The Benefits (and Challenges) of Meditation

Hey! My name is Catherine and I’m a junior studying Economics and Strategic Communication. I love trying new restaurants, traveling, and am passionate about all things Wisconsin Badger. This Self-Care Season, I decided to try a new way to relax and recharge: meditation.
Ah, the end of the fall semester. We know what that means: seemingly never-ending homework, finals, and projects all while the days are shorter and the excitement of break is on the mind. In the midst of it all, it’s even more important that we take care of ourselves and find time to de-stress. There are tons of ways to do this: exercising, getting plenty of sleep, listening to relaxing music, and, one that I had never tried, meditation. I learned of UHS’s free meditation classes and decided to check it out. I mean, an excuse to take 45 minutes to relax in the middle of the week? Nothing sounded more perfect.
A research scientist for the Center for Healthy Minds at UW-Madison, Cortland Dahl, explained meditation to Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as “simply knowing what’s going on in your own mental and emotional state in the moment.” Sounds easy enough, right?
The class started with Bob McGrath (PysD, ABPP), a distinguished psychologist at UHS, leading us through some physical movement meditation where we took time to shake out our muscles and stretch. Then we sat down, closed our eyes, and listened as Dr. McGrath talked us through a meditation exercise focused on thankfulness: thankfulness for our senses, our bodies, our brains, our lives. By doing this, we attempted to release any worries and stressors from our minds and instead focus on our breathing. And it worked for me.
For about ten minutes.
Soon after I finally felt relaxed, the stressors of my day ahead started flooding back into my mind. Once this happened, it wasn’t easy to get back into that relaxed feeling. I opened my eyes at one point and saw everyone else in the class still focused with their eyes closed. I started to worry that I was doing something wrong.
But after talking with Dr. McGrath, I knew I wasn’t alone. Meditation can be a real challenge and like any skill, it takes practice. The most difficult part of meditation is being able to let go of inner thoughts for an extended period of time. After class, Dr. McGrath explained to me that

“the brain is like any other muscle. Use it in good ways, it grows in good ways.”

Not only does meditation do wonders for calming your brain and relieving stress, but its powers extend far beyond just that.  According to Dr. McGrath, when you practice meditation your immune system improves, your heart rate improves, and even your relationships improve. There is also evidence that it can reduce blood pressure, relieve anxiety, and improve sleep. It’s no question that the benefits of meditation are worth the bit of practice it takes to overcome its challenges.
I’m sold.
To start implementing meditation into your own life, dedicate a part of your day to start practicing. Dr. McGrath recommends meditating first thing in the morning in a quiet space to start your day off relaxed and prepared for what the day brings. However, if you don’t consider yourself a morning person (like me), meditation is also a great way to reflect on the day in the evening. Even better, Dr. McGrath suggests getting outside to meditate whenever possible. What’s most important is finding a time and place that works for you. Meanwhile, I’ll be back to Dr. McGrath’s class and exploring how meditation will work best for me.
Ready to get started? Check out UHS’s free meditation sessions with Dr. McGrath at Union South on Tuesdays and Wednesdays or listen to these Relaxation Exercises to ease your mind on your own time.