Meditation has definitely reached the mainstream. People are no longer looking at the practice as some sort of “hippy-dippy” zone-out session, but instead, as a tool to relieve stress, reduce anxiety, and to work on mental clarity and well-being. Today, you’ll find more and more people making meditation a part of their daily routine at home using apps or guided YouTube videos and even going to meditation studios. So, is it really worth all the hype? In a short answer – yes. Practicing mindfulness has been shown to have incredible effects on our brain and mental health. Let’s take a look at a few.
It’s been shown that meditation actually changes your brain, and in turn, it changes the way your body handles and responds to stress. “Training” your brain to behave in a more centered and calm manner can work wonders when dealing with things like depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder. For the past decade or more, studies have suggested that meditating has wonderful health benefits, but it wasn’t until recently that researchers have nailed down its impact on the physiology of the brain.
Here’s what we know so far: dopamine is a chemical in our brains that is released when we feel happy, when we’re in love, or when we’re eating something delicious. Research has shown that this neurotransmitter, along with GABA (associated with lowering anxiety) and serotonin (associated with improved sleep), is increased with the practice of meditation.
Meditation has also been shown to reduce symptoms of depression and anxiety. When your mind is still and you’re practicing non-judgment of your thoughts, the amygdala of your brain decreases in activity. This is the area of your brain that “turns on” when you’re feeling stressed or anxious. In addition to this, practicing mindfulness helps the brain from forming negative thought patterns which are associated with mild to moderate depression.
The constant distractions and stressors of life affect the development of the prefrontal cortex of the brain. In fact, it is significantly altered by our daily interactions. When we’re always on edge or having overactive thoughts, we don’t allow the brain to synthesize experiences and memories. According to Daniel Amen, MD, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry, UC Irvine in California, “A brain accustomed to static and noise while taking in information, will develop the need for fast-paced input to even register in the future.”
Meditation has even taken the place of medication for some people. A study published in 2015 showed that mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), along with traditional therapy, was just as effective at preventing the recurrence of depression as taking antidepressants. Other research shows mindfulness therapy can improve the outcome of various mental health afflictions, but the most obvious improvements are with depression. Meditation is also a wonderful tool to supplement with current treatments if going off medication is not an option.
Just like you won’t see changes in your muscle definition after one trip to the gym, mental health changes take time. It takes repetition and consistency to fully experience all of the benefits of meditation. For best results, you should aim to practice some form of meditation or mindfulness every day, first thing in the morning – even if it’s just for five minutes. After a few days, increase the time to 10-12 minutes. If seven days a week is too much to ask, four to five times a week is still very beneficial.
So, how do you change these mental muscles through meditation? Here’s a simple guide to help you get started.
- Sit comfortably in a chair, on the floor, or on your bed. Place your feet firmly on the floor or sit cross-legged. It’s important to feel comfortable but alert.
- Allow your body to relax. You should feel heavy but calm. Soften all of the muscles in your face, jaw, neck, and shoulders. Make sure to maintain a straight posture without being too stiff.
- Take a deep breath in through your nose, filling your entire lungs and through your belly. Exhale slowly and evenly through your mouth. Repeat these deep breaths three to five times without force, simply focusing on the breath itself. Resume normal breathing pattern while maintaining focus on your inhale and exhale.
- Practice being mindful of your breath for the designated amount of time without focusing on anything else. If your mind wanders, which is normal, simply bring your attention back to your breathing without making any judgment about what you were thinking about. Meditation is about being kind to yourself.
- Once you’ve reached your set amount of time, notice how you feel. Do you feel more relaxed? Do you have more clarity? Take note of how you feel, both mentally and physically, and repeat the process daily if possible. Over time, the effects will become more noticeable.
If you’re someone who would prefer a little more guidance throughout the meditation session, there are group practices and mindfulness apps that can help. Meditation can also be practiced in more non-traditional ways such as working in the garden or hiking – whatever lets you focus, breathe, and be present in the moment. Meditation is just one technique that can have incredible impacts on your mental health and well-being.