The origin of meditation dates back more than 2.000 years. There are different approaches to meditation techniques whose roots lie in different religious cultures: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, and some more. Most of these Eastern practices “aim” at the enlightenment of the meditator. The Western understanding of meditation, which became popular in the 1960s, sets its focus more on the measurable effects of meditation – health, performance, biological and psychological improvements. That is why meditation, awareness and mindfulness became more and more the subject of scientific studies and research. And thankfully they are so until today – since there is still a lot to be explored. And this work is important to convince people whore are more eligible for statistics and data before they leave their comfort zone to try something completely new. Meditation has nothing to do with esotericism and crystal balls. Research is necessary to undermine this. That is how – hopefully – it will continue to find its way into business and illness treatment.
In another article we already mentioned the benefits of meditation on various aspects of life. The positive effects on health include among others lower blood pressure, modest heart rates, changes in brain activity and better sleep.1
There are two characteristics in human behaviour and the human psyche which are critical for the development of the aforementioned factors: stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety make our body assume we are in danger – it starts to make every effort to find a way out of the situation as fast as possible. Whether this makes sense or not, it costs a lot of energy. The American Psychological Association asked 2.020 Americans in 2012 what they identify as the top sources of stress. I guess the answers are also applicable for Europe: 69 per cent mentioned money, 65 per cent work, 61 per cent voted for the economy, family gained 57 per cent and personal health problems included 51 per cent. 2
People who are constantly stressed and/or anxious, suffer from high blood pressure, accelerated heart rates and sleeping disorders. If these conditions last over a period of years, the risks of getting a heart attack or strain rise dangerously.
Given that, regular meditation fights the origin of these terrible illnesses. A study conducted in 2011 by researches from the Harvard Medical School proved that regular mindfulness meditation leads to a better and sustainable stress management.3
It demonstrated “longitudinal changes in brain gray matter concentration following an eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction course compared to a control group” which did not meditate.4
For those people who are looking as questioningly as I did when I read this, let me try to put it straight: The people who absolved the whole course showed a higher density of neurons in brain areas which are responsible for stress and emotional control. Meditating regularly, we re-shape our brain – without even noticing it (but others may notice it).
Let’s have a look on the science of anxiety and meditation. We as human beings are kind of programmed to worry all the time. That is because we not only tend to remember negative experiences more than positive but also because they are memorized in parts of our bodies. The German professor Joachim Bauer describes these findings in his book, undermining them with concrete examples of patients and possible solutions. 5
Anxiety and stress are closely related. People who are likely to become anxious were observed to have a greater activity in a brain region called the amygdala. The same region which is highly active when our boss wants us to do something new or challenging.
Neuroscientists at Stanford University conducted a study with participants of the eight-week MBSR-program. They found out that people who practiced the whole course had a lower activity in this area. 6 Harvard researchers gained proof of a lower production of neurons in the amygdala with the help of regular meditation. 7
A group of scientists at the Boston University compared 39 studies with a total of 1.140 participants to examine the effect of mindfulness meditation techniques on anxiety and depression. 8 They concluded that mindfulness is a “promising intervention for treating anxiety and mood problems” in a variety of conditions, like cancer, depression or generalized anxiety disorder. Meditation and especially mindfulness exercises support the patients in dealing with difficult and unusual situations – retrieving the stress and fearful aspects.
Harvard Yoga scientists take even one step more: They started a five-year long study which is examining the effects of yoga and meditation on genes related to stress and disease. 9 Their claim is that regular mind-body meditation does not only change the brain but the whole body. The study is to be finished in 2015 and aims at convincing more doctors and hospitals to use meditation and mindfulness as a supporting tool in dealing with patients.
According to the aforementioned list with 100 benefits of meditation I could go on and on but hopefully I was able to show you some of the most important studies on meditation and health issues. The times we are living in offer a lot of possibilities to lead a healthy lifestyle, at least for the lucky people among us who have easy access to biological food, information and medical treatment. Unfortunately, some of us are not aware what a privilege that is.
At the same time, our lives have become so much faster, being accessible 24 hours a day, always searching for the next adventure and the next very important thing to buy (By that I mean totally unimportant things which everyone has to define for himself). Meditation and mindfulness carry us out of this vicious circle of constant longing for more, stress and anxiety by setting our focus straight. On what is now. And, as we have seen, by affecting critical parts of our brains and bodies.
So, if you worry too much, don’t you worry: A few minutes of regular mediation can change your physiological and psychological health. And your life.
2 American Psychology Association: The Impact of Stress. Retrieved from: http://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/stress/2012/impact.aspx?item=2 (2012)
3 Hölzel, B., Carmondy, J., Vangel, M., Congleton, C., Yerramsetti, S., Gard, T. and Lazar, S.: Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density. Neuroimagining, 191, 36-43 (2011)
4 If you are interested in further information about the MBSR course I deeply recommend the following book: Kabat-Zinn, J.: Full Catastrophe Living. Bantam Books (2013)
5 Bauer, J.: Das Gedächtnis des Körpers: Wie Beziehungen und Lebensstile unsere Gene steuern. Piper Taschenbuch (2013)
6 Goldin, P. R. and Gross, J. J.: Effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on emotion regulation and social anxiety disorder. Emotion, 10, 1.83-91 (2010)
7 Hölzel, B. K., Carmody, J., Evans, K. C., Hoge, E. A., Dusek, J. A., Morgan, L., Pitman, R. and Lazar, S.: Stress reduction correlates with strucutral changes in the amygdala. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 5, 11-17 (2009)
8 Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A. and Oh, D.: The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 78, 2.169-183 (2010)
9 Retrieved from: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2013-11-22/harvard-yoga-scientists-find-proof-of-meditation-benefit (2013)