Science-Based Benefits of Meditation
Meditation is becoming more popular as people discover the benefits of training their minds to focus and redirect their thoughts.
This habitual process can increase both self and situational awareness, reduce stress, increase concentration and self-discipline and more. Here is a look at 11 health benefits that come from meditation.
1. Reduces Stress
Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation. Mental and physical stress can increase levels of the stress hormone cortisol and harmful inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.
These effects can disrupt sleep, promote depression and anxiety, increase blood pressure and contribute to fatigue and cloudy thinking.
In an eight-week study, a meditation style called “mindfulness meditation” reduced the inflammation response caused by stress.
Another study in nearly 1,300 adults demonstrated that meditation may decrease stress, and stress-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
The impact was greatest among those with the highest stress levels.
2. Controls Anxiety
Less stress translates to less anxiety. Another eight-week study of mindfulness meditation found it helped participants reduce their anxiety and reduced symptoms of anxiety disorders, including phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and panic attacks.
A larger study of 2,466 participants showed that a variety of different meditation strategies may reduce anxiety levels.
For example, yoga has been shown to help people reduce anxiety. This is likely due to benefits from both meditative practice and physical activity.
3. Promotes Emotional Health
Some forms of meditation can also lead to an improved self-image and a more positive outlook on life.
Two studies of mindfulness meditation found decreased depression in over 4,600 adults.
One study followed 18 volunteers as they practiced meditation over three years. The study found that participants experienced long-term decreases in depression.
Meditations impact reducing cytokines can also improve mood and avert depression, according to several studies.
Another study compared the brain activity of people who practiced mindfulness meditation and to others who did not and found the meditators showed increased activity in areas related to positive thinking and optimism.
4. Enhances Self-Awareness
Some forms of meditation help you better know yourself and grow into your best self.
Self-inquiry in meditation aims to help you develop a greater understanding of yourself and how you relate to those around you.
Other forms teach you to recognize thoughts that may be harmful or self-defeating. As you gain greater awareness of your thought habits, you can steer them toward more constructive patterns.
A study of 21 women fighting breast cancer found that when they took part in a tai chi program, their self-esteem improved more than it did than in those who received social support sessions.
In another study, 40 senior men and women who took a meditation program experienced reduced feelings of loneliness, compared to a control group that had been placed on a wait list for the program.
5. Lengthens Attention Span
Meditation is like weight lifting for your attention span. It helps increase the strength and endurance of your attention.
For example, a study looked at the effects of an eight-week meditation course and found it improved participants’ ability to reorient and maintain their attention.
A similar study showed that human resource workers who regularly practiced meditation stayed focused on a task for longer.
These workers also remembered details of their tasks better than their peers who did not practice meditation.
6. May Help Fight Addictions
The mental discipline developed through meditation may help break dependencies by increasing self-control and awareness of triggers for addictive behaviors.
Research has shown that meditation may help people learn to redirect their attention, increase their willpower, control their emotions and impulses and increase their understanding of the causes behind their addictive behaviors.
One study that taught 19 recovering alcoholics how to meditate found that participants who received the training got better at controlling their cravings and craving-related stress.
Meditation may also help you control food cravings. A review of 14 studies found mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce emotional and binge eating.
7. Improves Sleep
Nearly half the population will struggle with insomnia at some point.
One study compared two mindfulness-based meditation programs by randomly assigning participants to one of two groups. One group practiced meditation, while the other didn’t.
Participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer compared to those who didn’t meditate.
Becoming skilled in meditation may help you control or redirect the racing or “runaway” thoughts that often lead to insomnia.
Additionally, it can help relax your body, releasing tension and placing you in a peaceful state in which you’re more likely to fall asleep.
9. Helps Control Pain
Your perception of pain is connected to your state of mind, and it can be elevated in stressful conditions.
One study used MRI techniques to observe brain activity as participants experienced a painful stimulus. Some participants had gone through four days of mindfulness meditation training, while others had not.
The meditating patients showed increased activity in the brain centers known to control pain. They also reported a greater ability to cope with pain and even experienced a reduced sensation of pain.
One larger study looked at the effects of habitual meditation in 3,515 participants. It found that meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain.
An additional study of meditation in patients with terminal diseases found meditation may help mitigate chronic pain at the end of life.
9. Can Decrease Blood Pressure
Meditation can also improve physical health by reducing strain on the heart.
Over time, high blood pressure makes the heart work harder to pump blood, which can lead to poor heart function, heart attacks, and strokes.
A study of 996 volunteers found that when they meditated by concentrating on a “silent mantra”—a repeated, non-vocalized word—reduced blood pressure by about five points, on average.
This was more effective among older volunteers and those who had higher blood pressure prior to the study.
A review concluded that several types of meditation produced similar improvements in blood pressure.
In part, meditation appears to control blood pressure by relaxing the nerve signals that coordinate heart function, tension in blood vessels and the “fight-or-flight” response that increases alertness in stressful situations.
Free and Flexible
People practice many different forms of meditation, most of which don’t require specialized equipment or space. You can practice with just a few minutes daily.
If you want to start meditating, try choosing a form of meditation based on what you want to get out of it.
There are two major styles of meditation:
- Focused-attention meditation: Concentrates attention on a single object, thought, sound, or visualization. It emphasizes ridding your mind of attention and distraction. Meditation may focus on breathing, a mantra, or a calming sound.
- Open-monitoring meditation: Encourages broadened awareness of all aspects of your environment, train of thought, and sense of self. It may include becoming aware of thoughts, feelings, or impulses that you might normally try to suppress.
To find out which styles you like best, check out the variety of free, guided meditation exercises offered by UCLA and Head in the Clouds. They’re an excellent way to try different styles and find one that suits you.
If your regular work and home environments do not allow for consistent, quiet alone time, consider participating in a class. This can also improve your chances of success by providing a supportive community.
Alternatively, consider setting your alarm a few minutes early to take advantage of quiet time in the morning. This may help you develop a consistent habit and allow you to start the day positively.
Matt Thorpe is a nutritional scientist and physician who completed a combined doctorate and M.D. program at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. This article was originally published on Authority Nutrition.