In my post 6 Steps to a Peaceful Meditation Practice (view here), I discussed how easy it is to start meditating. As previously mentioned, meditation is a practice and something I recommend that you strive to do daily in order to see results.
I wanted to follow up on that piece with a few recent studies that show how powerful meditation can be in your life as a tool to combat some of our biggest struggles. It’s pretty awe-inspiring to see how connecting back to our breath can have such a significant impact on our mental health, and how it can impact actual physical changes taking place in our brain.
Do you feel like your brain reacts to situations, when in hindsight you really feel it wasn’t rational or realistic? Can you imagine being able to lessen your non-rational reactions to thoughts of past or future events?
Researchers from Yale, Columbia and the University of Oregon conducted a joint study on meditators before, during, and after meditation. They had two control groups, experienced meditators, and people who had never practiced or who were very new to meditation.
Their main reason for monitoring these groups was to see how the brain works in its “default” setting and if meditation can change it. Our “default” setting is that of mind-wandering, focusing on what has happened or what will happen, rather than living in the present moment. This mind-wandering correlates with unhappiness and anxiety.
The astonishing finding was that not only did the experienced meditators deactivate the “default” part of their brain, but there was also stronger activity in the region of their brain in charge of self-monitoring and cognitive control. This activity means that not only were the experienced meditators able to shut off their mind-wandering, but the parts of their brain in charge of thoughts, behavior, perception, and reactions were much stronger and therefore much easier to control and react appropriately.
Modern medicine can do wondrous things for a lot of different conditions. However, rather than finding a solution in medication for every issue we may have, it’s important that we can also turn to our own abilities. Finding long-term success often involves long-term, persistent habits, rather than quick fixes. Your medication intake is between you and your doctor, of course. But if you’re searching for alternative solutions or a complement to medication, meditation could be it.
A study by four doctors from John Hopkins University was conducted to see how well meditation and mindfulness held up in comparison to medication for treating depression. They reviewed 47 different trials on mindfulness and meditation that involved 3,515 participants.
Upon reviewing the outcomes of each trial, they found that after eight weeks of meditation 95% of participants had lessened their depression and pain and every single participant showed improvement in mood, attention, substance use, eating habits, sleep, and weight.
While the improvement for treating depression wasn’t more significant than medication, it was close to or equal to the efficacy of antidepressants without any of the side effects.
While humans are now living longer than ever, our brains have not seen the same improvement; they still begin their decline in our mid-twenties.
To mitigate this decline, researchers have found that while meditation can’t reverse our brains deterioration, it can slow it down.
Researchers in Los Angeles had a group of 100 subjects with an average age in their mid-fifties. Half of the participants had four or more years of experience in meditation and half of them had limited or no experience. Each subject had their brain scanned to examine the gray matter. In every single older subject, there was a decline in the gray matter; however, the regression was significantly less in those subjects that meditated.
The conclusion the researchers came to is that because meditation is an intense mental activity it acts as brain protection and reduces age-related decline, keeping meditators mentally sharper than their non-meditating counterparts.
While meditation can be an intimidating idea for a lot of people, the proven benefits are too profound to ignore. Often taking the smallest of steps can lead you to the greatest success. I challenge you today to take 5 minutes during your day to sit in silence with your breath. Try it for a week…just 5 minutes a day. The peace you experience may just get you hooked!
In the journals: Mindfulness meditation practice changes the brain
Forever Young(er): potential age-defying effects of long-term meditation on gray matter atrophy
Meditation experience is associated with differences in default mode network activity and connectivity
Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis