The benefits of mediation will be broken down and listed differently depending on who you ask. Someone with optimizing their productivity in mind might mention other things than the person on a spiritual journey. In this article, I want to give you an overview of some of the measured effects of meditation. It can help you get past some initial resistance and give the motivation to get your mind on board with the practice.
Meditation is far from the woo-woo label it had some 20 years ago. It’s practiced by high-performing athletes and multi-million business owners for a reason. Nowadays, there are many studies showing that meditation can positively impact your mental and physical health. Whether it’s by reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing focus, or improving relationships, research shows meditation really does work. But how?
The effects on your brain
Some of the meditation research focuses on neuroscience by analyzing brain wave activity before, during and after meditation, to actually find out how a meditation practice affects brain function. Brainwaves are synchronized electrical pulses from neurons communicating with each other. Our brainwaves change according to what we’re doing, thinking and feeling, and can be detected by placing sensors on the scalp. Brainwaves are divided into a range of frequencies to describe how they affect us, from gamma being the highest frequency, continuing with beta, alpha, theta and delta.
The video above describes how “Olympic level meditators” are in gamma brain wave states extended times during their waking day – a state that regular folks only access a fraction of a second from time to time. It gives us an indication of what’s possible. But even if you are not interested in meditating for several hours per day for the rest of your life, the way even a 20 minutes meditation practice can shift your brainwaves over time will have a big effect on your life.
The benefits of meditation
1. Changing brainwaves
With a meditation practice, you move out of stressful states of high-beta brainwaves and into alpha brainwaves, a relaxed but awake and inspired state, often connected with flow states. This is a restful state for your brain and supports integration and learning, far from the fight or flight state of the stressed mind that has become many people’s normal state. Moving into the alpha brainwaves not only makes you think better – it shifts the whole system of your physical body out of surviving into recharging, learning and creating.
This is different from just resting on the couch. A new study by the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) suggests that meditation causes an increase of brainwave activity associated with wakeful, relaxed attention than just resting without any specific mental technique.
2. Balances activity in the prefrontal cortex
The lateral prefrontal cortex is the center of the brain responsible for logical and rational thinking. This is where your most grounded thought processes come from, as opposed to more irrational, emotional responses that happen from our unconscious beliefs about the world, ourselves, and others. Neuropsychological studies, including this one of Dr. Sara Lazar at Harvard Medical School, suggest that meditation regulates the functioning of the lateral prefrontal cortex. This means meditation makes us feel more in control of our thoughts at all times, and that meditators are more likely to problem-solve using logic than emotion.
Meditation also affects the medial prefrontal cortex, commonly known as the “Me Center,” which is responsible for our perceptions, understanding, and knowledge. Studies show that daily meditation can lead us to have more awareness of ourselves and our surroundings, be more empathetic and self-compassionate, and develop positive connections with others.
3. Regulates our emotional centers
Meditation also impacts our mental health by regulating the functioning of the ventromedial cortex, dorsomedial cortex, amygdala, and insula, all of which are specialized brain centers that regulate our emotions, reactions to anxiety, fear, and bodily sensations of pain, hunger, and thirst. These are all sensations that can be negatively affected by our internal issues or social conditioning within our conscious or unconscious thoughts. Meditation promotes logical, healthy emotional states for our minds.
According to a study by Luders, Cherbuin, Kurth in 2015, meditation promotes mental balance by quieting the “monkey mind”. The monkey mind is the chatter that stems from your unconscious beliefs and is connected to the ego – the person you believe yourself to be who has been formed over years of domestication and social structures. You might hear the inner judge beating you down, or just the constant rambling of the commentator, labeling and commenting on what you see around you for no obvious reason. This part of your mind can be in the way of focusing or feeling joy. Researchers mean meditation can help you reduce time being distracted with negative thoughts and gain more clarity and time to be able to focus on what’s really important. I say that this happens when you learn how to direct your attention between different parts of yourself and distancing yourself from your thoughts by observing them, instead of believing they ARE you.
There you have it, some insights on how meditation affects your brain. I’m not a scientist in this area and don’t claim to cover everything, just parts that I’ve found helpful for me and my clients.
So what does this mean to the rest of your body, your emotions and your daily life? Here’s a list of consequences of a regular meditation practice that all has been studied in different researches.
With regular meditation practice, you may notice the following 14 benefits:
1. Improves cognition and focus
Studies have revealed that both transcendent and mindful meditation practices improve the brain’s problem-solving and decision-making strategies. Most of the time our attention is pulled along impulsively by several external and internal factors. When you meditate you practice directing your attention yourself which will strengthen the muscle of focusing. This will affect your life in many areas – from professional to personal life.
Read more: Brain scans show how meditation improves mental focus (Psychology Today)
2. Reduces stress
Encountering immediate threats increase the level of stress hormone in the body, and activates the Autonomic Nervous system, which is responsible for fight-or-flight responses. The problem today is that most of us live as we were in a life-threatening situation many times per day. Thoughts jumping around and a rush of adrenalin from thinking about an upcoming meeting or how to make it in time to pick up the kids is not a thriving environment for our minds and bodies. Studies revealed that meditators have lower cortisol level in their brains, which explains their resilience and more calm state. This means that by developing the habit of regular meditation, we can successfully self-regulate and balance our reactions in everyday life. We won’t feel as stressed in what used to be triggering situations.
Read more: Mindfulness meditation may ease anxiety and mental stress (Harvard Health)
3. Promotes emotional health and well-being
From the front page of a glossy magazine to your dad comparing you to your brother at the dinner table – your sense of self-worth has been determined by several unconscious factors throughout your life. Factors you can’t control by your rational mind or talk your way out of with positive affirmations since they are held by unconscious beliefs created by early emotional experiences. Studies have shown that meditation can drastically improve our self-image. When we meditate, we get a clearer picture of our mind and become aware of the thoughts that drive our emotions and reactions. A large-scale study found that regular meditation decreases the likelihood of developing depression and mood-related disorders (Jain, Walsh, Cahn, 2015).
(There are also ways to change your unconscious beliefs at the core, something we teach in the self mastery work.)
Read more: The study by Jain, Walsh, Cahn
4. Enhances empathy
Meditation fires neural connections to brain centers that regulate positive emotions like empathy, kindness and feeling connected. The deep state of flow that meditation induces builds social connection and makes us more affectionate and amicable as people. In the journal Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, a meditation program called Cognitively-Based Compassion Training was able to improve people’s ability to read emotional expressions on others’ faces.
Read more: Meditation could improve empathy (Huffington Post)
5. Increases sense of presence
When you meditate you will also activate brain centers that enhance the experience of being in the now. Most of us travel in time regularly, reliving memories of the past and project onto the future, and we have a hard time feeling present in the experiences happening right now. According to researchers from the universities of Kent and Witten/Herdecke, mindfulness meditation practice can slow down our sense of passing time after a brief period of meditation, therefore bringing meditators more into the present moment.
Read more: Can mindfulness slow the passage of time? (Neuro Nova Centre)
6. Improves your physical health
Many scientists, nutritionists, and researchers of allied health sciences have indicated that the pathway to fitness and health lies in holistic lifestyle modification – including nutritious food, physical workout, and regular meditation. Getting the mind and body to function equally well is crucial since you can’t separate one from the other. If your mind is clouded with negative and stressful contemplations, there are very poor chances of benefitting from any workout regime.
Read more: Five ways mindfulness meditation is good for your health (Berkeley)
7. Strengthens your immune system
Studies on the impact of meditation on lowering the risk of cancer suggested that mindful relaxation and meditation practices boost the lymphocyte count in the body, and help in developing a natural shield for fighting toxic cells that create the fatal disease. Although the study faced criticisms, the findings of this study provided substantial evidence on how meditation can make us more immune to painful infections and illnesses.
Read more: Meditation improves your immune system (The Telegraph)
8. Decreases your chance of age-related memory loss
Although aging is a process that can’t be stopped, the rate at which our health declines due to getting older can. Meditation practices which involve chanting a mantra along with specific finger movements to improve concentration can help improve memory in dementia patients.
Besides reducing stress, such meditation exercises also support age-related memory loss and memory retention problems. Scientists say that encouraging older adults to practice meditation for as little as two minutes per day can bring a significant difference in the way they fight and cope with their memory dysfunctions. According to a new study published in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, completing a 3-month yoga and meditation course may reduce older adults’ risk of mild cognitive impairment – considered a precursor for Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
Read more: Yoga, meditation may reduce dementia risk (Medical News Today)
9. Can help you overcome substance abuse
Research shows that implementing meditation sessions in rehabilitation programs can help a patient with substance dependence or addiction to control impulses and reduce withdrawal symptoms. Substance abusers who regularly meditate, show less aggression and craving. Also, they have signs of heightened self-awareness and usually recuperate sooner than non-meditators. Whether or not meditation directly contributes to addiction control is still a matter of investigation, but the impact of meditation in bringing a positive mental shift in addicts is undeniable and universally accepted. A 2006 study by University of Washington researchers (Bowen et al) examined 78 substance-addicted prison inmates for three months. The study found that meditation was almost 6 times more effective than the control group’s more traditional chemical dependency treatment plan.
Read more: 7 reasons meditation can naturally beat addiction (Eco Institute)
10. Reduces depression
Studies on mild and major depressive individuals showed that introducing an adjunct of meditation to their regular depression management strategies reduced the symptoms of loneliness and general low mood. One way meditation helps the brain is by protecting the hippocampus (a brain area involved in memory). One study discovered that people who meditated for 30 minutes a day for eight weeks increased the volume of gray matter in their hippocampus, and other research has shown that people who suffer from recurrent depression tend to have a smaller hippocampus. A study by Filip Raes on 400 adolescent students in Belgium showed that when they participated in mindful meditation programs, they had a noticeable reduction in depression, negative thinking, and stress for up to six months after the training (Ramel, Goldin, Carmona, and McQuaid, 2004).
Read more: How meditation helps with depression (Harvard Health)
11. Helps to overcome postpartum depression
Research indicates that the effects of meditation can be similar to antidepressant drugs. Pregnant women and new mothers, who are at risk of developing depressive disorders due to sudden hormonal flushes in the body, benefitted a lot when they practiced meditation. The evidence shows that besides reducing mood fluctuations in new moms, meditation also helped them in developing a secure connection with the newborn baby. (Dhillon, Sparks, and Duartes, 2017).
Read more: Study: The effectiveness of mindfulness training on reducing the symptoms of postpartum depression
12. Regulates anxiety and mood disorders
According to mhanational.org, mood disorders are a category of illnesses that describe a serious change in mood. About 20% of the U.S. population reports at least one depressive symptom in a given month, and 12% report two or more in a year. Daily meditation practice can help to regulate unreasonable emotional ups and downs. Methods like Vipassana reduces the density of grey matter in brain areas that associate stress and anxiety and bring in overall emotional stability. A study published in April 2018 in the journal Psychiatry Research found that patients with generalized anxiety disorder who took a course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, where they learned several different strategies to manage stress, had lower stress-related hormonal and inflammatory levels than people who did not practice mindfulness.
Read more: How meditation can improve your mental health (Everyday Health)
13. Builds resilience to pain
An interesting study by the University of Montreal proved that meditation builds endurance against physical pain. In the study, two groups received equal amounts of extreme heat in their bodies for a fair amount of time. One of the groups had Zen Buddhist masters who were dedicated meditators, and the other group had thirteen non-meditators. Researchers were amazed at how the Zen masters reported significantly less pain than the other participants (Ziddan, Mertucci, Kraft, Gordon, McHaffie, and Coghill, 2011). But you don’t have to be a zen master to heighten your pain tolerance. Researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center found that a little over an hour of meditation training can dramatically reduce both the experience of pain and pain-related brain activation.
Read more: Even beginners can curb pain with meditation (NPR)
14. Helps to regulate challenges with ADHD
A study on 50 adult ADHD individuals showed that mindfulness and meditation practices reduced their hyperactivity and allowed them to enjoy increased impulse control (Schoenberg, Hepark, Kan, Barendregt, Speckens, 2014). Brain examinations by Professor Eileen Lugers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neurology-imagine proved that meditators have more gyrification that helps the brain to process information faster and improve selective attention and focus.
Read more: Study shows the efficacy of mindfulness meditation in treating adults with ADHD (AJMC)
The studied effects of meditation are growing and so are the numbers of researchers interested in the area. Many who have experienced the effects of their own practice and want to measure and understand what actually happens in the body.
The research can help us understand and make meditation more available, but the practice itself has very little to do with theory or knowledge. To experience the effects of meditation you need to be in a meditative state regularly. In order to be in a meditative state, you need to practice it. And in order to start to practice it you might need to overcome a few underlying beliefs about your ability to do it and what it needs to be or look like. You might also need to overcome the resistance your mind throws at you – everything from falling asleep or feeling restless to being scared of going inwards and worried about the emotions that might show up. If that’s your situation – have a look at my free 6-step guide on overcoming resistance with meditating.