As the research on the effects of meditation grows, one of the most interesting conclusions being drawn is that meditation can actually boost your immune system. Essentially, when you’re practicing mindfulness meditation - paying attention to the present moment, without judgment - your body naturally responds by calming down. And that enables your immune system to do what it needs to do to take care of you.
A Little More on the Science
You have two complementary and intertwined nervous systems: your parasympathetic nervous system, and your sympathetic nervous system. Your parasympathetic nervous system is also known as your “rest and digest” system, because that’s what you’re doing when it’s activated. Your whole body is focused on resting, digesting, and repairing itself. Ideally, you would spend most of your daily life in this mode.
Your sympathetic nervous system, on the other hand, is responsible for getting you out of trouble. As soon as you detect a threat in your environment (or imagine one), your “fight, flight or freeze” reaction kicks in. Your heart races, your palms sweat, it’s harder to think about anything more complex than the next move you’re about to make until you make it and return to safety. Ideally, you would have incidents where you needed this reaction, and the rest of the time you’d be in that “rest and digest” mode.
One of the things your body automatically does when you’re in reaction mode to take care of you is suppress your immune system.
If you think about it, this makes some sense: if there’s an immediate threat to your life, then it doesn’t matter whether or not you catch a cold, it matters whether you can run away from the tiger that’s about to eat you.
The trouble is, we walk around stressed out pretty much all the time - not from tigers, but from our work, our relationships, the news, social media, you name it. All of those social threats are just as real to our bodies, as tigers. So we never really give our bodies the chance they need to stop being under threat, and start repairing themselves. Falling into bed at night is as much of a rest as we give ourselves.
Breaking this cycle can seem downright impossible, but it’s worth it to save your body (and mind) from exhaustion and depletion.
Meditation is a great way to do it, because it costs you nothing, doesn’t involve putting more intoxicants into your body, and is surprisingly effective.
How Meditation Breaks the Stress Cycle
When you meditate - sitting or standing still, focused on your breath or the sensations in your body or the sounds around you - you automatically begin to breathe more slowly, whether or not you’re intentionally manipulating your breath.
Just pausing naturally slows you down.
When your breath slows, it sends a message through your vagus nerve to the rest of your nervous system, saying, Hey, it’s cool, we can rest for awhile. This creates a virtuous cycle: other parts of your body relax and switch over into “rest and digest” mode. When you’re in that mode, your body is focused on repairing itself and getting nutrients from the food you’ve eaten.
That’s when your immune system kicks back into gear, and goes about its business.
When you practice meditating regularly, you give yourself these wellness breaks, disrupting the cycle of stress, exhaustion, and depletion that you’re usually caught in. That’s why meditating for 10 minutes can feel as refreshing as taking a nap. What’s more, when it’s time to reengage with the things that were stressing you out, they may not seem as overwhelming; you may find that you have a deeper well of patience and self-compassion to draw on.
So, ultimately, meditation is one of the best things you can do to keep yourself healthy.
Sneaking In Your Wellness Breaks
While of course it’s easiest to keep up your meditation habit when you just incorporate it into your daily routine, you can also sneak it in when you notice that you need it. Here are three places in your life you might do it:
During Your Commute. While it may seem a bit weird to meditate on a train or a bus full of people, everyone is trying not to see each other anyway, so try it! You don’t even have to close your eyes. Just lower them, focus on a point on the floor, and bring your attention to your breath. Without trying to change the rhythm of your breath, just watch it, counting down from 10 to 1. As soon as you notice your mind wandering, bring it back to your breath and start counting again.
When You’re Stopped At Stoplights. Whether you’re on foot or driving, each time you’re stopped at a stoplight, take it as an opportunity for a quick wellness break. Feel your feet on the ground or on the floor of the car, and sense your breath moving in your body. See how many breaths you take before the light changes.
Whenever You Go to the Bathroom. This is one of the few times you can count on during the day when you’ll be alone (unless you have a toddler - then this is not a given!!). When you are, just pause before you get up off the toilet. Feel your feet on the floor, your body in contact with the toilet, and your breath moving in your body. Just take three breaths, completely focused on the air coming into and leaving your body.
You can also incorporate meditation into your walking, eating, dish washing, tooth brushing, and all kinds of daily activities. Just let whatever you’re doing take your full focus, and you’ll be doing it mindfully.
Pick one of the three options for wellness breaks, and do it every day for a week. What do you notice? Tell me in the comments below!