Living in a World of Distraction
[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
Once upon a time, I dated a man-child-thing who was lovely in some ways but prone to emotional dysregulation. (Aren't we all?) He told me he would meditate for long stretches of time, tapping into a sort of energetic high, or something. Meditating for an hour seemed, to me, an abhorrent waste of time, but I listened politely as he described how it helped him, or what he thought about, or whatever. Meditating for an hour also seemed like something most adults don't have the time to do, what with work and family and social things and hobbies and bills and car payments. But hearing him wax poetical about the benefits of meditation made me curious, so I downloaded one of those free meditation apps and started with an unintimidating 3 minute meditation session.
I've been meditating for a total of four days at the time of this writing, but I have noticed a few things: I feel more relaxed and less stressed, my breathing is deeper, I'm able to calm my incessant thinking. One big reason I wanted to start meditating in the first place was to help my attention. I'm in the middle of starting a new job with a lot of moving parts, and my life outside of work is happily full, which means my wee little brain barely ever gets the chance to turn off. I've noticed a franticness about myself lately: email her, call him, text these people back, find time to write, find time to run, find time to respond. I feel like I'm always always responding, always hyper-connected, and my attention span is spiraling.
Researchers and mental health professionals have long warned us that persistent distractions can eroded our ability to concentrate, increase stress, and jeopardize our mental health. A study by London’s Institute of Psychiatry found that persistent interruptions and distractions at work had a profound negative effect on individual productivity. They can also drain us and have the same effect as losing a night of sleep. The study also found that those distracted by emails and phone calls saw a 10-point fall in their IQ, and that every distraction took 3-5 minutes to recover from, meaning that people are losing a lot of productive time. Finally, and this is something I've noticed personally, frequent distractions create a physiological hyper-alert state that activates adrenaline and cortisol production. Our hyper-connected world is stressing us out, which is in turn making us all madly unhealthy.
Psychiatrist Edward Bullmore, author of The Inflamed Mind, said, "In the short term we adapt well to a lot of demands. But in the long term, the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol create a physiological hyper-alert state that is always scanning for stimuli, provoking a sense of addiction that is temporarily assuaged by checking in.” That state of addiction is why so many of us are glued to our phones, addicted to social media, and incapable of disconnecting without experiencing symptoms of withdrawal.
All of this is enough to make me want to throw my phone into the ocean, but I wouldn't want to injure a wayward sea turtle. So, I started meditating in the hopes that I might calm the fuck down and concentrate better. So far, it seems to be helping but don't trust my experience. There are a host of benefits to meditating, including:
1. Reduced Stress
Research has shown that consistent meditation reduces stress, lowers cortisol. and may help stress-related conditions like post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia, and irritable bowel system. Your body thanks you.
2. Reduced Anxiety
Hyper-connectivity can definitely elevate feelings of anxiety, especially for those prone to anxiety like yours truly. One study found that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation helped reduce symptoms of anxiety in people with generalized anxiety disorder, along with improving stress reactivity and coping.
3. Better Emotional Health
Meditation has been shown to improve self-image and optimism as well as enhance self-awareness. Meditation can help you tap into your body's signals, enabling you to give you body the rest or activity it needs.
4. Lengthens Attention Spans
Meditation forces me to sit still and avoid distraction, which I'm hoping will eventually increase my ability to concentrate for prolonged periods of time. Lots of studies show that increased attention is a side effect of consistent meditation, and one study even found that meditation can help prevent mind-wandering, worrying, and poor attention.
5. May Reduce Memory Loss
The improved focus you can gain through regular meditation may boost your memory and mental clarity. These benefits can help fight age-related memory loss and dementia.
6. May Help Addicts Stay Sober
The mental discipline you can develop through meditation may help you break substance dependency by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviors. You can learn to redirect your attention, manage emotions/impulses, and increase self-awareness (see above).
7. Decrease Blood Pressure
A meta-analysis of 12 studies enrolling nearly 1,000 participants found that meditation helped reduce blood pressure. This was more effective among older volunteers and those who had higher blood pressure prior to the study but anyone at any age could benefit less pressure, in our blood or otherwise.
P.S. Watch this review of the difference between the Calm and Headspace meditation apps, download some meditation music, or download Waking Up, Sam Harris's meditation app.