Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years by cultures across the globe. It is only recently that Western medicine has discovered that the practice actually has physical and mental benefits, aside from just making you feel less stressed.
Studies done on meditation have shown that, physically, it can:
- Aid your quality of sleep
- Help you better cope with the emotional effects of chronic pain
- Possibly reduce age-related memory loss
- Manage or reduce symptoms of high blood pressure, heart disease, irritable bowel syndrome, and tension headaches, among other things.
In fact, a 2014 meta-analysis done by Goyal, MD, et al., looked at over 18,000 meditation studies, eventually finding 47 that met their criteria for studies that were well designed, had good controls, and were not based solely on participants who already felt that meditation had a positive benefit.
The results of this meta-analysis showed that the 3,515 participants experienced improvement in anxiety, depression, and pain, especially in those who practiced daily mindfulness meditation.
Meditation is also great for an individual’s well being and emotional intelligence. In fact, studies are showing that this ancient practice can have a positive impact on your mental health by actually changing the structure of your brain.
How Does Meditation Change The Brain?
In the brain, the amygdala controls the “fear centers” and triggers the body’s fight or flight response.
To find out if meditation changes the brain or if it only affects a person while they are meditating, a 2012 study by Debordes, et al, used magnetic resonance imaging (MRIs) to look at the brains of study participants. The researchers wanted to see “how 8 weeks of training in meditation affects amygdala responses to emotional stimuli in subjects when in a non-meditative state.”
The subjects underwent an MRI at the start of the study, so the researchers had a baseline to compare to. They then took part in an 8 week session of “either Mindful Attention Training (MAT), Cognitively-Based Compassion Training (CBCT; a program based on Tibetan Buddhist compassion meditation practices), or an active control intervention.”
At the completion of the study, the participants underwent another MRI to look at their amygdala responses. While there was no effect in the control group, the researchers found:
- A reduction in right amygdala activation when viewing positive images for those in the MAT sessions.
- An increase in right amygdala response to negative images in the CBCT participants, which is associated with a decrease in depression.
The researchers stated that, “This finding suggests that the effects of meditation training on emotional processing might transfer to non-meditative states. This is consistent with the hypothesis that meditation training may induce learning that is not stimulus- or task-specific, but process-specific, and thereby may result in enduring changes in mental function.”
Can Meditation Help With Anxiety?
Anxiety begins with our fears about the future or our worries about our relationships and our daily lives.
One way that meditation can help with anxiety is by allowing you to stop focusing on the past or the future and permitting you to concentrate on the immediate present. In fact, being present in the here and now is the basis of mindfulness meditation.
By being mindful, we can learn to calm the emotion behind our worries and fearful thoughts and begin to stop reacting to them.
- To begin a mindfulness meditation, focus on your breathing.
- Take notice of the sensations you feel. Be aware of your breath flowing through your nose and into your lungs as you inhale and exhale. Feel your chest expand and contract as you breathe.
- Take note of the room’s temperature, listen to the sounds humming around you, notice the smells or fragrances in the room, and your physical reactions (sweating, pulse rate, etc).
- If you have an anxious thought, give it a name, but don’t focus on it. Instead, think “that is a fearful thought” or “that is a sad thought,” then take three deep breaths.
- After releasing the last breath, try to gain perspective about the anxious thought. Was the worry or fear valid or was it actually something you might be making more of than it deserves? Could you possibly be jumping to conclusions with that thought?
- As you gain perspective, you’ll have a few seconds of calm that will allow you to release the anxious thought, so simply let it go and focus on your next breath.
- Don’t judge yourself for having anxious thoughts. Once you notice them, gently return your attention to your breathing and repeat these mindfulness steps.
Each time you focus solely on the present, your mind gets a chance to relax so you can see things from a new perspective.
Although it’s likely that you won’t experience a total release of anxiety the first time you try mindfulness, you should get some relief from your worries. If you keep practicing, you will improve over time.
Is Meditation Good For Depression?
Depression is triggered by stress and anxiety and how we react to them, so anything that can help reduce these conditions should also help ward off depression.
Since even a short meditation can help prepare you to face a stressful situation (example: by closing your eyes and taking a few deep breaths to calm yourself before going into a business meeting), it can also be helpful for tamping down the anxiety and stress that can lead to depression.
In an article from Harvard Men’s Health Watch, published by Harvard Medical School, Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital said, “Meditation trains the brain to achieve sustained focus, and to return to that focus when negative thinking, emotions, and physical sensations intrude — which happens a lot when you feel stressed and anxious.”
He added that, “When you meditate, you are better able to ignore the negative sensations of stress and anxiety, which explains, in part, why stress levels fall when you meditate.”
As with anxiety, you won’t get total relief from depression after just one meditation session. “But with practice, meditation can help many people control how they react to the stress and anxiety that often leads to depression,” Dr. Denninger noted.
In Getting to Know Anxiety Drs. Rosen and Gross offer readers an overview of today’s challenging mental health issues and the most current treatment methods available, as well as practical strategies for mental and emotional self-care.
When Meditation Isn’t Enough
Although meditation can be helpful for keeping stress, anxiety, and depression at bay, if you find that your anxiety or depression are impacting your life on a daily basis it’s time to seek help. For more information, contact The Center for Treatment of Anxiety and Mood Disorders in Delray Beach, Florida or call us today at 561-496-1094.