Health - Spirituality
By: - at August 4, 2013

15 Healthy Benefits to Regular Meditation

meditation girl with pretty sceneMeditation has been touted for millennia as a practice that relieves stress, clears the mind, relaxes the body, aids in sleep, and has many other benefits. In the 1960s, it was pushed for transcendental reasons that may or may not have paid off for any given individual. Today, itís much more common for mindfulness meditation to be suggested to regular people. Mindfulness meditation and many other styles donít have to have anything to do with religion, though it can if a person wants it to. Instead, a person might focus on their breathing to the exclusion of all else or watch a candle flicker.

They might listen to a guided meditation recording for a set period of time or do a series of relaxation exercises, focusing on those and only those. Yoga and tai chi also have meditation components built into them. Doctors will now suggest meditation as part of a healthy lifestyle change for patients with hypertension, psychiatrists prescribe it for anxiety, and physical therapists add it to treatment plans for recovering from injuries. How many of those benefits are actually backed up by science, and which are complete bunk? Below, weíll explore fifteen truly healthy benefits to regular meditation.


15)  Improved Optimism
optimisticMindfulness meditation has existed since about 1500 BCE. In that time, itís been believed to have varied mental health effects. Today, weíre seeing research that records brain waves before, during, and after a set meditation program. In one study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, participants had their brain waves recorded via EEG. They were then divided into two groups: the meditation group and the waiting list control group.

For eight weeks, the meditation group followed a clinically set mindfulness meditation program. At the end of eight weeks, all participants underwent another EEG. The meditation group showed an increase in electrical activity in certain regions of the left frontal cortex. This activity indicated that the meditators had become more positive and optimistic over the preceding eight weeks. This held true with another set of EEGs four months later. Meditation has a clear effect on optimism that can be measured quantitatively, not just qualitatively, and that alone might make it worth starting a meditation program.


14)  Stress Reduction
Even a few minutes of meditation can reduce stress. Because meditation is considered a kind of mind-body complementary medicine, the effects on your mental processes ó the emotional stress ó can affect the physical manifestations of stress, such as tension, raised blood pressure, increased pulse and more.

businessman screaming from too much stress

Because meditation can be performed anywhere and only take a few minutes, closing your eyes and focusing on your breathing right before a stressful meeting might make the meeting go better and without as many negative effects. There are many other kinds of meditation, including yoga, mantra meditation, guided meditation, qi gong, tai chi, and transcendental meditation; any of these may help with stress, but mindfulness meditation is easier to perform anywhere and can be beneficial if it is performed only for a few moments.


13)  Better Emotional Response to Distress
meditationCompassion meditation may improve emotional responses to distress. Compassion meditation is a specific kind of meditation that involves the idea of opening the mind and heart to increase compassion toward yourself and others. In order to practice compassion meditation, you should find an analogy that works for you to explain how compassion builds slowly. One suggested one is that of building a fire in a storm. Sincerity is also important. Think about those youíve seen have a hard time of it and wish them good fortune and freedom from their sorrow and stress. As you practice it more, you can begin applying the principles of compassion to yourself and those around you.

The process of building on compassion this way reduces emotional distress in response to stressors. You can easily find textual or auditory compassionate meditation guides on the internet. If this sounds like something that might help you, itís a good idea to check it out, since there are proven benefits regarding emotional responses to distress.


12)  Relaxation
Relaxation techniques have been taught for some time with the goal of reducing tension and psychological distress. It wasnít until a 2007 article in Annals of Behavioral Medicine that relaxation techniques and mindfulness meditation were directly matched up to see which had more benefits for sufferers of psychological distress. The test group was made up of 83 students with a mean age of 25. They were split randomly into two groups, each of which did a one-month training program in their respective assignments (mindfulness meditation or somatic relaxation).

Relaxation

At the end, the researchers measured rumination (fixation on negative thoughts), distractive thoughts, positive states of mind, and psychological distress, among other factors. Both scored equally in decreasing stress and increasing positive mood, and both had a great effect on distress levels. The meditative group showed a greater effect for positive state of mind than did the somatic relaxation group, as well as decreases in distractive and ruminative thoughts and behaviors. Therefore, mindfulness meditation may be even more beneficial than somatic relaxation training for you if you want to increase your ability to relax.


11)  Improved Attention and Concentration
confused businessmanA 2007 article published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America looked at the impact of five days of meditation using an integrative mind-body technique on attention. According to the article, previous studies had shown that months to years of intensive meditation had an impact on attention, but no short-term course of meditation had been studied until this. The study used an experimental group of 40 Chinese undergraduate students and employed a training method based in traditional Chinese medicine, as well as incorporating other mindfulness and meditation training.

For five days, the researchers gave the students twenty minutes of integrative training. At the end of the five days, the experimental group showed greater improvements in attention, as well as lowered anxiety, fatigue, anger and depression. Tests showed lower levels of stress-related cortisol (a hormone the body releases when under distress) and a higher mood score. It conclusively showed that just five days of a specific course of meditation can greatly improve attention and, therefore, concentration, which is particularly useful for students at any level of education.


10)  Lowered Blood Pressure
high blood pressureOne in three American adults is diagnosed with hypertension, or high blood pressure, while another thirty percent of adults have pre-hypertension. Medication may not always be appropriate, and doctors frequently try to get patients to employ lifestyle changes before giving medications that may have unpleasant side effects. Fortunately for patients with pre-hypertension and hypertension, not to mention their stressed doctors, in April 2013, the American Heart Association released a report that discussed alternatives to medication when it comes to treating hypertension. It looked at safe, effective alternative approaches to managing hypertension, as well as approaches that arenít so effective. Specifically, it discussed acupuncture, yoga, relaxation therapies, biofeedback, mindfulness meditation, aerobic exercise, and transcendental meditation, among others. While the greatest levels of change were with patients who employed aerobic exercise, isometric hand grip exercise, and dynamic resistance exercise, two behavioral therapies outperformed the others.

Specifically, those were transcendental meditation and biofeedback. Other meditation techniques were not recommended to treat high blood pressure (which is not to say theyíre useless for everything or even everyone; they just didnít show consistent enough definitive results to be recommended).

businessman meditating lotus pose

The best choice is to integrate alternative therapies with mainstream ones, specifically weight loss, a low sodium diet, refraining from smoking, physical activity, and taking medications if prescribed. Still, transcendental meditation can make a definite difference in hypertension and pre-hypertension, and itís certainly worth trying.





9)  Improved Immune System Functioning
The same Psychosomatic Medicine as we discussed in the increased optimism point (number fifteen) studied the effects of mindfulness meditation on immune function. After the eight-week period of teaching mindfulness meditation to the experimental group, both the experimental and control groups were given influenza vaccines. Four months later, they were all tested for influenza antibodies by blood test. The test group showed a significant increase in antibody titers than the control group. Perhaps more surprisingly, the increase in antibodies could be predicted by how much left-side brain function there was.

influenza and pnemonia

In other words, if a participant had only mildly increased brain function (and therefore optimism), their antibody titers would be only mildly increased compared to the control group. If a person had greatly increased brain function, they would also have much greater antibody presence than would the control group. Fortunately for the control group, they then underwent the same eight-week mindfulness training program as did the original experimental group. Itís well worth seeing if mindfulness meditation will help you if you have problems with negativity and possibly if your immune system functions poorly, as this study shows.


8)  Better Physical Responses to Distress
hate technologyThe ScienceDaily.com article that discussed an improved emotional response to distress as a result of compassionate meditation also discussed the studyís findings on physical responses to distress after compassion meditation training. The study particularly looked at its impact on immune and neuroendocrine responses on the physical response side. The experimenters used the Trier Social Stress Test to use consistent stressors on every participant. To test physiological responses, they drew blood to test for cortisol (the stress hormone) and interleukin 6 (which both causes and decreases inflammation as an immune response). There was no overall difference between the groups regarding either interleukin 6 or cortisol, but those with increased meditative practice had decreased levels of interleukin 6 in response to the Trier Social Stress Test.

They also had a greater result with interleukin 6 if they meditated above the average than did those who meditated below the average. Therefore, someone who practices compassion meditation might not have a better cortisol response than before beginning compassion meditation, but they will have a better interleukin 6 (inflammatory and immune response) reaction to distress.

Woman meditating to reduce stress

Several studies looking at the correlation between mindfulness meditation and physiological responses to distress are ongoing. You might want to look them up in a few months to see if thereís a notable improvement versus compassion meditation. In the meantime, it canít hurt to try compassion meditation.


7)  Relief from Symptoms of Chronic Illnesses
cancerA metastudy published in Holistic Nursing Practice looked at existing literature regarding the clinical effects of meditation on chronic illness, among other things. It found that the clinical impact of meditation when it came to chronic illness includes reduced pain, anxiety, stress, and depression and enhanced self-esteem and mood. This included the results of studies of patients with fibromyalgia, psoriasis, hypertension, and even cancer who were taught meditative techniques.

According to the metastudy, practitioners can teach simple mindfulness techniques in the office, which means chronically ill patients arenít required to get themselves to yet another place or appointment to spend time on yet another thing to help with their symptoms. Experiences with chronic illnesses show that patients are less likely to go to multiple appointments or hold favorable impressions of secondary appointments because of the work involved; your own experiences probably reflect that. Therefore, anything that can be taught at one appointment and may help alleviate even a few symptoms might help a patient take the new information and apply it thoroughly enough to create a positive change. This is just as true for meditation as it is for any other health-related practice, possibly even moreso than things like physical therapy that can themselves temporarily worsen pain and fatigue.


6)  Better Coping Abilities
One of the benefits of meditation is an increase in coping skills. Studies have consistently demonstrated that regular meditation practitioners have better such skills than do non-practitioners. Mindfulness and meditation techniques have been incorporated into treatment of behavioral disorders, as well as treatment of alcohol and drug abuse. Those in a ďrelapse road mapĒ may help patients use appropriate coping skills as needed. That can help prevent a relapse and give patients greater independence in dealing with their addiction and temptation.

Praying or meditating on the beach

A study in which incarcerated substance abusers were taught mindfulness meditation, specifically the Vipassana tradition, in which the inmates reported that it helped them be mindful of urges and ďstay in the momentĒ, which made it easier to cope with the urge to use the substance they were addicted to. As depression and borderline personality disorder are similar to substance abuse in that patients use poor coping techniques in stressful situations, the fact that dialectical behavioral therapy incorporates mindfulness meditation and is used with borderline personality and depressive patients means it may also be useful with inmate populations dealing with substance abuse problems. That meshes with known studies and is certainly worth trying. As it can help people cope with depression, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse problems, mindfulness meditation has the potential to help anyone cope with their problems. A side benefit is how easy it is to learn and employ in many situations.


5)  Improvement in Mental Fatigue
mental fatigueA 2005 article published in the International Journal of Behavioral Medicine looked at the impact of mindfulness-based stress reduction on fatigue, mood, sleep, and stress in cancer patients. The mindfulness-based stress reduction was a mindfulness meditation program taught to sixty-three cancer patients. The experimenters specifically taught the experimental group a two-part mindfulness program: self-regulation of attention to immediate experiences, which leads to recognition of events in present moment awareness, and orientation of acceptance of moment-to-moment experience and openness. According to the authors, this is similar to mindfulness as conceptualized by attitude, attention, and intention. Intention means directing attention to moment-to-moment experiences.

Attitude means the attention should incorporate gently non-judgmental acceptance. The study resulted in significantly reduced sleep disturbances in the test group, as well as significantly improved quality of sleep. Fatigue, mood disturbance, and stress also all greatly improved. Because the first side effect of cancer treatment is often fatigue and it tends to last the longest, up to a year or more after treatment, the fact that mindfulness meditation can help so much is a great sign for cancer patients. If it can help cancer patientsí fatigue, it may also stand a good chance of helping healthy people who have fatigue from being on the go constantly; if nothing else, it may help with sleep quality, which then improves fatigue. If you have fatigue, itís certainly worth learning mindfulness meditation techniques to help with it. As weíve seen before, mindfulness meditation has many other benefits.


4)  Reducing Negative Emotions
Negative emotions are a persistent, pervasive problem for many people. Just about anyone will undergo a period in which negative emotions are prevalent, whether or not they have accompanying depression. Meditation can help you cope with these negative emotions by changing your attitude and the way you pay attention to them. One study discussed in the International Journal of Neuroscience matched twenty-five control subjects with 25 subjects who practiced Sahaja Yoga. Yoga is a form of meditation that involves focusing on specific movements and relaxation techniques.

Frustration

The study was a long-term look at how Sahaja Yoga affected the subjectsí responses during non-emotional arousal, including viewing an emotionally neutral movie clip, as compared to viewing an emotionally aversive movie clip. Their reactions were tested with EEGs and compared to the control groupís EEGs during the same tests. It showed that the control group had a higher right hemisphere than left electrical activity, indicating increased arousal. The meditators, on the other hand, showed no such imbalance between the two hemispheres. This indicates that practicing meditation can help you deal with negative emotions more neutrally than you might otherwise. If youíre easily upset or in a negative period, try some form of meditation to help. Yoga might be a particularly good choice, since the study looked specifically at that.


3)  Increased Self-Awareness
all seing eye vectorMindfulness meditation in particular correlates with an increase in awareness, particularly self-awareness. According to a study published in Neuroreport in 2006, prior research showed that long-term meditation practice resulted in altered resting EEG patterns. The experimenters looked at twenty test subjects with extensive insight meditation experience and took MRIs of their brain structures and compared them to a similar group of non-meditators. The MRIs showed that meditators had relatively thicker brain structures that relate to interoception (perceived sensations in internal organs, including awareness of sodium levels in the blood, pulmonary stretch receptors, the sense of suffocation if oxygen levels are too low, skin sensations including blushing, reactions to blood-borne drugs and hormones, gastrointestinal stretch receptors, sensory receptors in the esophagus, pharynx sensory receptors, sensory receptors relating to sensations of fullness in the bladder and rectum, sensations of pain, and vasodilation receptors that may result in pain), specifically the right anterior insula.

The thicker brain structures also related to attention and sensory processing and included the prefrontal cortex (related to planning complex cognitive behavior and executive function). The insight meditation the experimental group practiced specifically relates to attention and mindfulness. Based on the MRI results, it has a significant effect on self-awareness of the body and its systems, as well as planning complex acts and thinking about higher ideas. Insight meditation or simply mindfulness meditation may well help you pay similar attention to your own body, actions, and thoughts.


2)  Increased Youth Relative to Chronological Age
An April 2013 Boston Globe article discussed how meditation aids aging brains in functioning better and staying relatively younger than chronological age. According to the piece, research suggests that mindfulness meditation in particular may help preserve brain function in the aging population. A three-month course resulted in indications that it may actually help people live longer due to lowered stress levels. Studies are ongoing; meditationís benefits overall have only really been studied since 2000. By 2011, there were 490 more articles than before 2000. Because so much research is left to do, studying the effects on the aging brain specifically still needs to be done before firm conclusions can be drawn. A Harvard University psychiatry instructor said that an eight-week class in mindfulness meditation can increase familiarity with how we evaluate and perceive the world.

woman posing doing meditation

Meditation helps eliminate negative self-talk over time, which reduces stress and therefore helps lower relative brain youth. It helps people learn that self-talk is opinion, not fact, and is not necessarily backed up by how others perceive the world. It also helps people in middle age and beyond let go of unhelpful habits and behaviors theyíve acquired over the years. Further, it may help people make choices that help emotional, physical, and mental flexibility, rather than the rigidity of acquired thought and movement patterns. Mindfulness regarding eating is another form of meditation that involves paying close attention to what you eat, may help you eat less, and lets you discover which foods you might not actually like that you thought you enjoyed. All these combined help aging people maintain mental and physical youthfulness relative to their age. The best part is that meditation can be started at any age and degree of health; with time, it may have a positive impact on just about anyone.


1)  Mental Health Improvement
An article published in the June 2013 edition of the Natural Medicine Journal looked at the impact of yogic meditation specifically on caregivers of dementia patients. The study implemented a randomized assignment of subjects to either an eight-week session of relaxation or daily yogic meditation for caregivers, mildly depressed and elderly, of dementia patients. Clearly, care for dementia patients is a demoralizing job. When the caregiver is an elderly person, all too often the dementia patient is a parent or spouse, which makes the task even harder. The study used 49 subjects, 39 whom actually completed it. Twenty-three were in the yogic meditation group, and 16 were in the relaxation placebo group. Thirty-seven of the subjects were women. The experimenters used the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression and the Mental Health Composite Summary Score to judge the degree of impact each group experienced between the beginning of the study and the end.

vivid health good mental health and balance

The Mini-Mental Status Exam, California Verbal Learning Test, Trail Making A (which tests speed of processing and attention) and Trail Making B to test executive function. The yogic meditation group showed much greater improvements in mental health, depression, and telomerase activity (which correlates with general health). More than twice the percentage of the meditation group experienced a fifty percent or greater improvement of depression than did the control group as measured by the Hamilton Scale for Rating Depression. As far as the Mental Health Composite Summary Score, 52 percent of the meditation group experienced a 50 percent or greater improvement in their depressive symptoms, which only 19 percent of the control group did. These are, clearly, statistically significant differences. We can conclude from this that meditation helps with overall mental health, at least concerning depression, which is something that can help a huge segment of the population. Depression is a serious problem in the United States, and non-pharmaceutical approaches to mild depression have the potential to help many people.


Conclusion
Itís clear that meditation has real positive effects on mental and physical health, ranging from stress responses to pain levels to mild depression. If you want to help your mental, emotional, and physical health, seriously consider trying meditation. You donít have to take a class; you can find a podcast, CD, DVD, or even written instructions that can help you get started.


 

 

 

 

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