Alopecia is never life-threatening or extremely physically painful, however, the psychological impacts of alopecia can be devastating.
On the less severe side of those psychological impacts are feelings of isolation, embarrassment in social situations, and guilt. Individuals with alopecia may also experience grief over the loss of their hair or socially withdraw.
On the more severe side, alopecia is associated with an increased prevalence of psychiatric disorders such as a major depressive episode, anxiety disorder, social phobia, or paranoid disorder. It impacts an individual’s sense of self and identity and can lead to personal, social, and work-related issues.
There’s no cure for alopecia or the mental health issues that can come along with it. But, in recent years, extensive research on meditation has offered some insight into the potential mental and emotional health benefits of mindfulness.
What Is Meditation?
First documented in India between 5,000 and 3,5000 BCE, meditation has been around for thousands of years. The main benefit of a meditation practice, in terms of mental health, is developing mindfulness. That is, regular meditation results in a more mindful life.
But what is mindfulness? It’s a state of awareness in which you focus on the present moment. When you’re being mindful, you’re aware of everything happening inside and outside your body, including thoughts and physical sensations. Importantly, you’re aware of these things and you don’t pass judgement on them. You accept that they’re there and you recognize that there’s no need to change them.
Meditation is a vehicle for practicing mindfulness. Of course, it would be difficult to practice awareness of thoughts and sensations in the middle of a busy, noisy room. Meditation gives you the opportunity to tune into these subtle ques and slip into a state of awareness.
How Does Meditation Help with the Mental Health Aspects of Alopecia?
Meditation and mindfulness can relax the body and mind. But science has only just started to look into the less obvious benefits of meditation and mindfulness, including coping with pain, improving attention, and rewiring neural pathways so that we’re able to change habits and other behavioral patterns.
Practicing meditation to develop mindfulness is less about keeping your mind clear of thoughts, as is often the perception, and more about taking the power away from your thoughts and emotions. As you continually practice coming back to your breath and dismissing thoughts without judgment during a meditation, the way your brain and nervous system react in response to intrusive, anxious, self-deprecating, or depressive thoughts in real life also begins to change.
Although researchers aren’t 100% sure quite how this works, a recent study out of Yale University offers some insight. The study looked into the impact of mindfulness meditation on the default mode network (DMN) in the brain.
The DMN is the program our brain switches to when our minds are just wandering. Having an overly active DMN is associated with unhappiness, ruminating, and worry (about both the past and the future). It’s from this mind state that we question our appearance, diminish our self-esteem, and think all of the thoughts that cause stress, anxiety, and depression
What the researchers found is that meditation can quiet the DMN. What’s more, when the mind did go into the DMN state, people who meditated regularly could take themselves out of it better than others. This may be one of the reasons why meditation is so great at reducing stress, anxiety, and depression as well as improving self-image and self-esteem – aka all the emotional and mental health issues most associated with alopecia.
Meditation is something that’s accessible to everyone. There are no side effects, it doesn’t cost a penny, and you can do it every day.
But how do you get started? We recommend starting small. Trying to meditate for 25 minutes at a time when you’re first beginning is going to be difficult and not achieving your goal could have you quitting before you ever get started. Instead, start with putting three to five minutes aside, and follow these instructions:
- Find a quiet space where you’ll be free of distraction for your entire practice.
- Take a seat or lay down if it’s more comfortable.
- Set a timer for the amount of time you’d like to meditate (beginnings shouldn’t start with any more than five minutes).
- Check in and make any last necessary adjustments to ensure you’re comfortable.
- Close your eyes, place your hands either palm up or palm down on your knees, and straighten your spine.
- Now, notice your breath. Notice your breath as you inhale and exhale and how your belly rises and falls with each breath.
- If your mind wanders or thoughts enter your head, which they inevitably will, just notice it, return to your breath, and let it pass.
- Don’t pass judgement on your thoughts or yourself. Don’t try to change it. Simply notice and return to your breath.
- When the timer is up, don’t open your eye and jump up immediately. Take time to open your eyes to the light and to come back into your environment.
Remember that meditation is a practice. That is, you develop it over time, so don’t be discouraged should your mind wander often or if you find it difficult to return to your breath. Some days will be easier than others and the important things with meditation is that you’re consistent.
Additional Resources for Your Wellbeing
Meditation is a way to practice mindfulness, and mindfulness allows us to be present with our thoughts and emotions without judgment or the need to change them. Bringing mindfulness into our lives takes power away from those thoughts and emotions and, in turn, improves the mental health of practitioners. For individuals with alopecia, this may be one incredible way to deal with anxiety, depression, social phobias, and self-esteem issues.
But there are other ways, too. Check out more support resources here.
The opinions expressed in this article are not that of AAAF, but of their Sponsorship Recipient, Sheridan Ruth.
Sheridan received a sponsorship from AAAF for her meditation practice. You can also receive sponsorship by clicking here to learn more
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