Meditate 2020’s Hangover Away: Towards a Year of Solid Habits
Poor sleep, dwindling study habits, lack of concentration? Looking to fortify habits? The answer might be as simple as a meditation app.
Taking stock of everything that took place the year before usually accompanies the rituals of making resolutions as we transition into a new year. In an ordinary year, this is a cumbersome enough exercise. In a year filled with illness, uncertainty, lockdowns, prolonged isolation, and abrupt changes to how we live our lives this is made all the more challenging. For students, this has manifested as an added burden to the immense pressures of school. Our social interactions, that are so enriching and essential to balancing the hardships of academic life, have no doubt been curtailed by the ongoing pandemic.
So, if you have found yourself struggling to cope with rogue mental health, whether it's anxiety or depression, or battling a dysfunctional sleep schedule, or if you are even just looking for ways to improve productivity, and sharpen concentration on schoolwork, the Calm app is really worth checking out.
Calm is an app that offers an impressively rich archive of recorded meditations, based on the principles of mindfulness that guides users on targeted areas including, but not limited to:
· Emotional regulation
For those unfamiliar with the concept of mindfulness, as used in the contemporary Western scene, it is a practice of focusing attention to your body, emotions and surroundings with roots in long-standing Buddhist meditative practices. Mindfulness meditation is all about being attentive to the present moment. It’s about calming the busyness of the mind and learning to create a distance from some of our more distracting and domineering thoughts that can take us away from the present. Left unchecked, these usurping thoughts can lead to dismal effects on how we perform and show up in our daily lives
In the Western medical scene, mindfulness was taken up by clinicians and academics, perhaps most famously led by the likes of Jon Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist by training from MIT and professor emiritus of medicine at Harvard who coined the term “mindfulness” in the early 70’s. Kabat-Zinn mainstreamed mindfulness meditation in the therapeutic setting through a successful series of meditation practices available to the public, targeting issues such as addiction, stress reduction, and chronic pain. His integration of mindfulness practice is one of the most well-known explosions of the modern-day medicine mind-body turn. What this means is that rather than understanding health through a lens of bodily ailments, emerging understandings seek to frame health as a product of the interaction between the psychological and corporeal.
On the App
Users get to choose from a number of instructors, select the length of their meditation, choose background music or sounds from nature, and of course the purpose of their meditation. The app is as customizable as it is interactive and gives the user considerable freedom to set up their ideal meditative micro-climate.
The top series to shine the spotlight on, which is emblematic of the philosophy of the app, is the Emotion series. In this series, the guides address topics relating to self-soothing, aloneness, grief, worry, burnout, and anger. The intro session lays the brief, but important, groundwork for understanding the purpose of the series. Here, the guide discusses the reality that many individuals were never equipped with the insights and tools at a younger age to face difficult and challenging emotions. For many, as they get older, this means resorting to maladaptive strategies of avoidance, destructive habits, or escapism as a means to alleviate the discomfort of the emotions. Yet, as the series makes clear, it’s never too late to begin cultivating effective habits and learning more constructive approaches to facing painful emotions we tend to physically flinch from. A grounded meditation practice offers a way to overturn these ill-fitting coping mechanisms. The act of being attentive and conscientiously tracking difficult emotions allows us to metabolize, and ultimately cap, the lifespan of those emotions (e.g. anger, anxiety) that attempts to ignore will only intensify.
It’s important to note that Calm isn’t packaged as an app only useful in situations of distress. It’s a particularly trusty sidekick in your day-to-day life because of the array of mindfulness-based practices that can markedly improve multiple aspects of daily life. Whether it’s a concentration boost you need between study periods, or a wind-down aid after a long day of intense studying, meditation is a fast-track method of engaging your parasympathetic nervous system and turning the volume down on the activity in your body.
The sessions of mindful eating are particularly interesting to try, as they can be a way to redefine your relationship to your eating habits and to pleasure derived from foods you consume. If you are a stress eater, or tend to mindlessly eat while streaming a show, slowing down and tuning your mind to your eating practices can bring attention to all the different sensations that accompany the act of eating, and even helps to synchronize us with the natural cues that we often override in our bodies
On the Science
Concentration, mental acuity and performance are all affected by poor sleep, stress, anxiety, and depression in rather shocking ways. If you ever find yourself with a drifting mind while you really should be cutting through an unconscionable amount of work, the culprit may very well be a mind that could greatly benefit from some practicing mindfulness.
One of my favourite analogies for the effects of mindfulness on the brain is that the brain, in its glory, is like an untrained muscle, the practice of mindfulness should be conceptualized as a way to train the mind. A couple of meditations sporadically included in our routines will not yield any substantive results –much like we wouldn’t expect any marked effects from going to the gym once a month. While there are short term benefits, and I can personally attest to the power of a meditation if one is in a state of heightened anxiety or of inattention or anxiety, the long-term and substantive benefits require a commitment. The upswing of this is that there is a positive-looping effect whereby the more you practice, the more you notice changes and improvements in your overall well-being that loop you into further practice.
How is it that mindfulness practice actually yields these kinds of results? And what, if any, effects can it have at the molecular level? The science behind mindfulness is pretty astonishing. Research has shown that genes in inflammatory pathways, and their downstream products in turn, exhibit downregulation with meditative techniques. Alongside mapping out how meditative techniques regulate pro-inflammatory genes involved in complex pathways, researchers have also tested groups for speed of cortisol recovery from stressful situations, with the control group showing slower recovery rates versus the experimental group. The fact that meditation has demonstrably shown altered gene expression is remarkably powerful – these are the kinds of results that likely would have Descartes rolling in his grave. It’s powerful in that regulation of our genome, or inhibition of pathways, which is typically relegated to harsh and potent pharmaceuticals, can be attained through a non-intrusive daily practice. This is a sobering reminder of what our minds can do when left unchecked, but also of what we might accomplish if we better understand the mind-body connection.
The catch in all of this is the app’s price tag of €49.99 annually, which may seem steep. The app does however offer a 7-day introductory period (in fact, I suggest if you're curious, you download it, cancel right away and still have access for seven days so you don’t forget). Seven days is more than enough to decide if the app has something to offer you. If paying this seems too much for something you may be rightly skeptical about, there are countless other platforms through which you can gain access to meditations (Headspace has recently launched programming on Netflix). Ultimately the app is a flashy and shiny toy that offers some great content, but solid mindfulness practice as an end can certainly be achieved without it.
Above all, the most critical piece of advice to bear in mind, is that this app, or any other meditative guidance for that matter, is that they cannot do the work for you – this is something you’ll either take on or not. What the app does offer though, is a fantastic template which structures a way to create a practice and it is a powerful tool to successfully create strong, lasting, and crisis-proof habits.