By Brandon K. Dreiman
First responders are paying more attention to mental wellness than ever before. One frequently-encouraged method for improving mental wellness is meditation. While the benefits of meditation are at this point indisputable, some myths endure. One regularly mentioned concern is that a firefighter will lose his or her “edge” by meditating. The thought is that, by taking the time to slow down and calm oneself, a person may become more passive, thereby losing assertiveness and initiative. While this concern among so-called Type-A personalities is understandable, a distinction must be drawn between one’s “edge” and one’s “edginess.” Our edge is that quality within us that provides a decisiveness to take control, make decisions, and act. It’s hard to describe, but we all know it when we feel it. Despite these concerns over losing our edge, what one discovers is that meditation ultimately enhances focus. Thus, far from losing one’s edge, a firefighter will discover that their initiative and assertiveness become more refined through meditation. In other words, their ability to focus and act calmly, swiftly, and decisively without being derailed by knee-jerk responses and emotion is improved. This translates to better situational awareness and less tunnel vision in times of chaos and stress. Someone who is “edgy,” on the other hand, is nervous, anxious, angry, and irritable. These traits are kryptonite to a sharpened edge, and meditation is an incredibly valuable tool for decreasing this edginess, reducing negative emotions, and increasing self-awareness. Let us examine some other benefits and myths of this ancient practice, each in its turn.
A study at Johns Hopkins evaluated the relationship between mindfulness meditation and how well it worked to reduce symptoms of depression. “Researcher Madhav Goyal and his team found that the effect size of meditation was moderate, at 0.3. If this sounds low, keep in mind that the effect size for antidepressants is also 0.3, which makes the effect of meditation sound pretty good.” While meditation is not a magical cure for depression, neither are anti-depressants. The results of the study are significant enough to warrant talking to one’s physician about how to incorporate meditation into a depression treatment program.
It can help with addiction
There is no doubt that substance use disorders abound among first responders. If one has decided to stop using an addictive substance, it is always wise to consult with a physician to determine how to stop safely and how to minimize withdrawal symptoms. With that in mind, one way to help ensure a long-term cessation of use is through meditation. One study, in particular, showed that even brief meditation training of two weeks showed “increased activity for the meditation group in the anterior cingulate and prefrontal cortex”, both of which are directly related to self-control.
May improve immunity
When one evaluates the leading causes of firefighter deaths, it is clear that boosting our immune systems should be a priority. Studies suggest that meditation can provide a valuable link in the chain of enhanced immunity. One study noted that “countering a dysregulated or hypersensitive immune system profile with mindfulness meditation could theoretically function to improve organism fitness by enhancing immune defenses that protect against viral and bacterial infection, as well as various age-related disease conditions, including cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, arthritis, type-2 diabetes, frailty, and some cancers.” In another study, it was shown “that the meditative practice enhanced immune function without activating inflammatory signals. This suggests that meditation, as behavioral intervention, may be an effective component in treating diseases characterized by increased inflammatory responsiveness with a weakened immune system.” If meditation can impact heart disease and cancer, both of which are leading killers of firefighters every year, then it is worth our time to explore how we can implement it into our lives.
While there are far more benefits to meditation than those described above, hopefully, this is enough to convince you that meditation has value and is worth your time to try. Still, though, there are some myths about meditation that must be considered. The next portion of this discussion addresses some of the more common myths.
I can’t clear my mind
Meditation is not about clearing the mind. It is about watching the mind. Our everyday “monkey mind” is busy jumping from branch to branch (or topic to topic) all on its own without any thoughtful input from us. Meditation seeks to catch our mind as it is hopping around aimlessly, recognize those wandering thoughts, and bring our focus back to something definitive like our breath. “The goal isn’t to not think, it’s to not be so attached to your thoughts.” Far from being an obstacle to meditation, catching those wandering thoughts literally sharpens our ability to concentration every time we do it.
I don’t have time
Firefighters may believe that meditation requires one to sit in the lotus position in a dark, incense-filled room for hours on end. The reality is that just a few minutes of meditation can benefit us. Some meditation practices begin with three mindful breaths. That’s it – about a minute of meditation. Want to take it a step further? “Stop, pause and gently close your eyes. Count your breaths without trying to alter them, in and out, until you reach a count of five, then start over again.” After a few minutes of doing that, you will be able to feel the difference. Sure, some people meditate for 20, 30, or 60 minutes. But just like any new practice, you can begin by focusing on short meditations, and maybe your practice will grow from there.
I can’t sit still
Some folks have a hard time sitting still. It’s a fact. The good news is that one does not have to be seated to meditate. Walking meditation is a deliberate practice of focusing on one’s breath while … walking. You can walk in a forest, down your neighborhood sidewalk, or even in a bustling downtown district. The key is to observe the world around you without judgment. This means that you don’t attach stories to the sights you see, the sounds you hear, or the things you smell. You simply observe and breathe. It gets easier to observe without judgment the more often you engage in the practice, but for our purposes, the goal is to recognize that you don’t have to sit on a meditation cushion to meditate.
I tried, and I just can’t do it
Meditation is a skill. It is simple, but it is not easy. Even people who meditate daily sometimes don’t get into the “zone” during their practice. That is 100% normal, and every meditator should expect those days to happen. Part of meditation’s subtle beauty is that it teaches us to accept those “bad” days without getting upset. It allows us to observe that, “Huh. Today’s meditation wasn’t what I expected. That’s okay. I’ll try again tomorrow.” Boom. You have learned about yourself and your practice without getting upset or judging yourself for it. That is tremendously empowering, and it is a stress-reduction technique that you will automatically start to employ in your everyday life. You see, even when meditation “doesn’t work,” it is working exactly as it should.
While this discussion only scratches the surface of a gigantic topic, the goal is to simply raise awareness about the benefits of meditation while hopefully dispelling some of the common myths. If you want to learn more about meditation you can look for books and articles that describe the various styles of practicing. Also, there are tons of meditation videos on YouTube and several meditation apps one can explore to find the style that suits him or her the best. See what’s out there and how you can explore this incredible wellness tool. With a little practice, you will see results.
Brandon K. Dreiman is a Captain and 20-year veteran of the Indianapolis Fire Department where he serves as the Coordinator of Firefighter Wellness & Support. He is a Certified Addiction Peer Recovery Coach and a Certified Recovery Specialist with a Substance Abuse endorsement in the State of Indiana. He is also a Registered Yoga Teacher, meditation instructor, and the founder of the Naptown Yogawalla in Indianapolis, IN.
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4. “The National Survey on Drug Use and Health revealed that up to 29% of firefighters engage in alcohol abuse, and as many as 10% of firefighters may be currently abusing prescription drugs.” Hilliard, J. (October 22, 2021). The relationship between addiction and emergency responders. https://www.addictioncenter.com/addiction/emergency-responders/#:~:text=The%20National%20Survey%20on%20Drug,firefighters%20than%20the%20general%20population.
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8. Resnick, A. (July 12, 2021). Meditation facts: why you don’t have to clear your mind. Verywell mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/meditation-myths-why-clearing-your-mind-is-a-myth-5179587
9. Sweet, J. (May 30, 2020). 11 meditation myths you should stop believing. Forbes. https://www.forbes.com/sites/jonisweet/2020/05/30/11-meditation-myths-you-should-stop-believing/?sh=12934bdc55b6
10. Some examples of meditation types are guided, mantra, mindfulness, qi gong, and tai chi.
11. A few available apps are Insight Timer, Mind Space, Calm, and Plum Village.