The term meditation can refer to a number of practices that use mental techniques to promote numerous physical and emotional benefits. Meditation involves engaging in contemplation or reflection as a mental exercise in order to relax or gain a higher level of spiritual awareness. Usually meditation is practiced in a quiet place, but some types of meditation involve music, mantras or some repetitive sound. Although it originated in the East, many Western religious and secular groups have adopted similar practices. Most traditional practitioners consider meditation as “alternative medicine”.
The study of the effects of meditation is an increasing part of neurological research. In fact, there is a growing agreement in the medical community that stress contributes to poor physical health, and more and more funding is being provided to research these areas. Adopting the practice of regular meditation can help to relieve chronic stress and avoid longer term health complaints like hormonal depletion, adrenal fatigue, and more.
What Does Meditation Do To Your Body?
One way our bodies react to meditation is to shift brain activity away from the right frontal cortex of our brains, the part of the brain involved in anticipation and quick reaction to stimuli. Neuroscientists have discovered that meditation often shifts that brain activity to different areas of the cortex, such as the left frontal cortex, that aren’t as stress-prone. For example, Dr. Herbert Benson, founder of the Mind Body Institute, which is affiliated with Harvard University and a number of Boston hospitals, states that meditation induces a multitude of biochemical and physical changes that we call the relaxation response. Studies have discovered there is also less activity in the amygdala, and area of the brain that processes the emotions of fear.
A 2006 study published in Psychological Bulletin reported that EEG activity (electrical activity in the brain) slows when people practice meditation. It is thought that this kind of reaction may be a result of reduced activity in the sympathetic system (the ‘fight or flight’ system that arouses the body preparing it for activity) and increased activity in the parasympathetic system (the ‘rest and digest’ system that regulates heartbeat, breathing, etc.)
Some Evidence For The Effectiveness Of Meditation
Several different types of meditation have been studied, and all have shown at least some stress relief.
- MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction)
Developed at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, this behavioral therapy combines mindfulness meditation, body awareness and yoga. In 2003, a meta-analysis concluded thatMBSR was helpful in the reduction of pain, with improvements noted in both the physical and mental health of patients. Research conducted at the Harvard Medical School noted that during meditation, there was a decrease in respiration and an increase in the blood-oxygen saturation levels. Higher blood oxygen saturation has been associated with pain relief, which may also be a factor in reduced stress.
- Insight Meditation
This Buddhist meditative practice uses sharply focused concentration on bodily sensations and mental events. It reduces stress by promoting acceptance of events rather than resistance. Yale, Harvard and Massachusetts General Hospital conducted a study on 20 people with intensive insight meditation training and compared them with 15 people who didn’t meditate. Those who meditated were found to have increased thickness of gray matter in the areas involved with attention processing and sensory input. In other words, meditation can change the physical composition of your brain!
- Kundalini Yoga Meditation
Kundalini is a form of yoga that uses meditation, breathing exercises and the singing of mantras.One study showed increased relaxation while meditators paid attention to their breathing. Another study conducted by Harvard University focused on subjects with high levels of stress. The results, published in the medial journal PloS, showed that just one session of relaxation-response training using Kundalini techniques was enough to reduce expression of the genes involved with inflammatory responses and stress.
- Non-Referential Compassion Meditation
A Buddhist tradition of radiating compassion outward. EEG recordings of skilled meditators showed a rise in the brain’s gamma wave activity, and even showed an elevated level of gamma wave activity when at rest and not actively meditating. The skilled meditators were compared to people who didn’t meditate regularly. Gamma waves are associated with feelings of empathy, compassion and happiness.
- Transcendental Meditation
Transcendental meditation involves the use of sound or a mantra to aid concentration. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published an article in 2013 about how a meta-analysis of randomized trials found that transcendental meditation had a greater effect in reducing anxiety than conventional treatments or even other types of meditation.
There are many more studies not mentioned here. However, the common thread in meditation as a practice is that it is a method to train the brain to relax. Our brains tend to be on hyper-alert because it has become necessary for our everyday lives. We face constant deadlines, meetings, and other activities that induce stress.
Sometimes we get stuck in this high-alert, stressed-out rhythm, and we are unable to let go and relax. Meditation, according to many scientific studies, can train us to escape from that state of hyper-alertness. When properly used, it can bring us back to a sense of calm and tranquility while maintaining a powerful awareness of what is going on around us.