Dr Jennifer Ashton was at the height of her career as chief medical correspondent for the Good Morning America show.
But the mother-of-two's personal life was in disarray as she dealt with the aftermath of her ex-husband's suicide.
"In addition, I was experiencing more stress in my professional life, and I just couldn't keep up with the routine.
"It felt as though I was suffocating, with less and less air coming into my lungs, but I
was too breathless to even reach for the oxygen mask I knew was by my side."
She felt she needed some self-care. So as the holiday season wrapped up, she decided to give up alcohol for January.
Her success then lead to her setting herself a new challenge for each month of the year.
They included eating less sugar, more sleep, less screen time and more hydration.
She documented her challenges in her new book, The Self-Care Solution. In the extract below, she shares how meditation helped her lose weight and gain empathy.
I decided to make it my mission to meditate for 20 minutes every single day, seven days a week, for an entire month.
To be successful, I knew I had to practice this first thing in the morning, before my day started and I got too busy, not waiting until I got home from work, when I knew I'd be too tired. I also preferred morning meditation — it helped immediately establish the right mental energy and mood I wanted for the rest of the day.
Despite knowing I was about to pick up a practice that would make me feel amazing, I was still slightly anxious on the first day, worried whether I'd really be able to find the time to meditate daily for an entire month.
After all, this wasn't like February's challenge where push-ups and planks took me no more than a few minutes in the morning. But I knew my concerns over time were silly —
and made me seem like a hypocrite.
Whenever patients, friends, or family members say to me they can't find time to exercise or do something beneficial for their physical health, I always respond, you don't find the time, you make the time.
I repeated this to myself the first day — and throughout the first week. I was going to make the time, because my mental health and mood depended on it.
For the first morning, I set my alarm for 5am instead of 5.30am (my normal GMA wake-up time), ensuring I'd have plenty of time to meditate and finish my morning routine. Still, when my phone sounded so early in the morning, I felt like chucking the thing and
my whole monthly meditation out my New York City apartment window.
But I fought the urge and got up anyway, made coffee, and then climbed back into bed, sitting upright on some stacked pillows. The night before, I had downloaded a free meditation app, Insight Timer, which tracks your practice.
I hit the start button on my phone, closed my eyes . . . and I did it.
Almost immediately after I opened my eyes, I felt awash in calmness. At the same time, it was as though someone had pumped high-octane fuel into my brain: I felt more focused and mentally energised.
I don't suffer from attention deficit disorder (ADD), but the best way I can describe the sensation was that I'd been living with untreated ADD for months and all of a sudden, I was taking the right medication. Shazam! That's how instantly more focused
For the rest of the day and throughout the first few days, I couldn't believe how much calmer, more focused, and more positive I felt. Daily decisions and difficulties didn't seem to perturb me as much.
Traffic on my drive to my medical practice? I could be zen. I also felt like I could go from task to task more efficiently and effectively, with more mental stamina.
For example, I didn't have to analyse for hours how I was going to synthesise a complicated health issue for a TV audience or get thrown off by a single letter or bill while charging through a massive pile of mail.
If someone had taken a scan of my brain, I'd bet my neurons were now firing faster. And without any medical exam, I knew my levels of cortisol, or the body's stress hormone, were significantly lower, which, in turn, made me less hungry.
That first week, I meditated six of the seven days. I was thrilled and also a bit dumbstruck, now questioning why I had let my practice slip from my life in the first place.
I did keep thinking about how I had to wake up 30 minutes earlier for the rest of the
month, but I told myself this was only a means to the end. And so far, the end was proving to be mentally marvellous.
The second week of my Meditation Challenge, I didn't have to be on GMA every single morning. Freedom! Whenever this happens, I feel like I'm back in grade school, getting ready for bed at night knowing the next day is going to be a snow day and celebrating that I don't have to get up so early.
The only problem is that snow days don't tend to make for good meditation days: Without a habitual deadline to get out the door for GMA, my mornings lose structure. Instead, I assume I have all the time in the world, which, this week, meant not setting my
alarm early to meditate.
While this felt like a delicious luxury — sleep, as I realised months later in November's challenge, is one of my most prized commodities — the result was that, by the time
it occurred to me that I hadn't done my 20 minutes of zen, I had to bolt out of my apartment to make it into my medical office on time.
At the end of the day, I was disappointed in myself, not only that I'd messed up my challenge but also because I'd spent the whole day feeling less positive and mentally sharp, and noticeably more disorganised.
This hadn't happened to me last month when I missed a day of planks and push-ups —there was no noticeable fallout from failing the challenge that day. But not meditating had
negative ramifications — and I didn't like it.
That one morning was the only day during the week I didn't meditate — I had learned my lesson. Even though I didn't have a morning routine on weekends, I found it easy to find time to meditate.
On Saturdays and Sundays, I had more than 16 hours, from the time I woke up at 6am (yes, I'm still an early riser, even on the weekends) until I went to bed around 10 at night, to fit in my practice, with no patients, sometimes no GMA segments, and
without hundreds of emails to distract me.
I still felt the daily benefits I did the first week: I was more focused, positive, and productive. But now I felt my appetite was increasingly controlled, with fewer cravings and impulsive decisions for unhealthy items.
And while it may sound somewhat new age to some readers, after meditating for two weeks, I felt like I'd created this soft cushion between my heart, brain, and body
and the harsh stress we all face every day.
GMA host George Stephanopoulos once described the benefits he gets from meditating this way, and I totally agree.
Even though I now knew skipping my morning practice was a bad idea, I still ended up flagging on two sessions the third week. My first failure was on a weekend—and I had no excuse. I went to bed embarrassed by my slip. It was a shake-my-head kind of moment as I thought to myself, Are you kidding? What happened?
The second day I missed was during the workweek — and it was entirely due to an oversight that derailed my practice. I had started to meditate in the morning but didn't set my phone to Do Not Disturb as I always do.
And that's like Murphy's Law: whenever you assume someone won't call or text is exactly when they call or text.
But instead of ignoring my phone, I opened my eyes and looked over, immediately deciding I had to call back the sender. (I clearly hadn't experienced all the benefits yet from my Mindful Tech Challenge in August.)
By the time I got off the phone, I had missed my window to meditate before work.
Similar to the week before, I was angry at myself for missing my practice. Was that phone call really more important than a full day of mental energy and calm? My meditation mistakes were affecting me profoundly, leaving me in a mental and emotional
deficit for the day.
Like many people, I live a stressful life, both professionally and personally. On the two days I missed my meditation practice, I was acutely more aware of both kinds of stress in my life. This wasn't because I encountered more difficulties throughout the day — I just
couldn't handle the stress that did present itself as well as I did when I meditated in the morning.
The days I did meditate in Week 3, though, I felt more positive, productive, and focused as usual, but also noticeably more able to cope with whatever life threw my way.
Annoying emails? No problem. I was also seeing another benefit I didn't feel the first
few weeks. Although I'm typically a good sleeper, I can struggle to fall asleep when I'm stressed and also wake up through the night worrying about things. Yet despite what was happening in my life during my Meditation Challenge, the third week in particular, I
still slept shockingly well.
And the only X factor, or thing I was doing differently, was I was now meditating.
The last week of the challenge, I was determined to meditate every day. I wanted there to be no question whether or not I could do it: I was intent on conquering my meditation month. After all, I had gone four full weeks—and then some—without a single drink
during my dry month, so I knew I could do a full week of meditating without one lapse.
And I did just that. Yes!
The result: I was amazed how easy it was to practice daily. Better still, you can program your alarm to one time for the full week and never think twice about it. (Okay, maybe I thought twice a few times about getting up at 5am, but it was truly worth it).
Moreover, I was delighted by how I felt with so much sustained positivity, mental focus, and energy. Without a doubt, Week 4 was one of the best I had had in years, and not because anything wonderful happened or all the stress from the week prior suddenly evaporated. The same difficulties were there, but I was able to handle them more adeptly while feeling happier and upbeat.
Something else happened that week: I started to feel more connected to people. I like to think I'm typically compassionate and connected at my baseline, so it was surprising to feel these emotions amplified.
But since I felt more positive and less stressed, I had more patience, understanding, and sympathy for people, even for those I could have a short fuse with in the past.
My sleep continued to be sound, and I had even more mental energy and focus than the prior week. Interestingly, as my appetite now hovered at basement-floor levels, I felt as though I was starting to lose a little body fat. What?, I thought as I started dreaming
again about those bikinis I'd imagined during my push-ups and planks month.
Is there anything meditation won't help? To think that I'd really been worried about finding the time at the beginning of the month.
While the benefits I felt at the end of the month had been present in earlier weeks, now, after four weeks of consistent practice, they felt accentuated, more highly tuned, and seemed more likely to remain, even if I did miss a morning here or there. I was ending the month physically, mentally, and emotionally healthier, in addition to slightly lighter and leaner.
The Self-Care Solution
By Dr Jennifer Ashton
Published by Harper Collins
Out December 30