The practice of meditation is central to mindfulness and it is important to learn to meditate if you are going to live a mindful life. However, even if you leave mindfulness aside, there are a number of important causal relationship between meditation and health.
This is not surprising. Meditation is about training you mind in a way that helps you to control the focus of your thoughts. You can create awareness of the present, of your body and of all that is good around you.
It follows that by doing so you can concentrate on the thoughts that help you in your life and avoid both the noise that can invade your mind and ruminations on unpleasant thoughts.
In this way, meditation can have real positive benefits for your physical and mental health and your ability to engage in social interaction.
Meditation and Health: Physical Benefits
Meditation Helps Control Pain
Pain is a sensation that is perceived by the brain based on its interpretation of chemical signal. It is a signal that there is something wrong in your body and its existence varies with the nature and intensity of the problem. However, it is not totally objective.
It is the brain’s interpretation of the chemical signals and so your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind. This is most clearly seen in stressful conditions where the perception can be elevated. On the other hand, this perception can be reduced through strategies such as following a well trusted routine, relaxation, or though the body’s natural ‘shock’ mechanism operating.
There is also evidence that being able to take control of the mind, such as in a meditative state, can help.
For example, one study used MRI to observe brain activity as two groups of participants experienced a painful stimulus. One group had undertaken mindfulness meditation training while the others had not.
The meditating patients showed increased levels of activity in the brain centres that are known to control pain. They also subjectively reported less sensitivity to pain. Another study also found that meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain. Meditation also helped to ease chronic pain among end of life patients.
In each of these scenarios, the people who meditated and those who did not experienced the same objective causes of pain. However, the meditators subjectively reported less pain as a result of a greater ability to cope. In some cases, they reduced pain when they began to meditate.
Meditation Improves Heart Health
Over time, high blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood. This often leads to diminished heart function. Meditation has been shown to improve physical health by reducing the strain that is placed on the heart through lowering blood pressure.
High blood pressure is also a known contributing factor in atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. This was most effective among older volunteers and those who had higher blood pressure prior to the study.
In the study, participants meditated by concentrating on a repeated, non-vocalized word and managed to reduce their blood pressure by about five points, on average. However, similar improvements in blood pressure have also been observed following several different types of meditation
The full bodily mechanisms that lead to these outcomes are not yet known. However, at least part of the explanation is that meditation is able to reduce blood pressure by relaxing the nerve signals that coordinate heart function. This then eases tension in blood vessels and the body’s response to stressful situations.
Meditation and Health: Mental Health Benefits
Meditation, Stress Reduction and Sleep
It would be a mistake to suggest that mediation can remove all stress from your life. And no one should suggest hat meditation will solve the real problems that might be leading to stress.
The mental and physical challenges that you encounter in the normal course of a day lead to increased levels in your body of the stress hormone cortisol. That’s natural and should not be considered to be a problem in itself. Indeed, good performance in our everyday lives depends on some cortisol.
However, successive waves of stress producing events may mean that we lose the ability to recover to ‘normal’ resting levels of cortisol when the event has passed.
This leads to the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines. If unchecked, this can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.
Meditation has been shown to lead to lower levels of stress and is one of the most common reasons people try to develop this ability*. For example, a study undertaken at Johns Hopkins University that involved reviewing the impact of a program of meditation on over 3,500 adults found ‘small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress’.
Based on this, the researchers recommended that doctors ‘should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation program could have in addressing psychological stress’. In other words, the researchers were confident that the benefits would be replicated among the general population outside formal trials.
Another study of 1,300 adults found not only that meditation reduced stress but that the impact was greatest for those individuals with the highest levels of stress at the start of the trial. Positive results were also found when meditation was used to reduce stress for the terminally ill and patients with cancer.
Other studies have found that these benefits are seen not only in terms of relief from psychological symptoms but in the physiological conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia, that are associated with inflammation response caused by stress.
Interestingly, these tests involved a number of different types of meditation, including mindfulness meditation.
A large percentage of people struggle with insomnia at some point in their lives. Indeed, sleep deprivation is increasingly considered to be an epidemic in modern society.
Meditation may help you control or redirect the racing thoughts that often lead to insomnia. It can also help relax your body, releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state in which you’re more likely to fall asleep.
One sleep study randomly assigning participants to one of two groups. One group practiced meditation, while the other didn’t. The results showed that the people who had meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer, compared to those who didn’t.
Anxiety and Emotional Health
Measurable reductions in anxiety were noted among participants in an eight-week study of mindfulness meditation. This was seen as a reduction in symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviours and panic attacks.
A review of studies involving almost 2,500 participants found that a variety of different meditation strategies can reduce anxiety levels. Some of these involved physical activity – yoga, for example – and it is likely that the benefits arose from combining both eh meditation and the physical activity.
The exercise does not have to be yoga and higher energy aerobic activity combined with meditation can have positive outcomes. The benefits can be long term, provided the meditation and exercise is maintained.
Poor self-image and habitual negative thinking are often sources of anxiety leading to weaker emotional health and social participation. Furthermore, cytokines released in response to stress can lead to depression.
Studies of people who undertake mindfulness meditation have found improved moods decreased depression. The researchers concluded that
‘A substantial body of evidence indicates that meditation therapies may have salutary effects on patients having clinical depressive disorders during the acute and subacute phases of treatment’.
Again the benefits persisted over the long term. Research shows that this improvement is associated with measurable changes in electrical activity in areas of the brain that known to be related to positive thinking and optimism Another controlled study compared electrical activity between the brains of people who practiced mindfulness meditation and the brains of others who did not.
Meditation Enhances Self-Awareness
Some forms of meditation may help you develop a stronger understanding of yourself, helping you grow into your best self. For example, self-inquiry meditation explicitly aims to help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you.
Other forms teach you to recognize thoughts that may be harmful or self-defeating. The idea is that as you gain greater awareness of your thought habits, you can steer them toward more constructive patterns.
For example, a study of women being treated for breast cancer found that when they took part in a tai-chi program, their self-esteem improved more than it did than in those who received social support sessions.
In another study, people who took a mindfulness meditation program experienced reduced feelings of loneliness, compared to a control group that had been placed on a wait list for the program.
And it’s not just in overcoming negative aspects of self-awareness that meditation can help. It has also been shown that meditation may cultivate more creative problem solving by reducing what has been described as ‘cognitive rigidity’. In other words, they were less blinded by experiences in the past to possibilities that would help in solving current problems.
Mediation can Improve your Attention Span and Memory
A study looked at the effects of an eight-week mindfulness meditation course on participant’s attention spans. It that the meditation improved participants’ ability to reorient and maintain their attention. Meditation may even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind-wandering, worrying and poor attention.
A similar study showed that human resource workers who regularly practiced mindfulness meditation stayed focused on a task for longer. These workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their peers who did not practice meditation.
Even meditating for a short period can bring about significant improvements. One study found that four days of practicing meditation may be enough to increase attention span while also improving visuo-spatial processing, working memory, and executive functioning
Improvements in attention and clarity of thinking were also seen in tests on older age groups. For example, a review of 12 studies found that multiple meditation styles increased attention, memory and mental quickness in older volunteers.
Meditation has also been shown to, at least partially, improve memory in patients with dementia. A review of literature also found that meditation can help control stress among people who are caring for family members with dementia.
Become a Better Person
Some types of meditation may increase positive feelings and actions towards others.
Metta, a type of meditation also known as loving-kindness meditation, begins with developing kind thoughts and feelings toward yourself. Through practice, people learn to extend this kindness and forgiveness externally, first to friends, then acquaintances and ultimately enemies.
Twenty-two studies of this form of meditation have demonstrated its ability to increase peoples’ compassion toward themselves and others. Interestingly, there is reason to think that the more effort people put into meditation, the more their feelings towards others improved. they experienced. These benefits also appear to accumulate over time with meditation.
The mental discipline you can develop through meditation may help you break dependencies by increasing your self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviors.
Meditation may also help in the control of food cravings. A review of 14 studies found mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce emotional and binge eating. In this way, meditation has a role to play, alongside diet and exercise, in a weight loss programme.
This review indicates that there are strong links between meditation and health and shows that mediation has a role in improving physical, mental and emotional health. The benefits arise from a wide variety of styles.
Choose the form of meditation that suits you. The great thing is that you can try different styles with jeopardising the benefits. Then decide on the one you like best.
Meditation is something everyone can do and can do anywhere. You don’t need any special equipment or membership, although meditation courses can certainly help you get started.
And you certainly don’t need to be able to contort your body or sit in an uncomfortable position for hours. Quite the opposite in fact: find a comfortable position where you can be at ease with your thoughts.
By far the most important requirement is your decision to learn and to use meditation to improve your life.
*In none of the studies reviewed in this article was it concluded that meditation should be used instead of, or as a substitute for, medication or any treatment that may be prescribed by a medical professional. Consequently, it should not be concluded from anything in this article that such a course of action is either inferred or recommended.