7 benefits of meditation, and how it can affect your brain
- The benefits of meditation are extensive - and backed by science.
- The mental health benefits of meditation include better focus and concentration, improved self-awareness and self-esteem, lower levels of stress and anxiety, and fostering kindness.
- Meditation also has benefits for your physical health, as it can improve your tolerance for pain and help fight substance addiction.
- This article was medically reviewed by David A. Merrill, MD, PhD, psychiatrist and director of the Pacific Brain Health Center at Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John's Health Center.
- For more stories go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.
Numerous studies have proven the benefits of regular meditation.
These can include decreased stress, improved concentration, lower blood pressure, and reduced symptoms of anxiety and depression, just to name a few.
And while there are different types of meditation, they can all offer a similar set of proven benefits for mental and physical health. Here's what research has found.
1. Better focus and concentration
Mindfulness meditation helps you focus on the present, which can improve your concentration on other tasks in daily life.
A 2011 study from the Harvard Medical School examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain and found a connection between mindfulness and processing new information.
The researchers examined the brains of 17 people before and after participating in an eight-week meditation program. Brain scans showed an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation.
Additionally, a 2016 study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon University demonstrated how mindfulness meditation can improve concentration and decision making.
The study consisted of 35 unemployed adults looking for work. One group participated in a three-day relaxation program without mindfulness meditation components, while the other group participated in three days of mindfulness meditation. Brain scans before and after showed an increase in connectivity among parts of the brain that control attention for the meditation group.
"Research shows we can actually train our attention and our meta-awareness, and that this is a learnable skill," says Richard Davidson, PhD, a professor of psychology and psychiatry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Center for Healthy Minds.
2. Improve self-esteem and self-awareness
Mindfulness meditation encourages you to slow down, allows for deeper self-reflection, and can help you discover positive attributes about yourself.
"Mindfulness helps increase self-awareness by increasing the ability to examine one's thoughts and feelings without judgment, which ends up improving self-esteem," says Brian Wind, PhD, Chief Clinical Officer at JourneyPure.
According to researchers at Stanford University, mindfulness meditation can especially help those with social anxiety. In a 2009 study published in the Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 14 participants with social anxiety disorder participated in two months of meditation training and reported decreased anxiety and improved self-esteem after completing the program.
3. Reduce stress
Mindfulness meditation can also lower the levels of cortisol - the stress hormone -which helps you feel more relaxed.
In a 2013 review, researchers analysed more than 200 studies of mindfulness meditation among healthy people and found meditation to be an effective way to reduce stress.
Repeating a mantra - such as a word or phrase - during meditation can also have a calming effect, and by concentrating on your mantra, you're able to shift your focus away from distracting thoughts.
Transcendental meditation has a similar effect, in which you silently repeat a word or sound to keep yourself focused, and as a result you're able to reach a state of complete stillness and stability, says David Foley, founder of Unify Cosmos, a meditation center in Oklahoma.
For example, a 2019 study showed a reduction in psychological distress among teachers and support staff who participated in a transcendental meditation program.
Researchers used stress scales before and after the program to measure the participants' levels of burnout, depression, and stress. After receiving a seven-step transcendental meditation course, participants practiced meditation twice a day for 15 to 20 minutes over the course of four months and reported lower levels of stress and burnout than before learning the techniques.
4. Manage anxiety or depression
Mindfulness meditation helps train your mind to focus on the present, making you less likely to ruminate on anxious thoughts that can fuel depression.
A 2014 research analysis published in JAMA Internal Medicine found that mindful meditation can help ease anxiety and depression, and could be part of a comprehensive mental health treatment plan.
Research has also supported the benefits of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) - a therapy program that incorporates mindfulness meditation. Studies have found that MBSR can help those with anxiety calm their minds and reduce symptoms of depression, including trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and low mood.
5. Fight addiction
Meditation can alter the brain receptors associated with drug and alcohol addiction, which may reduce cravings for these substances, Davidson says. Additionally, mindfulness meditation can increase your awareness of cravings and allow you to better manage them.
"That awareness is really powerful because it can allow us to ride the urge or the craving… without getting overcome by it," Davidson says. "We can notice the urge, notice that it's there, but we don't have to give into it."
A 2018 study published in Substance Abuse and Rehabilitation found that mindfulness training can help prevent future relapses for people with a substance use disorder, as it produces a therapeutic effect that helps regulate how the brain experiences pleasure.
6. Control pain
Many doctors recommend mindful meditation practices as part of a comprehensive pain management plan, Davidson says.
For example, a 2020 study of more than 6,400 participants across 60 trials found that meditation could reduce pain in those who suffered from post-surgical, acute, or chronic pain. It's not going to be a cure all for everything and it won't necessarily make the pain go away," Davidson says. "We can recognise that the pain is there, but we don't get ensnared by it in the same way, and that can be enormously beneficial in helping us cope with chronic pain."
7. Make you more kind or loving
Loving kindness meditation can foster compassion for yourself and others. It strengthens circuits in the brain that pick up on other people's emotions, promotes altruistic behaviour, and decreases the implicit or unconscious bias responsible for perpetuating harmful stereotypes.
To start a loving kindness meditation, you might envision a loved one in your mind and wish them happiness. You can then extend that love to yourself and other people in your life.
"You can use a simple phrase that you silently repeat to yourself, like 'may you enjoy happiness' as you hold that person in your mind," Davidson says.
The bottom line
Meditation can have many health benefits, from physical to mental and emotional. If you'd like to improve your focus, reduce stress, or deal with addiction, depression, or chronic pain, you should give it a try and see if it's right for you.
To get started, check out our beginner's guide for how to meditate.
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