about how much pain, time and money (if it helps prevent things escalating to divorce) could be saved!

In all these ways, meditation can help people maintain strong personal relationships and improve their overall quality of life.

Meditation can increase focus and productivity

The idea that meditation allows for better concentration has also been backed up by research; one study from Columbia University is especially relevant. Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center showed that it can increase focus and concentration while learning.

Another study showed that meditation reduced “cognitive rigidity” and increased the ability to solve problems.

Since you’ll be better able to concentrate, it follows that you’ll be able to get more done. How often have you been working on something only to be distracted by browsing the Internet or checking your phone?

Meditation can help memory loss

One study looked at the effects of meditation on those with memory issues, including those prone to conditions like Alzheimer’s and dementia. Surprisingly, it was found to help recall!

It probably does this by increasing cerebral blood flow and, overall, giving the brain a “work-out” of sorts.

Why won’t meditation work for me?

Planter next to buddha figurine

Maybe you’ve been reading the information above with a sense of disbelief. “I’ve tried meditation before,” you’re thinking, “and I never got any of these benefits!” Perhaps you Googled “does meditation work” because it hasn’t worked for you!

While it’s impossible to say that everyone will benefit from meditation, it is probably safe to say that, especially with our hectic lives, most people will find some benefit. Let’s look into some possible reasons why it hasn’t worked for you in the past.

You didn’t stick with it

This is probably the number one reason people try meditation and then give up. It’s effortless to start a meditation practice, stick with it for one or two days, and then forget about it – life just takes over again.

It takes time to see results from meditation, just as it takes time to see results from physical exercise. You’re rewiring your brain to be more calm and collected. Still, meditation may be acting against years and years of anxious habits. Of course, it will take time!

If you’re starting up a meditation practice again, make it a goal to meditate every day for at least 5 minutes. You can put up post-it notes on your bathroom mirror (or any other place you’ll see them) or set a reminder on your phone, so you don’t forget.

A good meditation teacher or guided meditation app can help keep you accountable and help you stick with your practice.

You try meditating for too long

When first starting out with meditation, the most important thing is consistent practice. If all you can do is meditate for 5 minutes each day, that’s a lot better than meditating 15 minutes one day, stopping for two days, then meditating 15 minutes again.

If you look up meditation videos on YouTube, a lot of them are longer: 20 minutes, 30 minutes, even an hour-long! While it can be tempting to try meditating for 30-minutes, you probably won’t succeed. When first practicing meditation, it’s easy to become restless. Like how time seems to pass slowly if you’re watching the clock, 30 minutes feels much longer than usual when meditating.

We advise beginning with either 5 or 10 minutes and sticking with it daily. Eventually, you can gradually increase the amount of time you spend meditating; however, don’t even think of that until after at least one month of consistent practice.

You find it difficult to concentrate

Everyone finds it difficult to concentrate at first – learning to calm and control your mind is the whole point of meditation. Does meditation work for concentration?

If you find your mind jumping around from subject to subject while meditating, be self-compassionate. Observe it; notice it. Try to remain dispassionate, as if you’re observing someone else’s thoughts. Then, gently bring your attention back to your breath or whatever your focal point is.

If you’re having difficulty concentrating because of distractions, find a time where you can avoid distractions. The best time to meditate is when you can have some peace and privacy to focus on your practice.

The goal of meditation isn’t to stop thinking. It’s to become somewhat detached from those thoughts and see them for what they really are: just thoughts. You’ve probably seen analogies such as “watching thoughts pass by like leaves on a stream,” and that’s what, when meditating, we’re trying to go for.

You’re trying too hard

Meditation, in a sense, is all about not trying – Jon-Kabat Zinn describes the concept of “masterly inactivity.” Especially if you’re adopting meditation for stress reduction, you need to understand the concept of “non-striving.”

Meditation is a bit of a paradox. Although it has many benefits, you won’t really find them if you’re trying to find them. Think about it: if you’re sitting there, attempting to meditate but continually monitoring yourself for signs of reduced anxiety, you’re putting pressure on yourself. As a result, you’ll feel stressed, and you’ll be artificially holding back the positive effects of meditation.

It can be hard to cultivate an attitude of “non-striving,” especially if you just want relief from anxiety as soon as possible. However, it’s a fundamental aspect of meditation and something you’ll learn the more you practice.

Conclusion

Overall, meditation can be hugely beneficial – meditation does work and is not just a fad! Sometimes people oversell its benefits – it will not cure your disease – but in this post, we’ve only made scientifically-backed claims. Hopefully, you have been encouraged to give it a try. If you find yourself thinking you don’t have 5 or 10 minutes to sit down and practice every day, well, you may be precisely the kind of person most likely to benefit. Cultivating a meditation practice offers a lot, and there’s nothing to lose by giving it a shot. Good luck!

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