In her cover interview for the October 2018 issue of Vogue, Lady Gaga revealed new details about her mental health and what it’s like to live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic pain, which she says were both triggered by a sexual assault she experienced at age 19.
In the interview, Gaga described her PTSD symptoms as being like “that feeling when you’re on a roller coaster and you’re just about to go down the really steep slope.”
“[You know] that fear and the drop in your stomach?” she said. “My diaphragm seizes up. Then I have a hard time breathing, and my whole body goes into a spasm. And I begin to cry. That’s what it feels like for trauma victims every day, and it’s…miserable… I always say that trauma has a brain. And it works its way into everything that you do.”
Gaga said in the interview that “it took years” for her to talk about first the assault, and then the PTSD. “It was almost like I tried to erase it from my brain. And when it finally came out, it was like a big, ugly monster. And you have to face the monster to heal,” she said. “For me, with my mental health issues, half of the battle in the beginning was, I felt like I was lying to the world because I was feeling so much pain but nobody knew. So that’s why I came out and said that I have PTSD, because I don’t want to hide—any more than I already have to.”
Gaga says her sexual assault also triggered her fibromyalgia, but that her health is currently on an upswing.
“I get so irritated with people who don’t believe fibromyalgia is real. For me, and I think for many others, it’s really a cyclone of anxiety, depression, PTSD, trauma, and panic disorder, all of which sends the nervous system into overdrive, and then you have nerve pain as a result,” she said. “People need to be more compassionate. Chronic pain is no joke. And it’s every day waking up not knowing how you’re going to feel.”
She continued, “It’s getting better every day, because now I have fantastic doctors who take care of me and are getting me show-ready.”
As SELF wrote previously, fibromyalgia is a mysterious illness that causes symptoms like extreme fatigue and widespread chronic pain. Although the exact cause of fibromyalgia is still unknown, it can indeed be triggered by psychological or physical trauma, Vernon Williams, M.D., a sports neurologist and director of the Kerlan-Jobe Center for Sports Neurology and Pain Medicine at Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles, previously told SELF.
And while there isn’t currently a cure for the illness, Dr. Williams said the symptoms, such as chronic pain, can often be managed with the help of treatments like oral medication (like antidepressants, pain relievers, or anti-seizure drugs), cognitive behavioral therapy, and physical therapy. Therapy and/or medications may also help treat the symptoms of PTSD or other accompanying mental health issues.
You know you should meditate. You’ve probably had plenty of friends tell you so and seen plenty of headlines about the benefits of meditation. It makes you happier, healthier, calmer, glowier, smarter, younger, nicer—a generally better human, or so you’ve heard. Maybe you’ve even dipped your toe into meditating once or twice, downloading Headspace after a stressful day, and couldn’t really motivate yourself to make it stick. Or, hey, maybe you are one of those people who actually sets aside 30 minutes a day to meditate.
Considering society’s fleeting attention span when it comes to wellness advice, it’s impressive that meditation—which has roots in a variety of ancient Eastern traditions like Jainism and Buddhism—has achieved this status as a pillar of well-being.
But is meditation’s ubiquity based on rock-solid scientific research? Or are there other factors to thank for its staying power? What exactly is meditation capable of, and should we all be doing it? We spoke to several experts behind the growing body of research on the health effects of meditation to hear more about what the science tells us—and what we have yet to learn.
What is meditation?
“Meditation is generally used as a broad umbrella term that covers a wide array of contemplative practices, many of which are drawn from Buddhist traditions but have often been adapted and secularized for application in Western society,” neuroscientist Wendy Hasenkamp, Ph.D., science director at the Mind & Life Institute and visiting professor of contemplative sciences at the University of Virginia, tells SELF. “[It is] a broad set of practices that seek to use the mind in specific, intentional ways.”
When you think of mindfulness, you probably think of being present or focusing on the current moment, and that’s the gist of it. The most widely accepted definition of mindfulness today is attributed to Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., a molecular biologist, meditation teacher, and professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School (UMMS). Kabat-Zinn once described mindfulness as an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.”
In 1979, Kabat-Zinn developed a program called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) at UMMS that, as Vago explains, would help bring the principles and practices of mindfulness meditation traditions, largely rooted in the Buddhist Dharma, into a mainstream medical setting for clinical application and scientific study (work that continues today at the school’s Center for Mindfulness.
So, mindfulness meditation is the practice of experiencing and cultivating this quality of mindfulness “by a steady practice of attending to the breath, body sensations, thoughts, feelings and even awareness itself,” Susan Smalley, Ph.D., professor emeritus of psychiatry at UCLA and founder of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center, tells SELF.
This is sometimes called open monitoring or open awareness, says Vago. At the center of a variety of mindfulness meditation practices is “learning how to let go of distractions as attention is pulled away, and to do so with a gentle or kind quality,” Smalley says.
As Vago explains, “You open your mind and your attention to any object that arises, and you gently note and label whatever arises and passes, without following those thoughts or feelings down the rabbit hole, so to speak.”
All of this might sound familiar if you’ve ever tried this yourself, maybe while lying in Savasana at the end of yoga class. You focus on the sensations of your rib cage rising and falling as you inhale and exhale; then your mind wanders to thoughts of dinner prep or shopping, before you redirect your attention back to the present moment, focusing again on your breath. That is, in essence, mindfulness meditation.
Today, mindfulness meditation is the practice for which the most convincing body of evidence exists.
Many clinical trials still adhere to Kabat-Zinn’s official curriculum for MBSR, which has two main components that make up an eight-week intervention program: in-class group instruction by a highly trained teacher for two and a half to three and a half hours, once a week, and at-home practice for about an hour, six or seven days a week, to apply those learnings independently. The at-home practice includes both 45 minutes of formal mindfulness practices (including sitting meditations, body scan meditations, walking meditations, and hatha yoga) and five to 15 minutes of informal mindfulness practices (such as being aware of your thoughts, behaviors, emotions, reactions, and sensations during regular daily activities). There is also an all-day retreat during week six.
Other studies use regimens modeled after MBSR in principle and practice, which are grouped under the label mindfulness-based interventions (MBIs), Vago says. (The degree to which they adhere to the original structure varies; they may be shorter, for example, or focus on certain practices but exclude others.) There is one MBI designed specifically for the treatment of depression known as mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT)—a mix of MBSR and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)—that is now regarded as scientifically valid as MBSR.
Obviously, mindfulness meditation looks very different outside of the clinical world, and practices can vary from person to person—from the kind of meditation they practice, to how often they do it, and for how long. The majority of people who meditate aren’t following a formal program with an hour of practice every day plus weekly group classes with specially trained teachers personally coaching them and researchers keeping tabs.
But the scientists conducting research need to be able to compare apples to apples when they’re studying meditation, and these formalized programs are a way to control that variability and ensure that researchers are looking at the effects of the same active ingredient in their studies.
You may have already read dozens of articles with flashy headlines about meditation.
There are one-off studies looking at meditation’s potential effects on nearly every aspect of physical or mental health. The stories those kinds of studies produce might grab your attention, but they’re pops of color when what we’re looking for is the big, real-world picture.
The explosion in the field over the last few years has led to an overwhelming number of one-off studies about the effects of meditation on just about any health-related issue. According to PubMed, the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s database of biomedical papers, there are nearly 8,000 papers on mindfulness or meditation today, more than half of which were published since 2014. (There were fewer than 800 in 2000.)
With the thousands of studies out there, “You will find data that supports that it’s good for everything,” Vago points out. As a result, the benefits of meditation have, in many cases, been overblown thanks to headlines harping on awesome-sounding but unsubstantial studies. (Several leaders in the field, including Vago, voiced these concerns and many others earlier this year in a critical paper titled “Mind the Hype.”
As with many other areas of medical science, the most sound evidence emerges from meta-reviews and meta-analyses. These are rigorous, large-scale papers that aggregate data from a bunch of individual studies (all meeting a given set of criteria) and perform statistical analyses in order to identify the most consistent, reliable findings in the field. This prevents fluke findings from slipping through the cracks and any one study receiving undue weight. In science, replication of findings is key; the more studies that point in the same direction, the more confident scientists feel about that path of discovery.
The experts we spoke to agree that, when looking at the science on the benefits of mindfulness meditation, there are three conditions with a strong and convincing body of evidence to support its effects: depression, anxiety, and chronic pain.
Although the research still is not definitive, the positive effects of mindfulness meditation on these conditions “is holding up to the strongest, strictest standards of research” in well-designed, well-powered trials, Vago says.
Many of these rigorous studies are randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which participants are randomly assigned to either receive the treatment being tested (in this case, a mindfulness-based intervention) or be in a control group, to which the treatment group is compared at the end. The people in the control group may receive no treatment, a placebo, or a different kind of treatment. Often, the control group will receive an evidence-based therapy (EBT)—a well-studied conventional treatment for certain conditions, such as antidepressants for depression. Researchers can also get creative to control for placebo effects, using “sham mindfulness meditation” or psychological placebo groups (such as taking educational classes about depression), to control for such factors as the expectation of getting better, getting attention from a professional, or group support, and isolate the active ingredient, e.g. mindfulness meditation.
Vago points to a heavily cited meta-analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 that evaluated the strength of evidence for several different meditation practices in improving a variety of “stress-related outcomes” related to both mental and physical health. The strongest evidence they found was for MBSR, MBCT, and MBI in improving depression, anxiety, and pain.
Here’s what the research tells us about meditation’s effects on depression and anxiety.
The authors of the JAMA study determined “moderate evidence” exists to support that mindfulness meditation programs can help reduce depression and anxiety over eight weeks, and that the effects lingered to a degree three to six months later. Now, “moderate evidence” may not sound super exciting, but when evaluating something as vague and multifaceted as meditation and mental health, it’s impressive.
“Moderate evidence is exactly what it sounds like,” Vago explains. “Results are positive using [the] most rigorous standards.” In looking at the effects on depression, for instance, in the JAMA study, “The effect sizes are comparable to what you would expect to get from taking antidepressants over eight weeks,” he explains. “That’s huge.” (Participants receiving MBIs also fared better than participants getting no treatment and those in a psychological control group.)
A February 2018 meta-analysis in Clinical Psychology Review that assessed 142 clinical trials, with a total of more than 12,000 participants with a variety of mental and behavioral health conditions, reached the same conclusion. Researchers found that MBIs were generally just as effective as evidence-based therapies (EBTs)—such as standard first-line treatments like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) or antidepressants—for people with depression and anxiety, both immediately post-treatment and in follow-ups.
MBCT in particular has been found to be effective for those with depression, especially recurrent depression, neuroscientist Gaëlle Desbordes, Ph.D., a radiology instructor at Harvard Medical School and researcher at the Massachusetts General Hospital Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, tells SELF. One 2016 meta-analysis published in JAMA Psychiatry found MBCT reduced the risk of depression relapse in people with recurrent depression as well as antidepressants did.
Desbordes, who is currently conducting a clinical trial on this very topic, says that although some people in the field hoping for more dramatic results were initially disappointed that MBCT didn’t outperform antidepressants, these kinds of analyses show that MBCT actually works. “This means that [MBIs] could be tried as an alternative to antidepressants for people who are hesitant or want to avoid the side effects of those medications,” Hasenkamp says.
Exactly how mindfulness meditation could help improve somebody’s depression or anxiety is not totally clear yet, but it might have to do with rumination.
Scientists believe there is a link between mental illnesses like depression and ruminative thinking (revisiting the same thoughts over and over and over again, often about yourself, usually about the past or future, and often without your choosing to do so). This kind of thinking seems to happen in our Default Mode Network (DMN), which is exactly what it sounds like: the network our brain defaults to when it’s not actively engaged in doing something else.
One intuitive theory is that people can apply the judgement-free thought-awareness (e.g. observing thoughts and letting them pass by) and attention-directing (choosing to guide their attention back to the present moment or the breath) they practice in mindfulness meditation to their habitual, depressive thinking. In other words, they can recognize and step outside their own “mental ruts.”
To that end, people with recurrent depression who practice MBCT may be better equipped to recognize the negative thought patterns, feelings, or sensations that precede a depression relapse. They may also be better trained to shift their focus away from ruminative thought patterns that could otherwise cause a relapse. In other words, mindfulness meditation allows them to observe their own thoughts instead of automatically buying into them, and direct their focus away from the kinds of thought patterns associated with depression.
Research is also gradually establishing a link between decreased activity in parts of the neural network of the brain associated with mind-wandering or rumination (the DMN) and reduced levels of rumination in people with depression who meditate. Some evidence suggests that meditation could increase connectivity between the DMN and the networks engaged when we’re focused on tasks. “The [research] suggests that rumination is a key factor in moderating how mindfulness reduces symptoms of depression and anxiety,” Vago says. “It’s likely that the more someone meditates, the less they’re going to be ruminating. And that decrease in rumination may be directly or causally linked to the improved symptoms in depression and anxiety.”
Here’s what we know about meditation’s effects on chronic pain.
There is decent evidence that people suffering from chronic pain may benefit from mindfulness meditation, says Desbordes, such as the 2014 JAMA paper that found moderate evidence to this effect.
A 2015 meta-analysis of 11 randomized controlled trials, published in the British Journal of General Practice, concluded that people with chronic pain linked to a variety of conditions (including fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and chronic musculoskeletal pain) may benefit from MBIs. Interestingly, mindfulness meditation had its effects not on pain intensity, but on perceived pain control—not how much pain the person physically felt, but how well they felt they coped with it.
Hasenkamp says there is work being done to develop theories about the specific mechanisms based on the various brain regions activated during MBI-induced pain reduction—but this hasn’t yet been nailed down. Recent research shows what’s not happening, though: A double-blind, randomized study published in the Journal of Neuroscience in 2016 demonstrated that mindfulness does not reduce pain through the body’s natural opioid system (that is, by producing endogenous opioids, like endorphins, that bind to opioid receptors in the brain). Rather, mindfulness meditation may help you interact with your sensory experience of pain differently via multiple complex cognitive processes—a “meta-cognitive ability to acknowledge and let go of arising sensory events [that] engages a unique, self-facilitated pain modulatory system,” the researchers wrote. This theory seems to line up with the mindfulness meditation practice of observing thoughts (“my back really hurts”) and sensations (like feelings of pain), and letting them pass by without reaction or judgement.
A 2016 paper co-authored by Vago similarly suggests that mind-body practices like mindfulness meditation may “teach patients to self-regulate their respective experience of pain directly with a present-centered and acceptance-based focus.”
Although the moderate evidence here is far from definitive and needs to be replicated across different populations with different conditions, scientists are impressed with the findings so far, given how many people could benefit from alternative ways to manage pain without the aid of potentially addictive drugs.
Outside of the Big Three (depression, anxiety, and chronic pain), the benefits of meditation become less clear.
There are many health issues that meditation could possibly help, with the weight of evidence sitting somewhere along the spectrum from flimsy one-off study to rigorous meta-review. Just eyeball the National Institutes of Health’s (NIH) page on meditation to see all the areas that hold promise: PTSD, headaches, menopausal symptoms, ADHD, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcerative colitis, insomnia, smoking cessation, blood pressure, and quality of life in cancer patients.
While the field is going in many interesting directions right now, the research is preliminary, and the experts we spoke with are hesitant to express anything more than cautious optimism (which is understandable, given how often mindfulness meditation findings have already been overhyped in media coverage).
“It’s still a very young field,” says Desbordes. “All of these things have been measured in different studies, but when you put all the studies together, the big picture is still not convincing. We’re not there yet.”
With that in mind, there are a few lines of investigation that the researchers we talked to are most excited about—in part because the research has been conducted in clinically sound ways or has been replicated, and in part because of its far-reaching implications.
There is an intriguing cluster of studies forming around the potential benefits of mindfulness meditation for a couple of other stress-related health issues that are just as universal as depression, anxiety, and pain: inflammation and aging. If meditation can decrease stress—as evidence suggests it does in not just those with certain conditions but healthy populations—then it would make sense that it may be able to somehow lessen or limit the inflammatory and aging processes that are associated with increased stress (such as cardiovascular disease.
Some early meta-analyses are bearing this out. For example, when it comes to inflammation, Vago says, “There seems to be some data showing [meditation] can improve inflammatory markers or decrease inflammation in the body.” A 2016 meta-review looking at mindfulness meditation’s impact on immune system biomarkers across 20 RCTs and 1,600 participants found that “mindfulness meditation appears to be associated with reductions in pro-inflammatory processes, increases in cell-mediated defense parameters, and increases in enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.” And a 2017 meta-review of 18 studies and 846 participants found evidence that “suggests that MBI practices may lead to a reduced risk of inflammation-related diseases.”
“The evidence for mindfulness meditation practices on stress specifically have been very promising,” Vago says. “And whenever you’re able to decrease stress, you’re going to improve markers of inflammation and cellular markers of aging.”
As for aging, Hasenkamp is interested in a small but growing number of studies looking at the effects of meditation on telomere length, which is a biological marker of cellular aging. Telomeres are affected by many lifestyle factors, such as stress, and shorten as we age. According to Hasenkamp, “Shorter telomeres are associated with many bad health outcomes”—including aging-related diseases like cancer, heart failure, diabetes, and coronary heart disease—“and meditation seems to help preserve or lengthen telomeres.”
One study found, for instance, that participants in meditation retreats experienced telomere lengthening or an increase in telomerase activity (which mediates telomere growth) that also correlated with psychological benefits.
This research is in very early stages, Hasenkamp points out, but so far “agrees with several other lines of investigation showing that meditation may help slow the aging process.” That includes evidence suggesting meditation may protect the brain from normal cortical thinning (a sign of cognitive aging) and improve cognitive performance in elderly people. Smalley agrees, saying, “While brain studies remain small and many more are needed, there is increasing evidence that meditation might be a simple practice to protect the brain from stress.”
Neuroimaging studies are helping to pinpoint a few of the regions and networks of the brain that meditation seems to affect, though that still doesn’t tell us how meditation impacts these regions.
“There are many [neuroimaging] studies that show the brain changes—both structurally and functionally—in response to meditation practice,” Smalley says. These structural changes are indicated by increases or decreases in cortical thickness (how thick the cortical tissue is in a given area of the brain), while functional changes are indicated by increases or decreases in activation (how much tissue is being used in a given area of the brain). Meditation may also increase connectivity between different networks.
There are a lot of brain areas touched on in these studies that play a role in a slew of brain processes, including the way you process information, direct your awareness, feel emotions, sense what’s going on in your body, learn new things, and think about yourself. But in general, Hasenkamp says, “Meditation impacts brain systems that relate to attention, emotion, and self—not surprising, considering the nature of these practices.”
A 2014 meta-review of 21 neuroimaging studies and about 300 meditation practitioners found eight brain regions that consistently displayed effects, including areas that support meta-awareness, introspection, body awareness, memory, self-regulation, and emotional regulation, as well as improved communication between hemispheres of the brain. According to the authors, these findings line up with others being reported across the field, including other brain studies, clinical/behavioral research, and anecdotal reports on individual experiences.
What we’re learning so far also makes sense, given the focus on honing our awareness and attention in mindfulness meditation. Several brain regions in which we’ve seen consistent changes are part of the frontal parietal network, which belongs to a complex attention network that “allows you to continuously monitor body sensations and flexibly switch between internal thinking and processing of the external world,” says Vago, who is also a research associate at the Functional Neuroimaging Laboratory at Harvard Medical School’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
One of the regions in that network is the frontopolar cortex, which, according to Vago, evidence suggests is the most highly evolved part of the brain and is thought to be responsible for supporting meta-awareness. Meta-awareness, Vago says, is “the ability for you to be aware of where your mind is at any time, whether it’s focusing internally on your narrative thoughts or what’s happening around you.” And, of course, at the core of mindfulness meditation is awareness of what your mind is doing in that moment.
This increase in activity seems to both strengthen these areas and may protect them from the natural degeneration of gray matter that occurs as we age. A 2015 neuroimaging study of 100 meditators (which is actually a relatively large sample size for this kind of study) concluded, “these findings seem to suggest less age-related gray matter atrophy in long-term meditation practitioners.” And a 2014 review of 12 studies found preliminary evidence that “a variety of meditation techniques may be able to offset age-related cognitive decline and perhaps even increase cognitive capabilities in older adults.” This kind of research, Vago explains, indicates that “[t]hese parts of our brain, which are basically being worked out through [the] mental training of mindfulness just like you work out with your muscles in a gym […] are protected from the age-related decline or atrophy that happens normally across [our] lifespan.”
Meditation also appears to decrease activity in certain areas of the brain, including the amygdala, which is involved in stress and fear responses as well as anxiety. Another is the posterior cingulate cortex, which Vago says is thought to play a critical role in self-reflection and rumination. By the way, whether or not you have depression, you probably do way too much of this kind of thinking. A frequently cited 2010 study by Harvard University researchers shows that people spend roughly half of their waking hours letting their minds wander. But meditation appears to decrease activity in this network, Vago says.
It’s important to remember that brain imaging studies are just one in tool in a scientific investigation; many of these studies are on small numbers of people, and the results can be really interesting but not decisive. They show us where something is happening, but that’s about it. That leaves scientists to theorize about the what, the why, and the how using previous knowledge and other methods. As Smalley explains, neuroimaging studies tell us, “Here are brain regions likely influenced by meditation practice.” But exactly how meditation leads to these changes hasn’t been determined.
Ultimately, you could argue that the details about how meditation works is less important than the fact that it works at all.
Take blood pressure, for example: Research suggests that mindfulness meditation seems as effective at reducing blood pressure as monitoring your blood pressure with a cuff—and that it’s better than doing nothing at all to monitor blood pressure. It could be that mindfulness meditation helps reduce stress, which in turn lowers blood pressure. But Desbordes says there are other possible explanations: “For example, maybe people start exercising more when they become more mindful, and that is responsible for the decrease in blood pressure”—meaning the improvements cannot specifically, directly be attributed to the meditation practice.
But this doesn’t change the fact that in this context meditation can, directly or indirectly, lead to a positive change in health. And, there are potential additional benefits to meditation that a blood pressure cuff can’t achieve. “Mindfulness meditation can probably affect a lot of other things that the blood pressure cuff wouldn’t, such as how you relate to your own thoughts and feelings,” Smalley explains. “And in that regard, it can be viewed as a helpful tool for overall emotional and physical wellbeing.”
Despite all of the research done so far, experts caution against taking at face value grandiose claims that meditation is a wonder drug.
“It’s not a panacea. We know that,” says Vago. And even the proof in the best-studied areas has been overhyped at times. “Yes, there is evidence for improved outcomes in health, mental health specifically, [and] some preliminary evidence for cardiovascular disease and inflammation,” he says, “but we need to be cautiously optimistic.” Hasenkamp agrees: “There isn’t any finding or effect that’s been replicated enough to be totally reliable.”
And it’s already clear that meditation isn’t guaranteed to improve even the conditions with the most convincing evidence, like depression and anxiety. It really depends on the person. “We can’t generalize all these findings to everybody [because] it may not work for everybody,” Vago says. “In fact, we’re finding out a lot of people don’t respond.”
Also, quantifying the results of meditation is, in a way, antithetical to its nature.
How do you capture the full picture of any one person’s meditative experience with brain scans and numbers measuring very specific outcomes? “The biggest challenge I see is that people see mindfulness meditation as very goal-directed, while part of meditation in general is to experience things ‘as they are,’” Smalley says. “There is a tendency to push too hard for some specific outcomes.” This fixation on particular results means we could be missing big pieces of the puzzle we’re not even looking for yet.
One of the most thrilling insights we’ve gleaned from meditation studies isn’t about any single outcome: It’s about a person’s ability to transform oneself. “The brain is incredibly ‘plastic’—meaning it can change itself based on experience—much more than we previously thought,” Hasenkamp explains. “Investigations around meditation and other forms of mental training have really advanced our understanding of how much the brain can change in a relatively short time—both in the way it functions and also in its structure. This is exciting because it shifts the way we think about human capacity for change,” she adds. “We don’t have to be stuck in our current state or set of habit patterns—with intention and a good deal of effort and practice, we can change the way we’re wired up.”
It’s also possible that some of the most profound influences of meditation won’t be about any one person’s health, but how we connect to each other and the world. “Perhaps the benefits of mindfulness meditation are more in how it impacts our relationships of self to self, others, and the universe at large, an area that has yet to receive much scientific investigation,” Smalley says.
Hasenkamp agrees: “These kinds of interpersonal effects are just beginning to be studied, and may be one of the most impactful outcomes that meditation could offer for society.”
So, even if your meditation practice isn’t as evidence-based as you might have thought, it doesn’t necessarily need to be in order to play a very positive and real role in your life.
The reality is that it’s probably not a huge deal if your home meditation practice doesn’t fully resemble what occurs in clinical trials.
Try thinking about meditation in the same way as other things that make you feel good: taking an early morning walk through the park, relaxing with a good book or glass of wine in a bath, or sipping on your wellness elixir of choice throughout the day. We don’t necessarily have concrete scientific evidence for why these practices can help improve our mental health or well-being in some small way. And while they make us feel good sometimes, on other days, they might not. We understand that they’re not a magic pill, and we know that they’re not the right choice for everyone.
But we do these practices because they are generally positive additions to our daily lives. “Mindfulness meditation and meditation in general are really helpful tools for people as we look for ways to de-stress, learn more about ourselves, and lean toward well-being,” Smalley says.
“In the end,” Desbordes says, “it’s really an individual choice. If people find some benefits for themselves, then they should do it.”
I’m a creature of habit with my workouts—when I discover a fitness studio or running route I like, I stick with it. Probably for too long. I chalk it up to my performance anxiety in new and unfamiliar places. Yet after spending the past few years regularly attending classes at one yoga studio (except for that one time I did yoga on water, I was burnt out from the same few Vinyasa flow classes from the same few instructors on repeat. When I discovered YogaGlo, the at-home yoga app I use and recommend to literally anyone who will listen, it was just the change I needed to get excited about my practice again.
I can’t take credit for finding YogaGlo through a late-night endless app store search or testing for a fitness story. Rather, I first learned about YogaGlo while reading Material Girl, Mystical World by Ruby Warrington. In the book, Warrington devotes a chapter to explaining her past and current relationship with yoga, plus how it has evolved throughout, name-checking YogaGlo as her “studio” of choice. Since I identified so much with Warrington throughout—our thoughts on healing crystals are very aligned—I downloaded YogaGlo onto my iPhone and started the two-week free trial.
The sheer amount—and variety—of classes available is staggering.
Like I said, I had been wanting to break out of my Vinyasa rut, but was definitely nervous to check out any other kind of class. When I downloaded YogaGlo, I had access to classes from every style of yoga you can think of—currently, the app has over 3,500 classes, ranging from five minutes long to two full hours. Styles offered not only include my beloved Vinyasa, but also Hatha, Ashtanga, Kundalini, Iyengar, and Yin, all of which I’d wanted to try but didn’t have the courage to in public just yet.
The app is really user-friendly and has simple filters that make it incredibly easy to find exactly what you’re looking for.
Not only can you sort by class duration and style as mentioned, but the filters also allow you to search by yoga teacher, whether you’d like to work props into your workout or not (and if so, which ones), your level of experience, and perhaps most interestingly, the focus of the class. Examples of focus include breath, core strength, sleep, and post-travel yoga, the latter of which was excellent after cross-country flights over Labor Day Weekend.
If you’re not quite sure what you’re looking for, YogaGlo has a “discover” option that gives smart suggestions.
The idea of knowing exactly what you want from over 3,500 classes can be super overwhelming, and rightfully so. Or maybe you’ve never even practiced before, let alone know the difference between Ashtanga and Vinyasa. That’s where the “discover” option comes in. Although I’m pretty knowledgable about fitness and yoga, I’m not always sure what kind of workout I’m looking for. When you toggle over to “discover,” there are a slew of other options available. Want to elevate your mood? Meditate? Maybe get in a good sweat? The curators behind YogaGlo are constantly editing and adjusting the discovery page to offer a variety of videos that you maybe wouldn’t have known to search for. For example, I was drawn to the discover tab’s “Wind Down” section because I’m always moving and need to be better at slowing down. That’s where I stumbled on the 15-minute “Balance Your Overactive Mind for Restful Sleep” Hatha offering. Perfect for beginners and experienced yogis alike, the short flow helps lull my brain to sleep—after those 15 minutes, I’m good for about 10 more minutes before promptly passing out.
I like the consistency of the instruction, which is a lot more thorough than some instructors can be.
I’ve only had two private yoga lessons in my life, but each time I walked away wishing I had a recording of it. Because while my practice may get better or worse over time, I consistently run up against similar issues like my weak arms in Chaturanga, for example. Consistent reminders on how to adjust my arms, elbows, and wrists helps me hold the position (and similar ones, like Crow) far more effectively—and those cues are what each YogaGlo classes offers time and time again. One of my favorite quickies, unsurprisingly, is the intermediate level, 10-minute Iyengar class dubbed “The Core of Chatarunga.” Throughout the class, instructor Marla Apt gives helpful reminders about opening up my shoulders and back and strengthening my core.
During every class I’ve taken on the app, Apt and the other instructors give detailed direction on how to come into each position, hold it, and flow seamlessly while syncing body and breath. The teachers also offer modifications with or without props (depending on the difficulty and discipline) and regularly call out reminders for common posture adjustments—the ones that yes, I often need.
And since I can add any class to my own roster, it’s like I’ve saved every yoga class and private lesson I’ve had in one neat digital roll—and can definitively say my Chaturanga has improved immensely since enlisting Apt and her lesson.
A month of the app costs less than one yoga class in New York City.
The whole thing costs $18 per month. As someone who lives in New York City, where the average boutique fitness class probably hovers around $35 a pop, this is a steal. I live in Queens—as opposed to Manhattan—where things are a tiny bit more affordable, and my studio still charges $22 per class (it drops to $19 24 hours before if there are still any spots open). Versus $18 for an entire months’ worth of yoga classes, private inversion workshops, and chill meditations. YogaGlo offers everything I need for a complete workout at a fraction of the cost, with just a few swipes.
One of my first thoughts while wearing face makeup is the way my skin looks with it on. I may not have the best eyeshadow shading technique or the brightest highlight, but if my skin looks Beyoncé-type flawless through my foundation, then I’m satisfied. As a woman of color, it can be ridiculously difficult to not only find the right formula for my skin—combination that’s mostly oily with some dry spots—but also the right color.
I can’t even begin to describe the number of times I mistakenly picked up a foundation shade I thought would work with my café au lait coloring, just to find out later that it really makes me look ashy under the fluorescent lights in the office. To avoid any future horror stories, we’ve reached out to some professional makeup artists for opinions on their holy-grail foundation picks—you may want to make some extra room in your makeup bags for these.
Shame on you. These three simple words can have devastating effect on an individual’s psyche.
But why is that? How is the feeling of shame generated, and what is its purpose? Some theorists argue that feeling shame is a pathology, a condition to be cured. Others dismiss it as a useless, ugly emotion.
A research team at the University of Montreal and UC Santa Barbara’s Center for Evolutionary Psychology (CEP), however, suggest something altogether different. Shame, they argue, was built into human nature by evolution because it served an important function for our foraging ancestors.
Living in small, highly interdependent bands, the researchers explain, our ancestors faced frequent life-threatening reversals, and they counted on their fellow band members to value them enough during bad times to pull them through. So being devalued by others — deemed unworthy of help — was literally a threat to their survival. Therefore, when considering how to act, it was critical to weigh the direct payoff of a potential action (e.g., how much will I benefit by stealing this food?) and against its social costs (e.g., how much will others devalue me if I steal the food — and how likely is it that they will find out?) became critical.
The researchers hypothesized that the intensity of anticipated shame people feel is an internally generated prediction of just how much others will devalue them if they take a given action. Moreover, if this feature was part of human nature, it should be observed everywhere — in every culture.
To test for universality, they selected a linguistically, ethnically, economically and ecologically diverse set of cultures scattered around the world. In these 15 traditional, small-scale societies, the researchers found that the intensity of shame people feel when they imagine various actions (stealing, stinginess, laziness, etc.) accurately predicts the degree to which those actions would lead others in their social world to devalue them. Their findings appear in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Function of Feelings
“In a world without soup kitchens, police, hospitals or insurance, our ancestors needed to consider how much future help they would lose if they took various actions that others disapprove of but that would be rewarding in other ways,” said lead author Daniel Sznycer, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Montreal. “The feeling of shame is an internal signal that pulls us away from acts that would jeopardize how much other people value our welfare.”
Noted Leda Cosmides, a professor of psychology at UC Santa Barbara, co-director of the CEP and a co-author of the paper, “For this to work well, people can’t just stumble about, discovering after the fact what brings devaluation. That’s too late. In making choices among alternative actions, our motivational system needs to implicitly estimate in advance the amount of disapproval each alternative action would trigger in the minds of others.”
A person who did only what others wanted would be selected against, the authors point out, because they would be completely open to exploitation. On the other hand, a purely selfish individual would be shunned rapidly as unfit to live with in this highly interdependent world — another dead end.
“This leads to a precise quantitative prediction,” said John Tooby, a professor of anthropology at UC Santa Barbara, CEP co-director and a coauthor of the paper. “Lots of research has shown that humans can anticipate personal rewards and costs accurately, like lost time or food. Here we predicted that the specific intensity of the shame a person would anticipate feeling for taking an action would track how much others in their local world would negatively evaluate the person if they took that specific act.
“The theory we’re evaluating,” he continued, “is that the intensity of shame you feel when you consider whether to take a potential action is not just a feeling and a motivator; it also carries vital information that seduces you into making choices that balance not only the personal costs and benefits of an action but also its social costs and benefits. Shame takes the hypothetical future disapproval of others, and fashions it into a precisely calibrated personal torment that looms the closer the act gets to commission or discovery.”
A Universal Human Quality
According to the authors, shame — like pain — evolved as a defense. “The function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue,” said Sznycer. “The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them if we do.”
As a neural system, shame inclines you to factor in others’ regard alongside private benefits so the act associated with the highest total payoff is selected, the authors argue. A key part of the argument is that this neurally based motivational system is a part of our species’ biology. “If that is true, we should be able to find this same shame-devaluation relationship in diverse cultures and ecologies all around the world, including in face-to-face societies whose small scale echoes the more intimate social worlds in which we think shame evolved,” Sznycer noted.
To test this hypothesis, the team collected data from 15 traditional small-scale societies in four continents. The people in these societies speak very different languages (e.g., Shuar, Amazigh, Icé-tód), have diverse religions (e.g., Hinduism, Shamanism), and make a living in different ways (e.g., hunting, fishing, nomadic pastoralism). If shame is part of universal, evolved human nature, the research should find that the emotion closely tracks the devaluation of others, for each specific act, in each community; but if shame is more akin to a cultural invention like agriculture or the alphabet, present in some places but not others, they should find wide variation from place to place in this relationship. Indeed, anthropologists have long proposed that some cultures are guilt-oriented, some are fear-oriented, and some are shame-honor.
Yet, the authors found the predicted relationships everywhere they tested. “We observed an extraordinarily close match between the community’s negative evaluation of people who display each of the acts or traits they were asked about and the intensities of shame individuals anticipate feeling if they took those acts or displayed those traits,” Sznycer said. “Feelings of shame really move in lockstep with the values held by those around you, as the theory predicts.”
Further studies, he added, have demonstrated that it is specifically shame — as opposed to other negative emotions — that tracks others’ devaluation. “Moral wrongdoing is not necessary,” said Sznycer. “In other research we showed that individuals feel shame when others view their actions negatively, even when they know they did nothing wrong.”
Of interesting note, anticipated shame mirrored not only the disapproval of fellow community members, but also the disapproval of (foreign) participants in each of the other societies. For example, the shame expressed by the Ik forager-horticulturalists of Ikland, Uganda, mirrored not only the devaluation expressed by their fellow Iks, but also the devaluation of fishermen from the Island of Mauritius, pastoralists from Khövsgöl, Mongolia, and Shuar forager-horticulturalists of the Ecuadorian Amazon. What’s more, shame mirrored the devaluation of foreigners living nearby in geographic or cultural space just as well as it mirrored the devaluation of foreigners living farther and farther away — another indication of shame’s universality.
After we have conversations with new people, our conversation partners like us and enjoy our company more than we think, according to findings published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science.
In our social lives, we’re constantly engaged in what researchers call “meta-perception,” or trying to figure out how other people see us. Do people think we’re boring or interesting, selfish or altruistic, attractive or not?
“Our research suggests that accurately estimating how much a new conversation partner likes us — even though this a fundamental part of social life and something we have ample practice with — is a much more difficult task than we imagine,” explain first authors Erica Boothby, a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell University, and Gus Cooney, a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard University.
“We call this a ‘liking gap,’ and it can hinder our ability to develop new relationships,” study coauthor Margaret S. Clark, the John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale University, told Yale News.
Boothby, Cooney, Clark, and Gillian M. Sandstrom, Professor of Psychology at the University of Essex, examined various aspects of the liking gap in a series of five studies.
In one study, the researchers paired participants who had not met before and tasked them with having a 5-minute conversation featuring typical icebreaker questions (e.g., Where are you from? What are your hobbies?). At the end of the conversation, the participants answered questions that gauged how much they liked their conversation partner and how much they thought their conversation partner liked them.
On average, the ratings showed that participants liked their partner more than they thought their partner liked them. Since it can’t logically be the case that both people in a conversation like their partner more than their partner likes them, this disparity in average ratings suggests that participants tended to make an estimation error. Indeed, analyses of video recordings suggested that participants were not accounting for their partner’s behavioral signals indicating interest and enjoyment.
In a separate study, participants reflected on the conversations they’d just had — according to their ratings, they believed that the salient moments that shaped their partner’s thoughts about them were more negative than the moments that shaped their own thoughts about their partner.
“They seem to be too wrapped up in their own worries about what they should say or did say to see signals of others’ liking for them, which observers of the conservations see right away,” Clark noted.
Additional studies showed that the liking gap emerged regardless of whether people had longer conversations or had conversations in real-world settings. And a study of actual college roommates showed that the liking gap was far from fleeting, enduring over several months.
The phenomenon is interesting because it stands in contrast with the well-established finding that we generally view ourselves more positively than we do others, whether we’re thinking about our driving skills, our intelligence, or our chance of experiencing negative outcomes like illness or divorce.
“The liking gap works very differently. When it comes to social interaction and conversation, people are often hesitant, uncertain about the impression they’re leaving on others, and overly critical of their own performance,” say Boothby and Cooney. “In light of people’s vast optimism in other domains, people’s pessimism about their conversations is surprising.”
The researchers hypothesize that this difference may come down to the context in which we make these self-assessments. When there is another person involved, such as a conversation partner, we may be more cautious and self-critical than in situations when we are rating our own qualities with no other source of input.
“We’re self-protectively pessimistic and do not want to assume the other likes us before we find out if that’s really true,” Clark said.
This self-monitoring may prevent us from pursuing relationships with others who truly do like us.
“As we ease into new neighborhood, build new friendships, or try to impress new colleagues, we need to know what other people think of us,” Boothby and Cooney explain. “Any systematic errors we make might have a big impact on our personal and professional lives.”
This work was supported by the Templeton Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council (United Kingdom).
A broken racket. Accusations of cheating and sexism. A $17,000 fine.
The women’s singles finals at the 2018 U.S. Open Tennis Championships, held this past Saturday at the Arthur Ashe Stadium in New York City, was chock-full of controversy. The highly anticipated showdown between American veteran-slash-legend Serena Williams and relatively unknown youngster Naomi Osaka of Japan didn’t end as expected—on many fronts.
For one, Williams, the 36-year-old, six-time U.S. Open champion, lost 6-2, 6-4 to 20-year-old Osaka, who was playing in her first ever Grand Slam final match. On top of that, Williams walked away with two penalties and a hefty fine for three counts of alleged misconduct, including a coaching violation, racquet abuse, and verbal abuse towards an umpire. Williams fought back against the penalties, claiming sexist double standards, and the stadium rallied behind her, booing incessantly both during the finals and into the awards ceremony.
Yet buried beneath the controversy is the remarkable story of Osaka, the Japanese-born athlete who idolized Williams from a young age, and despite the drama, played phenomenally—and with composure—throughout the tournament. Here, six things to know about the talented new champion.
1. She’s the first ever Grand Slam singles champ from Japan.
Osaka’s victory marks the first time that a Japanese-born tennis player—man or woman—has won a singles Grand Slam championship, according to the BBC. The feat earned her a congratulatory tweet from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and also boosted her world ranking from 19th to seventh, an all-time career best.
2. Though Saturday marked her first time appearing in a Grand Slam final, she isn’t new to the pro tennis circuit.
According to Bleacher Report, Osaka went pro at age 15 in 2013, and in the five years since, she has racked up several notable career highlights. In 2016, the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA) designated her “Newcomer of the Year” after a “breakthrough season” in which she reached the third round of the Australian Open, the French Open, and the U.S. Open, raising her world ranking from 203 in 2015 to 40 in 2016. This past March, Osaka won the Indian Wells WTA title, which, according to the BBC, is widely known as the “fifth major” in tennis.
3. Osaka’s dream since childhood was to play against Williams in a Grand Slam final—she even wrote a school report on the legend.
Osaka, born October 16, 1997, was not even 2 years old when Williams won her first U.S. Open singles title in 1999. As a tennis player growing up in New York and then Boca Raton, Florida (her family immigrated to the U.S. when she was 3, per The New York Times), Osaka dreamed of one day competing against Williams in a majors final. In third grade, she even wrote a school report about her idol, according to The Wall Street Journal. And after Osaka defeated Madison Keys in the U.S. Open semifinals, she said she been daydreaming during the match of getting the chance to play Williams, The Wall Street Journal reports.
So when the time came to actually go racket-to-racket against Williams, Osaka struggled to aptly describe the surreal experience.
“It’s a little bit crazy,” she said, according to the BBC. “Growing up and watching people you idolize, you always dream that one day you’ll be in that position, so to be in that position right now…”
4. She calmed pre-match nerves by looking at French pastries.
Before Saturday’s match, Osaka was a ball of nerves, per the BBC.
“I couldn’t eat anything, I felt like I was going to throw up,” Osaka said. “I was just so stressed and I kept calling my sister, my poor sister.” (Osaka’s older sister, Mari Osaka, is also a tennis player). “ She was telling me to think of it as just another match and then I would yell at her, ‘Are you crazy? This is a Grand Slam final.’”
Though Mari, who was in Paris at the time, couldn’t provide IRL support, she found another way to comfort her sister. “She was showing me these random croissants and baguettes to try to take my mind off of it, and it kind of worked,” said Osaka.
5. Viewers praised Osaka for her composure and humility during Saturday’s heated match.
During the awards ceremony, as the crowds continued booing the tournament’s unexpected outcome, Osaka turned the spotlight back toward Williams.
“I know that everyone was cheering for her [Williams] and I’m sorry it had to end like this,” she said, as she was awarded the winner’s trophy. “I just wanted to say thank you for watching the match.”
6. She’s still deciding what she wants to do with her $3.8 million in prize money.
According to the WTA, Osaka has earned more than $7 million in prize money during her pro career, which includes $5.7 million in the past year—and a cool $3.8 million from the U.S. Open alone.
When asked in a post-tournament press conference if she was going to buy herself anything with the latest (and biggest) batch of prize money, Osaka said, “I’m not really the type that spends money on myself.” She continued: “For me, as long as my family’s happy, I’m happy. So when I see my sister…for me, that’s the biggest gift.”
Society for Neuroscience. “Mental imagery manages pain independent of opioid system: Study supports clinical use of mental imagery techniques in conjunction with pain-relieving drugs.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 10 September 2018. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180910142505.htm>.
Society for Neuroscience. (2018, September 10). Mental imagery manages pain independent of opioid system: Study supports clinical use of mental imagery techniques in conjunction with pain-relieving drugs. ScienceDaily. Retrieved September 10, 2018 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180910142505.htm
Society for Neuroscience. “Mental imagery manages pain independent of opioid system: Study supports clinical use of mental imagery techniques in conjunction with pain-relieving drugs.” ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/09/180910142505.htm (accessed September 10, 2018).
Shifting to a healthy diet is not only good for us, but it also saves a lot of precious fresh water, according to a new study by the JRC published in Nature Sustainability.
Compared to existing diets, the water required to produce our food could be reduced by between 11% and 35% for healthy diets containing meat, 33% and 55% for healthy pescetarian diets and 35% and 55% for healthy vegetarian diets.
Researchers compared these three diet patterns, defined by respective national dietary guidelines, to the current actual food consumption, using available data from more than 43 thousand areas in France, the UK and Germany.
They found that eating more healthily could substantially reduce the water footprint of people’s diets, consistent across all the geographical entities analysed in the study.
The study is the most detailed nationwide food consumption-related water footprint ever made, taking into account socio-economic factors of food consumption, for existing and recommended diets.
Influences on the food we eat
The scientists also show how individual food consumption behaviour — and their related water footprints — depend strongly on the socio-economic factors like age, gender and education level.
They found interesting correlations between such factors and both the water footprint of specific foods and their resulting impact on overall water footprints.
For example, the study shows how in France, the water footprint of milk consumption decreases with age across the municipalities analysed.
Across London, they show a strong correlation between the water footprint of wine consumption and the percentage of the population of each area with a high education level.
The water footprint is defined as the total volume of freshwater that is used to produce goods consumed, food in this particular case.
The scientists used national dietary surveys to assess differences in food product group consumption between regions and socio- economic factors within regions.
The diet scenarios analysed in the study take into account total daily energy and protein requirements as well as maximum daily fat amounts.
They are based upon national dietary guidelines, in which for every food product group specific recommendations are given according to age and gender.
By downscaling national water footprints to the lowest possible administrative boundaries within a country, the scientists provide a useful tool for policy makers at various levels.
The methodology could also be applied to other footprints assessments — like the carbon, land or energy footprints related to food consumption.
Animal products — and especially meat — have a high water footprint.
The average European diet is characterised by overconsumption in general, particularly of animal products.
A healthy diet would contain less sugar, crop oils, meat and animal fats, and more vegetables and fruit.
Due to the numerous negative impacts of an intensive livestock production system on the planet’s resources and ecosystems, as well as the growing demands of non-western countries for animal products, moving to a more resource-efficient (and healthier) vegetable-rich diet in the EU is a necessity.
But it can be hard to introduce sex toys into the bedroom for the first time. You’re not the only one nervous about taking your sex toys across the border from Solotown to the Land of Let’s Get It On.
Sex toys are in many ways the final bedroom taboo. As a sex educator and coach, I can personally attest that people are still intimidated by them, however much we tout the dogma of the sacred vibrator.
If you (or your partner) is a little (or a lot) nervous about getting started with sex toys, try these four tips I use with concerned and curious clients. You’ll get there! It just takes some empathy, communication, and a lot of encouragement.
1. Tbh, this might be a super awkward thing to discuss, so prepare yourself for the awkwardness.
Real talk: Your partner may be really threatened or offended when you bring up using vibrators in the bedroom. There is some deep-rooted insecurity around sex toys that, while outdated and unfortunate, still exists. It’s like if you want to bring a vibrator into the bedroom, somehow you’re telling your partner they aren’t good enough. Not true!
Don’t focus on yourself and your sexual needs exclusively. This can potentially alienate your partner and put them on the defensive. Make the conversation about both of you. Approach the topic with empathy and be prepared to deal with a contentious reaction.
Have an open an honest conversation about why this is something that turns you on. Tell your partner that it’s new, a little kinky, and fun. It’s something for the two of you to try together in order to expand your sexual repertoire.
Remember, vibrators aren’t only good for you and you alone. They offer immense pleasure when applied to the tip of the penis, the perineum, and the ball sack. If your partner has a vulva and hasn’t used a vibrator before, sex toys will blow their mind, too!
2. Offer to go shopping together, but be ready to go alone.
You may have a sprawling collection of sex toys (good for you!) or not, but if your partner is feeling peevish about using a sex toy, it is best to buy something new. There can be all sorts of loaded feelings about a toy that has been used before, especially with other partners.
Be prepared to get shot down on the shopping trip. It might just be too much. And that’s OK! Trying sex toys for the first time can be a bit scary. If you are on your own, embrace the experience. Choose something that you and your partner will love. Speaking of which …
3. Don’t pick some enormous, phallic monster dildo.
The last thing you want to bring home to a nervous partner is some scary, veiny, Rabbit vibrator with a million spinning beads and a realistic penis-head. Nope. This will not go well. Nothing says, “I’m replacing your dick with this vibrator” or “I need a penis over your vulva to be happy” like bringing home a vibrator that is shaped like a larger-than-life penis.
Choose something non-threatening to start. You want to keep it playful and exciting, not terrifying.
Go for inspiring curiosity, not anxiety. When in doubt, choose a sex toy that doesn’t even look like a sex toy. The more quiet the toy, the better. You want something in a non-fleshy color that is more “cute” than it is explicitly sexual. I love to recommend Bender from Unbound and the Form II from JimmyJane. Bender looks like Gumby and the Form II looks like a bunny. What could be scary about that?
For those especially squeamish around sex toys, Fin from Dame Products is the ultimate toy for beginners. It literally turns your hand into a vibrator, giving you one less thing to think about during playtime. You place the little vibrator between your fingers, and put the strap over them. It doesn’t move and it won’t fall off.
Your partner will be shocked by how easy it is to get you off. Fin is like a gateway drug for couples sex toys. You’re welcome in advance.
4. Focus on pleasurable exploration.
Got the gear? Great. When you bring the sex toy into bed, keep the play about you and your partner. Verbal encouragement (read: dirty talk) will be your best friend. Tell your partner how good they are making you feel and how turned on you are.
You want the toy to be a part of the experience, not the entire focus of the experience. Be sure to remind your partner how sexy they are and how much you love their penis/vulva/body.
If possible, don’t mention the toy. You can guide your partner’s hand to your hot spots, or simply use the toy on yourself. They want to make you feel good. If they see how much you’re enjoying yourself, they will likely be open to including sex toys as part of the regular routine.
Gigi Engle is a certified sex coach, educator, and writer living in Chicago. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @GigiEngle.