Meditation is quite possibly one of the fastest–growing practices in the health and wellness industry today—in fact, its popularity has skyrocketed over the last decade. I’m not able to pinpoint exactly which celebrity it was who inspired mass amounts of people to start sitting crossed-legged on floor pillows, which causes me to wonder: has this ancient practice soared to the top of the popularity pile based on ITS OWN merits? Meditation has always been used to focus the mind and create a sense of calm in the body. Although things have changed since its humble beginnings—the pillows are fancier, the studios more extravagant—meditation is still incredibly beneficial to those who practice it. And with increased accessibility to proper meditation guides, there’s no need to book that trip to Tibet—there’s practically a mind gym on every other street corner now.
A number of studies have been conducted to determine the ways in which meditation benefits both your body and your brain. Let’s get into some of those ways, shall we?
Meditation reduces stress and anxiety
Does juggling the demands of a job, a partner and a million kids’ activities have you chewing your fingernails down to their beds and downing a bottle and a half of wine every night? Fear not: research has promising news when it comes to how to manage our stress and anxiety levels. Several studies have been done recently on the effects of meditation on the brain, all of which involved participants completing an assigned meditation program and then continuing to follow that same program independently for months, and in some cases years, later. Most of the participants reported a decrease in their overall stress, anxiety, and stress- and anxiety-induced diseases, including heart disease and its related illnesses. The most effective type of meditation for reducing stress and anxiety is mindfulness–based stress–reduction meditation (MBSR), which targets specific areas in the brain and decreases brain–cell volume in the amygdala, the area of the brain responsible for stress, anxiety and fear.
Meditation improves concentration and memory
As you age, you may notice that your memory isn’t quite the same. Your focus is easily broken (kids make it impossible: “mom, mommy, mama, mommy, mom…”), and you may not feel as sharp as you once did. Well, meditation can help fix that. Studies show that mindful meditation increases activity in the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), also known as the “me” centre and the area of the brain that controls our wandering minds and constant running thoughts (which impede our concentration, focus and memory). Mindful meditation trains the vmPFC to better focus and be more aware when our minds start to wander.
Mindful meditation also targets the hippocampus, the area of the brain that’s responsible for making and storing memories, making it easier to recall long-term memories and make new ones. One of the reasons we may struggle to recall memories is because of increased cortisol levels. Cortisol is our stress hormone and it’s produced when we’re feeling overworked, overtired and overstimulated (so, basically, it’s on constant flow). But mindful meditation, when successful, helps turn your cortisol waterfall into a trickle, ultimately improving memory, focus, and your general health and well–being.
Meditation fights the mental and physical struggles of addiction
Ignore the fact that meditating to fight addiction may become an addiction in and of itself (the phenomenon known as “meditators’ high,” which leaves Zen-ites tweaking out and looking for their next meditation pillow, is a real thing). This might actually be an addiction that’s doctor–recommended. The parts of the brain that are stimulated by addiction are also stimulated through meditation: the same firing across synapses occurs, which leads to increased endorphins and the feeling of a high. This high, however, is natural and does not have the same cyclic effects as do highs that are elicited from substances or other habits. So, if we can train our brain to produce endorphins through meditation, we can fight our cravings and urges with a habit that fulfills these cravings and urges. Not only that: meditation can help us become more aware of what our triggers are and redirect our attention and increase our willpower so that the impulse to use is not top of mind.
Meditation improves sleep
We spend about one–third of our lives doing it (or at least that’s how it should be), but somehow sleep eludes many of us. Sleep issues include trouble falling asleep, trouble staying asleep and waking up in the early, early hours of the morning. But the good news is that the answer to these problems doesn’t have to come in pill form. Years of research have proven that mindful meditation can be more effective than any medication. What makes it so effective? There’s an area of the brain directly related to sleep and dreaming, called the pons. Researchers who have studied the brain during both sleep and meditation have concluded that a weak pons equals poor sleep; however, engaging in a regular meditation practice can help you achieve hibernation-like sleep patterns. Melatonin, your body’s sleep–regulating hormone, becomes depleted with increased stress. Meditation combats this depletion, calming your mind and body and ensuring that you have an adequate level of melatonin, promoting better sleep. It “turns off” your mind chatter, drawing focus away from negative thoughts and worries, helping you stay present. All of this leads to an easier time falling asleep and a better quality of sleep, with less waking up.
Meditation decreases pain
The feeling of pain, whether chronic or acute, travels through the brain. Acute pain is typically resolved without any major issues, but chronic pain makes this mind-body connection a bit more complicated. In cases of chronic pain, the pain signal is sent to the brain so frequently that the brain continues to perceive it long after it’s gone. It’s at this point when pain medication no longer does the trick. Plus, those who experience chronic pain for long enough often develop anxiety about it, causing stress and tension around the original injured area, which begins a whole new pain cycle.
Fear not: mighty meditation is here to help. Recent studies that recorded activity in the brain’s pain centres found that the pain centres were significantly less active post–meditation. And many more studies have been conducted both analytically (meaning they studied the brain’s chemistry) and subjectively (the study’s participants rated their own pain pre– and post-meditation). So, what does meditation do to the brain? Well, a lot, but most notably, it offers your brain a break from the constant thought of pain by activating other areas of it and giving your pain centres a rest. The result is that you’re more aware of the moments in which you focus on or stress about your pain, which gives you the opportunity to shift your thoughts or divert your attention to something else. It also produces a boatload of endorphins more powerful than any pain medication. It reduces stress, a known aggravator of pain and injury. And finally, meditation helps you realize the difference between how much pain you’re actually in versus how much pain you perceive yourself to be in, giving you more power to end the vicious cycle of chronic pain.
Meditation creates a kinder, more considerate world
This reason alone should have us all heading to the nearest couch cushion to settle into a 20-minute session. The more we strive to find inner peace and share it with those around us the better a world it will be, even if only in small ways. There’s a type of meditation known as Metta meditation that focuses on sending goodwill towards others—it’s often referred to as loving-kindness meditation. Like most other types of meditation, Metta helps you relax, breathe and look inward, but it also focuses on sending and receiving love, compassion and kindness to those you care about through silent mantra. Does it sound too wonderful to be true? It really does work: both qualitative and quantitative studies show that Metta meditation does indeed bring out the good in all of us because the areas of the brain that are responsible for compassion and kindness become very active during the practice and remain so afterwards.
So, there you have it: meditation is on the rise. I, for one, applaud it. It isn’t often that we see such effective results from such an easy, safe, convenient “treatment.” Put away the pills and crawl onto a cushion. Let’s all work towards finding our Zen.