Most people know Ted Danson as an award-winning actor and producer, but the star of NBC’s The Good Place is also a meditation guru. He incorporates the practice into his daily routine to keep his physical and emotional well-being in check. The 71-year-old credits his wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, for introducing him to transcendental meditation (commonly known as TM, a technique that’s based on silently using a mantra) nearly 25 years ago, but his history with the ancient practice actually goes back to his college days.
“At Carnegie Mellon, where I went to acting school, we started every morning off with yoga exercises, vocal exercises and then a period of — I don’t know if they called it meditation — but meditation,” Danson tells DoctorOz.com. “So when Mary introduced me to TM in ‘95 or ‘96, it felt very familiar.”
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He explains that this form of meditating is “like having a guide” and can serve as a “go-to to get you out of your certain way of thinking.” Danson, who has partnered with Cigna in order to encourage others to take an active role in their physical and mental health, reveals that meditation has become more of a necessity rather than just an activity he enjoys doing with his wife. “Now that life gets more and more complicated, more and more stressful the older you are, with more and more moving parts, I now don’t find it a fun, interesting thing — I find it almost like a lifesaver,” he says.
Even though the actor admits that he doesn’t sit in silence each day, he finds that meditating has a profound effect on taming his toxic thoughts, especially as he accepts getting older. “At the end of every job, at the beginning of every job, my arthritis is killing me, my hip is killing me — and it gets me to realize my fear,” he continues. “It’s all this stuff in my head [...] and soon as [Steenburgen] starts laughing at me, I can start laughing at myself, which is another version of meditation. Laughter gets me out of my fear.”
The Science Behind Meditation
Researchers have been studying this mindful practice for decades, and some of the most recent findings show that meditation can be linked to positive changes in the mind and body. For example, according to a small August 2019 study led by a neurologist at Wake Forest Baptist Health, adults who were diagnosed with mild cognitive impairment could not only learn how to practice a mindfulness-based stress-reduction program, but repeating this exercise also helped improve their cognitive reserve.
Multiple studies have also found a possible connection between meditation and pain relief. In 2017, investigators from Leeds Beckett University in the United Kingdom divided 24 healthy students into two groups and instructed them to place their hands into warm water, followed by submerging their hands into ice water for as long as they could tolerate the frigid temperature. The one group was told to meditate for 10 minutes before repeating this water exercise again. As a result, the volunteers who meditated showed a significant decrease in anxiety toward pain, along with a significant increase in pain threshold and pain tolerance.
In a 2015 study that focused on physical discomfort, 75 adults were prodded with a heated device on the skin. The scientists at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center discovered that the participants who practiced mindful meditation reported that pain intensity was reduced by 27 percent and by 44 percent for the emotional aspect of pain. Plus, this same group reported that meditating provided great pain relief compared to a placebo, and brain scans indicated that meditating encouraged “different patterns of activity than those produced by placebo to reduce pain.”
And there’s science to back up Danson’s personal benefits. According to a 2017 study performed by researchers at the University of Waterloo, 10-minute mediation sessions can have the ability to improve focus in individuals who deal with anxious thoughts. Furthermore, a 2016 study directed by psychologists from the Michigan State University suggests that meditating may help keep negative emotions at bay.
“Most people don’t know about the physiological effects, which are quite powerful,” Dr. Stuart Lustig, M.D. M.P.H., National Medical Executive for Behavioral Health at Cigna, tells DoctorOz.com. “Sitting and focusing on your breathing — and thereby relaxing the body and calming the mind — can lower blood pressure and heart rate, and these effects can help ward off heart disease.” In fact, student researchers from Michigan Technological University reported that one mediation session may help reduce anxiety, as well as risk factors for cardiovascular disease, in adults who suffer from mild to moderate anxiety.
“In addition, meditating helps you become more aware of your feelings so that you can better manage your emotions,” continues Dr. Lustig. “Most of us don’t really think about our feelings — we’re just in them. So meditation helps you take a step back from yourself and observe, and that’s what so helpful about it.”
He believes that any form of this practice can work for everyone. “There are a lot of different ways to do it and there’s probably something for everyone — because all of us breathe,” says Dr. Lustig. “And it can be as simple — and as difficult — as focusing on our breath.”
Lastly, Danson adds that meditating has given him the gift of improving his closest relationships. “Anytime you are more present, more in your body and less in your mind, you’re available to be real with whoever you’re with,” he states. “I think it’s kind of common sense. I think it’s just that simple. For me, if I don’t meditate, then I need a big cry or something — something so that my brain can let everything go. It allows me to be with somebody, like to be with my granddaughter or with my wife, to be real, to be loving, to be present.”