As we’ve been barraged with news about COVID-19, the uncertainty of the economy, the job market, and questionable plans on school openings, we’ve entered a highly stressful period in many people’s lives. When faced with problems that are out of our control, it can be difficult to manage the stress that comes with them.
The practice of meditation and mindfulness is one method people use to cope with these feelings. More employers are beginning to offer resources related to meditation and other ways of caring for our behavioral health and the physical side-effects of stress.
In a recent AllWays Health Partners member survey, three fourths of respondents indicated that not knowing how long the pandemic will last is their top concern during these difficult times. While many people experience acute stress, or short-term stress that comes from a specific event, the ongoing anxiety of the pandemic can easily turn into chronic stress. Long-term stress has both a mental and physical impact on our health, and can contribute to heart problems, weight gain, difficulty concentrating, and even a decreased immune system.
Employers taking action
This added stress has created an urgency for companies to find ways to help employees cope. Younger generations, in particular Millennials and Gen Z, who are more open about mental health issues, are calling for their employers to offer more mental health resources and benefits. This younger working population is also less concerned about the stigma of mental health care. And employers have answered their call.
According to a survey by the National Alliance of Healthcare Purchaser Coalitions, 53% of 256 employers indicated they are providing special emotional and mental health programs, including discounts on mental health and meditation apps, wellness coaches, and virtual services.
Other employers are implementing new initiatives to support employees. These initiatives are driving an upswing in business for companies, like Headspace, a meditation app company that has seen a 400% increase in requests from companies not yet using the app.
So, one might ask, “what is the buzz around meditation all about?”
What is meditation?
Meditation is a mental exercise involving relaxation, focus and awareness, which has proven to yield positive results in alleviating the body’s stress response. One way to think about meditation is that it is to the mind what physical exercise is to the body. It has a long history of use in improving calmness, physical relaxation and psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.
While there are many types of meditation, a common theme is that they all involve a quiet, distraction-free environment, a focus of attention, comfortable posture and an open attitude.
Meditation is broadly defined as the practice of acknowledging the mind in a way that can achieve ultimate consciousness and concentration. While some people use the term meditation with mindfulness interchangeably, they are connected and both refer to calming the mind. According to Lodro Rinzler, meditation expert, mindfulness is a type of meditation where one brings their full mind to an object.
There are many different meditation techniques and practices. Evidence shows that being more mindful in daily life can have a positive impact on one’s mental and physical health.
The power of meditation
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, meditation can help reduce stress, chronic pain (such as headaches), and blood pressure, as well as help your employees’ quit smoking and better navigate a variety of mental health conditions.
Stresses, like those that have resulted since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, are the body’s response to unforeseen adversities. When one encounters these threats or uncertainties, it increases the level of the stress hormone in the body and activates the autonomic nervous system, which drives one’s fight or flight response. Studies have revealed that people who meditate regularly have lower levels of stress hormone in their brains—leading to greater resilience in addressing the adversities we face.
Types of meditation
There are many types of meditation—one might find up to 17 different practices and techniques. Three of the more common types include:
Mindfulness meditation: This form of meditation involves being 100% aware and focused on the activity ones is doing and not thinking about anything else. It can be done virtually anywhere: while walking the dog, waiting in line at the supermarket, sitting in an airport terminal, and more. By truly focusing on the moment, one can train their brain to be less affected by stress.
Breath awareness: A type of mindful meditation, this approach encourages mindful breathing while ignoring other thoughts that come into your mind. The benefits are similar to mindfulness, including reduced anxiety, improved concentration and an ability to manage one’s emotions.
Transcendental meditation: Drawing from its origin in India, this type of meditation involves focusing on a particular mantra or phrase that is repeated during meditation (e.g., “Om” or “I am worthy). It’s shown to have positive results in reducing stress and anxiety.
How to practice meditation
This Harvard Health article provides some tips to getting started with mindfulness meditation. Given the many different types of meditation, it might take an individual some time to find the right one that works for them.
One might ask, “How often should I practice meditation?” There is no right or wrong answer. If a person is only able to meditate once a week, that might be the place to start. From there they can work up to a few sessions per week and eventually to once per day. Picking a particular day or time of day also helps to establish meditation as a habit that is easy to incorporate into a daily routine.
While employers are encouraged to check with their health insurance carrier to learn what programs and benefits are available to support their employees during this unprecedented time, individuals are also encouraged to explore their health benefits. Whether its resources related to meditation or other types of support programs, many have stepped up their offering. Health insurance carriers offer member portals on which individuals may find resources like meditation guides and access to behavioral health tools.
Check out these resources for more information about meditation and ways to reduce stress:
- AllWays Health Partners ongoing series of Community Workshops includes several webinars related to reducing stress and practicing mindfulness, including "How to Combat Stress with Good Nutrition," "Mindful Parenting," and more.
- Optum, AllWays Health Partners' behavioral health partner, is providing free and helpful resources at www.optumeap.com. There are podcasts, webinars, and FAQs on such topics as managing finances, grief and loss, anxiety, tips for parents, dealing with traumatic events, tips while working remotely, going back to school and many others.
- Calm and Headspace have both released free digital offerings to help the public cope with anxiety and panic. Calm’s online hub includes sleep stories, meditations, music and mindful movement. Headspace offers a collection of meditation content called Weathering the Storm. Employers can also access its free online collection of tools and resources to support mental health in the workplace.
- Mass General provides a wealth of virtual, home-accessible tools (apps, podcasts, videos, etc.) to support mindfulness, relaxation and movement.
- Brigham and Women’s Hospital mind-body consultant at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine discusses how to incorporate meditation into your life and ways to work through the common barriers.
If you’re not already offering ways to help your employees reduce stress, including programs like meditation, talk to your benefits advisor about what health plan may have available.