I like to think of myself as a healthy person. I exercise regularly, drink infrequently, and prepare plant-based, whole foods-derived meals every day. I also, however, suffer from IBS, and accordingly am no stranger to things like bloating, stomach pains, and infrequent bowel movements. Through trial and error and a great deal of self reflection, I have come to learn which foods trigger these reactions – gluten, dairy, fried foods, sugar – and generally manage the condition quite well. But it is also triggered by stress and lack of sleep (two obviously correlative problems), and thus far in my life I have neglected to address stress management as part of my health regimen.
Or rather, up until a couple of months ago, I had. It feels strange to look back now and try to understand my reticence in attempting different stress management techniques (other than exercise, which of course is one of the best). I think what it boils down to is something I like to call ‘selective laziness.’ I would not call myself a lazy person by any means, but trying something new and difficult, with no guarantee of success, just, well… seemed like a lot of work.
But I also enjoy a challenge. Or rather, very much dislike the idea of not being able to do something. I took up running at the beginning of the year for the sole reason that I was terrible at it, and couldn’t equate the notion of being fit with being unable to run for more than 5 minutes without feeling like my chest would cave in. Several months and a lot of effort later, I now run several times a week (and it’s awesome!).
My attitude towards meditation underwent a similar shift. I am surrounded by people who swear by meditation – my coworkers at CE, my loving partner, my friends – and have been gently (or not so gently) urging me to try it for some time. My previous attempts were half-hearted at best, resulting only in feelings of pent-up energy and frustration. Each time I would find myself suddenly desperate to move my body, to be productive, to be doing anything other than absolutely ‘nothing.’ It was remarkable how fidgety and impatient I would immediately become when trying to quiet my mind.
But a couple of months ago I finally got fed up with trying to manage my IBS symptoms through diet and exercise alone, since despite my best efforts, they still plagued me at seemingly random times. I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by trying something new, so I set myself a goal of meditating every day for 21 days. I had heard that it takes 21 days to establish a new habit, so that seemed a good place to start. If, after 21 days had passed, I still hated meditating and noticed no improvements in my mental or physical well-being, I would decide from there whether to continue or not having made an informed decision.
To help myself along, I turned to an app called Headspace, which features guided meditations on a variety of topics, and a 30 day Foundation Pack to get you started. I don’t want this to turn into a product promotion, but I do highly recommend the program for anyone who is interested in incorporating meditation into their own daily routine. It’s a wonderful resource and you can access some of the content for free. After completing the foundation course I elected to buy a full-year subscription, and absolutely plan to renew when the year ends.
On their website they offer a comprehensive, easy to understand outline of the scientifically proven benefits of meditation. I won’t go into in detail here, as we have covered this topic extensively, but I encourage you to spend some time with their research section and read some of our articles on the subject.
5 Ways Meditation Has Improved My Life
As someone who likes to plan (and control) every aspect of her life, it would be a gross understatement to say that stress and I are on ‘familiar’ terms. I used to wake up every day and jump right into the swing of things, checking work emails, drinking coffee, and hopping into the shower without taking the time to really centre myself and relax a little before going about the business of the day. It was always “go go go.”
I’ll admit that urge is still pretty strong some mornings, as I am by nature a ‘busy bee,’ but setting myself this challenge and seeing the benefits which I’ve experienced as a result has made it fairly easy to overcome those urges. Now I start each day feeling calm, relaxed, and happy. I wake up with buzzing thoughts, sure, but after I’ve taken the time to meditate everything within me slows – heart rate, thoughts, feelings, worries. It’s like waking up a second time to a day with infinite possibility.
And that wonderful sense of stillness extends its reach across the entirety of the day. I tend not to sweat the small stuff nearly as often, and get over it more quickly when I do.
More importantly, I now have a resource within myself that I can turn to when stress really does take hold. If I find myself getting really worked up about something, I can either close my eyes and take some deep breaths until my heart rate slows, or actually take out my headphones, pop on a guided meditation, and go through the exercise, wherever I am. The crazy thing about the human mind is that you really can “fake it ’till you make it.” If you create the physiological sensations associated with calmness, your brain will begin to feel calm. If you smile for long enough, your body and mind will respond as though you are happy. So rather than giving free reign to your stress, you can actively work to reduce it by tricking your brain into thinking the stressful situation has passed.
I spoke about my digestion issues earlier, though I neglected to mention that it was not at all uncommon for me to go 2-3 (sometimes 4-5) days without having a bowel movement, particularly during times of stress or poor sleep, especially when travelling. We spent 2 months backpacking through Europe last year and I can count on less than my 10 fingers how many times I went to the bathroom during that trip. So I was hoping, quite desperately, that reducing my stress was the thing I needed to do to turn things around, but I’ll admit it felt like a last-ditch effort at helping a hopeless cause. I was, nevertheless, determined to at least try, if only to say that I had.
Prepare yourselves, ladies and gentlemen.
The very first day I meditated I had a bowel movement almost immediately after. Cautiously optimistic, I decided to chalk that one up to coincidence. No point in getting my hopes up this early in the game, right?
The second day also saw me gratefully visiting the washroom, and nearly every day after that.
I was completely blown away. Never in my wildest dreams did I imagine such a profound, tangible change would occur from doing something so simple. This shift might not sound like much to those of you who have perfectly regular bowels, but for someone who has struggled with incontinence for a great deal of time, let me tell you – what a relief. Since starting this challenge, the only time I’ve had trouble going to the bathroom has been on days when I had to be up incredibly early (and therefore did not leave myself time to meditate, and did not get enough sleep).
Meditation trains the mind to simultaneously focus and relax, and I have definitely reaped the benefits of this training. I feel more present when participating in day-to-day activities and am less easily distracted while doing work.
More importantly, my strength of will has improved significantly. Just two weeks after starting this meditation challenge, I embarked on another, infinitely more difficult one which, prior to doing this mindfulness work, I never would have imagined attempting.
I decided to quit sugar. As I mentioned before, my diet is quite healthy and clean, but I have always had a love affair with sugar. I was pretty good at avoiding the refined and processed stuff, but definitely enjoyed baking with honey, maple syrup, and dates – all lovely in moderation, but not very beneficial when consumed daily and in large amounts. I had a nagging suspicion that my love for all things sweet was contributing to some of my digestive complaints and hindering my efforts at the gym, but the thought of going without my daily treats was truly terrifying. I attempted it once several months ago and gave up after a week, literally shaking with the effort it took to resist.
I believe meditation helped me develop the mental fortitude required to set a goal, create a plan for realizing it, and then follow through. I believe it strengthened my willpower and improved my confidence, endowing me with the unwavering belief that I could indeed accomplish anything I set my mind to. I believe it fostered a stronger connection between my mind and body, starting me on a path to better wellness which inevitably was going to lead to this necessary lifestyle change.
And so I set myself a 30 day sugar elimination challenge. And it was hard – harder than anything I’ve ever had to do before. But I am here, several weeks later, a changed woman. My cravings are gone, my energy is through the roof, and my post-meal bloating is (almost) non-existent.
Meditation has produced a much more subtle effect on my relationships. It isn’t as though I went from having daily arguments with my partner or parents to an idyllic existence with them; my relationships were in good shape to begin with. But my relationship with myself is changing. Meditation is a form of self love, and in practicing this type of kindness, I am learning gratitude and acceptance – acceptance of my strengths and of my weaknesses, gratitude for everything I have been given in life, or achieved, or have yet to achieve. And this attitude towards myself cannot help but extend outward to everyone else in my life.
If I feel happier, so too does my parter, who shares the same space with me. If I judge myself more forgivingly, I will do the same for those around me, and they in turn will feel more comfortable, more accept-able, more loved. And if I focus on gratitude instead of lack, my life will feel more abundant (and perhaps may very well just be), and I will be more inclined to generosity (the practice of which is proven to make people feel good about themselves). It’s like an endless happiness cycle that ripples outwards to everyone I come into contact with. We respond to and are affected by the energies of others, so being healthy and happy truly is the best thing you can do for the people who love you.
I’m not going to belabour this point much. I think the fact that my health has improved is pretty self-evident, given all of the above changes. Meditation, quite literally, improves everything in your life. It effectively improves the well-being of your mind and your body, which then improves your relationships, your creativity, and your work life, all of which work together to create a better, happier, more balanced you.
Take the word of this one-time skeptic and do yourself and your loved ones a favour – give yourself a little headspace!
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