If you think you’re too busy to meditate, chances are you should start. Studies suggest that people with jam-packed schedules and intimidating to-do lists stand to benefit most from mindfulness meditation, which has can help reduce stress, improve focus, and even increase one’s ability to relate to others.
By giving our bustling mind a dedicated break from its day-to-day worries, these studies suggest, we actually empower it to run more efficiently when we’re using it. This can come in handy when we’re trying to solve a tough problem, focus intently on a task, or search for creative inspiration for a project.
Still, the idea of sitting in a quiet room doing nothing for a few minutes each day can sound absurd unless you understand how meditation works.
When we have a thought, be it about what we're going to eat for dinner or the conversation we had with a friend the night before, we almost immediately begin to consider it within the context of other aspects of our lives. This is useful in many ways, but sometimes it can put us on a path towards obsessive thought, especially for people prone to anxiety or depression. Decentering, one of the aims of mindful meditation and a goal of some treatments for depression, involves getting to a state of mind from which you can observe your thoughts and feelings as temporary, objective events.
In one study of people with severe depression, gains in decentering ability were linked with a reduced rate of relapse and better outcomes in terms of life satisfaction and overall feelings of well-being.
When we go into a quiet room and block out a period of time for our minds to go blank, it appears to make it easier for us to enter a state of intense focus later on.
Richard Davidson, a neuroscientist at the University of Wisconsin, looked into this idea for a long-term study that compared people who had been meditating for years with complete newbies. He found that when he tried to startle two groups of people -- one that was meditating and one that was not -- with a sudden interruption like a loud noise, the meditators were far less perturbed than the people who weren't meditating, regardless of whether they were new or experienced at the practice.
Meditation can also reduce stress by helping us deal with negative feelings we might otherwise ignore.
Many of us go through the day with a couple worrisome thoughts or concerns whispering at the back of our brains. We often tend to push these thoughts aside rather than deal with the feelings they might bring up.
Something about meditating -- whether it's the physical space we set-up for ourselves each day or the mental space we make by regularly clearing the mind -- seems to help us deal with these negative thoughts.
A large review of studies involving close to 3,000 people found that mindfulness meditation was linked with a reduction in feelings of depression, anxiety, and even physical pain.
Experienced meditators appear to have unique brains with well-developed regions that may be connected to things like awareness and emotional control. Even in people new to meditation, some studies suggest the practice is linked with significant changes in parts of the brain linked with memory, perspective, and self-awareness.
Richard Davidson, the University of Wisconsin neuroscientist who led the 12-year study comparing expert and novice meditators, also had people in the two groups listen to sounds of stressed-out voices as part of his investigation.
In members of both groups, Davidson observed increased activity in two brain areas known to be involved in empathy, but the increase was significantly more pronounced in the experienced meditators. This could suggest, Davidson concluded, that people who meditate regularly have an enhanced ability to respond to the feelings of others and empathise with them without feeling overwhelmed.
Studies have linked regular meditation with decreases in peoples' blood pressure. As my colleague Kevin Loria has written previously, researchers (and the American Heart Association) say a likely reason for this is that meditation can reduce the levels of stress hormones that cause inflammation and other physical problems.
For a small study in January 2017, researchers had over a dozen participants aged 24 to 76 spend a week at a spiritual retreat that involved silent contemplation and reflection. The researchers scanned the brains of their participants before and after to observe the behaviour of two chemicals linked with mood -- dopamine and serotonin. They also had participants complete surveys to gauge their physical health, stress, and fatigue. After the retreat, the participants' survey responses suggested they saw marked improvements in their perceived physical health, while negative feelings like stress and fatigue appeared to decrease. The brain scans done before and after the retreat also revealed small decreases in dopamine and serotonin transporter binding, which might have made more of those neurotransmitters available to the brain.
For a recent study, researchers split people into two groups and had one complete an eight-week meditation course. At the end, the researchers injected both groups with the flu vaccine and checked their immune response by measuring how many flu-fighting antibodies their bodies produced. The meditators showed significantly more antibodies than those who did not complete the training, suggesting that their immune systems were more primed to defend against an attack.
There's also some evidence that suggests that regular meditation can help prevent some genetic damage.
One study in cancer survivors who completed a meditation program suggested that the participants' telomeres -- special protein complexes that help protect our DNA -- had grown longer. A possible mechanism for this, the researchers suggest, is that stress reduction could somehow lead to lengthened telomeres, but more research is needed to confirm this idea.
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