by Wes Annac: We don’t hear as much about the physical benefits of meditation as we do the spiritual…
Fortunately, the scientific community is interested in it and has done a fair amount of research on it.
Scientists don’t see it as something that will enlighten you or fuel a spiritual journey; they see it as a simple effort to calm the mind using certain mental techniques. They’ve found that this helps the mind and body in notable ways.
In this article, we’ll learn about the physical and psychological benefits of meditation. Specifically, we’ll learn how it can help with creativity, dementia and Alzheimer’s, stress, anxiety, and addiction.
We’ll start with something the scientific and spiritual communities agree on: meditation can make you more creative.
A lot of creative people use meditation to stimulate a flow of ideas they’d have no access to if their minds were closed. AJ Harbinger at The Art of Charm writes that researchers from Leiden University found that meditation can open the mind to “new ideas” by calming our “internal censor” and letting us be open to thoughts we would’ve otherwise rejected. (1)
Have you heard of the flow state? This is a state of mind in which ideas flow effortlessly. You’re so completely immersed in what you’re doing that you might be unaware of the passage of time, and for creative people, this is like gold.
According to C. Wilson Meloncelli at Zazen Life, “the flow state goes hand-in-hand with meditation” and vice versa. He writes that Dr. Andrew Newberg studied Franciscan nuns and found that they could deactivate the temporoparietal junction in their brains during meditation. This part of the brain lets us distinguish between the self and others, and when it deactivates, we feel “at one” with everyone. (2)
C. Wilson writes that this is the exact state of mind “athletes, executives, artists, poets, and musicians” report when they’re flowing or enjoying a good streak. The ego minimizes, time passes more quickly, and you participate wholeheartedly in what you’re doing. You feel less like yourself as an individual and more like you’re a part of the whole. This is the flow state – something we now know can change the brain – and we can induce it with meditation. (2)
Improving Symptoms of Dementia/Alzheimer’s
Jennifer D’Angelo Friedman at Yoga Journal writes that research shows yoga and meditation to be effective in “preventing and improving symptoms” of Alzheimer’s. This is important because Alzheimer’s is the sixth-leading cause of death in the U.S. Meditation can even help sufferers of Alzheimer’s and dementia to be more social and improve their wellbeing. The same can be said for their caregivers. (3
Jennifer shares a quote from Dr. Helen Lavretsky about how yoga and meditation are essentially “brain exercises”.
“In a way, both yoga and meditation are ‘brain exercises’ that engage different parts of the brain based on the components of practice (breathing, movement, postures, chanting, visualization, concentration), and can help the brain form new connections and recover from injuries, or as we call it, to stimulate neuroplasticity.” (3)
Dr. Lavretsky tells us meditation can potentially help prevent Alzheimer’s by helping the brain cope with stress.
“Chronic stress and related stress hormones could negatively affect brain structures important for memory and cognition, like the hippocampus. Chronic stress is also associated with inflammation in the body and in the central nervous system/brain that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease and other disorders of aging. Yoga can reduce stress hormones and inflammatory factors, and teach an individual over time how to cope more effectively and protect the body from going through the stress response.” (3)
AJ Harbinger writes that when it comes to anxiety, brain waves, and meditation, the latter does more than reduce beta waves; it “loosens up connections” between the areas in our brain that make us stress over little things. (1)
Cary Barbor at Psychology Today writes that meditation does not have to be the focal point of your life to help you with anxiety. Research shows that even a ten-minute meditation can have a profound effect. According to “several studies”, meditating for a short period of time can decrease anxiety and depression as well as increase your alpha brain waves, which are known as the “relaxed brain waves”. (4)
Deepak Chopra writes on his Chopra Center website that among many other things, our constant repetitive thoughts bring anxiety. Since meditation quiets the mind, it quiets the incessant thoughts that make us anxious. It also brings our awareness to the space between our thoughts, which Deepak refers to as the “silence that exists between every mental action”. (5)
Deepak writes that meditation helps you become aware you are more than your thoughts and provides a haven to retreat into when your thoughts become too much. Once you reach this space, you can return there if something in the world brings you back out. (5)
Evidence supports the notion that meditation is a treatment for anxiety, Deepak writes. He cites a study in the Psychological Bulletin, which “combined the findings of 196 different studies” to find that meditation and mindfulness provide “substantial improvement” for anxiety, stress, and negative parts of our personality. (5)
One study, he writes, was on various kinds of anxiety – from what socially anxious people feel to what cancer patients feel. Mindfulness helped all of them manage their anxiety. One theory as to why mindfulness is so helpful is that it enables people to cope with generally “difficult and stressful situations”. (5)
If we didn’t have enough of a reason to meditate, we do now. Anxiety and stress are two of the biggest problems plaguing modern society, and I like to think meditation could help. Fortunately, science backs this up.
Ian Luebbers at Science of People writes that three months of mindfulness and zen meditation can decrease stress “significantly”. One study shows that meditation “reduces the density of brain tissue associated with anxiety and worrying”. (6)
Cary Barbor writes that in a study aimed at finding the parts of the brain meditation influences, Harvard Medical School researchers monitored the brain activity of meditating participants using MRI. They discovered that the practice activates the parts of the brain that control the autonomic nervous system, which is responsible for the “functions in our bodies” we’re unable to control. These include “digestion and blood pressure”. (4)
Stress compromises these functions, Cary writes. She also writes that serious conditions caused by stress include “heart disease, digestive problems and infertility”. (4)
Cary shares a quote from psychologist Roger Thomson, Ph.D., about how a lot of people meditate to reduce stress (thus potentially reducing heart disease and many other problems).
“It is a very effective stress-reducer, which is a way into the practice for many people. If someone is struggling with feelings of anxiety, he or she may benefit from its calming aspects. And it’s absolutely facilitative of mental health because it brings about a higher level of self-acceptance and insight about oneself.” (4)
If ten minutes of meditation a day can reduce stress and help the autonomic nervous system, then sign me up.
Helping with Addiction
Ian Luebbers writes that a study found Vipassana meditation “incredibly effective” at helping with alcohol and other drug addictions. These results are not unique to Vipassana; other types of meditation can also be helpful. (6)
Debbie Hampton at The Best Brain Possible writes that studies in the American Journal of Psychiatry show a link between meditation and rehabilitation. No matter what teaching or practice you adhere to, meditation helps you calm the mind, detach from it, and observe yourself. Debbie writes that this basic technique is “at the heart of every meditation philosophy”. (7)
I agree. The belief or technique that leads you to calm the mind is less important than the act of being calm, detached, and observant of yourself. Nearly any form of meditation will benefit you.
Debbie writes that its ability to bring us away from our thoughts and urges makes meditation an important “mental health tool”. By detaching us from our thoughts, it enables us to “put time and distance” between our urges and impulses. (7)
I was never aware of the aforementioned space between thoughts until I started meditating. This is the space Debbie refers to – one that allows us to calmly observe our thoughts and urges before we impulsively act on them.
Debbie writes that in this space, the brain can “rewire” and “establish new behaviors”. (7)
You may have heard that the brain can change itself. Specifically, you change your brain when you indulge in healthier activities and habits, the drive for which will eventually replace the urge to indulge in an addiction. You build new pathways in the brain when you do this, which means there is hope for anyone with an addiction who thinks they can never change.
Debbie writes that meditation can help an addict be aware of his or her craving before it consumes them, as well as help them focus on other things and slowly “let go of cravings”. It generally leads them to “observe, experience, and detach from cravings” instead of being drawn back into them. It’s easier to deal with stress if you meditate, which eliminates the need for a “coping tool” in the form of an addiction. (7)
I’d recommend meditation in conjunction with a twelve-step program and/or other rehabilitation programs. I doubt that meditation by itself could be enough to help some addicts cope with the urge. Despite this, it does play a powerful supporting role in maintaining sobriety. I’m not discouraging it or downplaying its value, but if you’re trying to stay sober, I don’t think it should be the only thing you do.
We have plenty of reasons to meditate. From stress prevention to helping with addiction, the benefits of this practice make it important for anyone regardless of their beliefs (or lack thereof). The now-proven benefits of calming your mind for ten minutes a day show that there’s something valuable here.
If you can get past the misrepresented view of meditation built up in the mind, you can find an outlet to release stress and learn valuable things about yourself, your thought process, and the way you respond to life. It won’t enlighten you or completely change your world, but it can make things a little better. Give it a try and see if it works for you.