Meditation for Health

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You have probably heard of meditation, although what meditation actually means can be unclear, as it means different things to different people. While there are many styles, techniques, and traditions, almost all meditation includes a practice of focusing or clearing the mind by quietly witnessing your thoughts and feelings and external stimuli without getting caught up in them. Meditation practices come from ancient traditions.

Modern science has developed sophisticated tools to examine how meditation affects us. These findings illuminate the power of meditation to make a measurable difference in our experience of the world and our physical and psychological states.

A variety of studies examining different approaches to meditation show that we can exercise some degree of control over things we did not think we could change. These scientific studies demonstrate that new options for self-healing may be possible through meditation.

Meditation can be used for many things: Relaxation, stress and anxiety reduction, managing chronic health symptoms, and even quitting tobacco.

Ancient Origins

Many relaxation methods, such as prayer, visualization, guided imagery, and hypnosis, help people manage difficult emotions or stress but are not categorized as meditation. Meditation, in contrast, trains the practitioner to notice passing thoughts and feelings, eventually gaining greater insight and calmness.

Meditation is widely believed to have originated from the Hindu religion thousands of years ago, although meditation is a tradition in other regions and religions as well. Ancient cultures did not distinguish between the body and the mind, and meditative techniques were used to enter deeper spiritual states of awareness. Meditation has been traditional in the East but began to gain visibility in the Western world in the 1960s, when researchers and scientists began studying meditation’s physiological effects.

Meditation in the West

As meditation began to enter mainstream healthcare in the West, two particular types of meditation became most prominent: Transcendental Meditation (TM) and mindfulness meditation. TM uses repetition of a mantra (a sacred word or sound) to focus attention. Mindfulness meditation trains the practitioner to maintain awareness of the present moment without reminiscing or projecting into the future.

The Relaxation Response

Herbert Benson, MD, the author of the 1970s best seller The Relaxation Response, was a pioneer in studying the effects of relaxation and meditation techniques. The relaxation response described by Benson cites four basic elements common to eliciting such a response:

  • a quiet environment
  • a mental device (such as a word or a mantra),
  • a passive attitude
  • a comfortable posture

Benson’s framework has been established as the “relaxation response” that produces the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. The following characteristics are evidence of the Relaxation Response:

  • Decreased metabolism, heart rate, blood pressure, and rate of breathing
  • A decrease or ‘calming’ in brain activity
  • An increase in attention and decision-making functions of the brain
  • Changes in gene activity that are the opposite of those associated with stress

Because of its physiological effects, relaxation response meditation is used in most stress-reduction programs.

While the relaxation response was convenient as an initial explanation for what happens in the meditative state, later work showed that what was happening physiologically was much more complex than just a reduction in heart and respiratory rate.

By the 1990s, meditation was becoming accepted as part of Western medicine, especially through the stress-reduction programs in healthcare facilities. One well-known example is the mindfulness programs organized by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, author, professor, and stress-reduction expert at the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. He is the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), a program he created for people with no or little meditation experience. Thousands of people across the U.S. and around the world have participated the MBSR program.

Inside the Brain

Medical science has found concrete evidence for meditation’s effect on the body and mind. Brain research has shown that mental discipline developed during the meditative practice can change the workings of the brain to allow people to achieve different levels of awareness, which includes changes in a state of consciousness and learning, and increased ability to focus.

Neuroscientists now reject the view that the brain is fixed early in life and does not change in adulthood, replacing it with a belief that the brain can adapt and change. The reshaping of the brain, stimulated by the repetition of particular experiences that results in the generation of new cells and pathways in the adult brain is called neuroplasticity.

Over time, meditation creates and reinforces new neural pathways. Reward circuitry that promotes plasticity is activated when a person pays attention and focuses.

Great News!

The brain has capacity to change structurally and functionally throughout life. A growing body of evidence demonstrates positive benefits from meditation, especially for reduction of stress, anxiety and depression, and improved pain relief. 

Meditation’s relaxing effect is thought to lead to increased disease resistance and overall well-being. 

And that makes it good for your heart and good for you!