It seems like talk about mindfulness and meditation is everywhere these days. While various religions and cultures have been using these techniques for millennia, the practice has experienced a resurgence in recent years. There are classes, studios, and phone apps dedicated to the practice. Its devotees sing its praises, claiming a myriad of health benefits, both mental and physical. But like anything that gains immense popularity quickly, it is necessary to examine what it entails and what the benefits really are.
Meditation is defined as a “mind-body practice” with a number of purposes that mostly boil down to increasing overall health and wellbeing. There are a number of different types of meditation but most include four basic elements; a quiet space without distractions, a focus of attention, a specific and comfortable position, and an open mental state.
Researchers have spent a lot of time looking into the merits of meditation and many have concluded that it is indeed beneficial in a multitude of physical, mental, and emotional ways. Some research even suggests that meditation can actually change your brain.
However, it should be noted that meditation is not a replacement for seeing your health care provider or following a prescribed medical regimen. Before you start, you should research any program or instructor you are considering, and consult your physician before making changes in your care routine.
Benefits of Meditation
If you’re considering taking up meditation or some type of mindfulness, take a look at some of the potential benefits below.
- Improved Concentration
One of the most common reasons people initially seek out meditation and mindfulness is to improve their concentration and declutter their minds. Thinking more clearly is often a goal of meditation. And it makes sense because much of the practice is focused on, well, focus. One study found that people’s focus and memory improved after just a few weeks of practice.
- Physical Structural Changes to the Brain
According to a 2012 study, adults who were long-term meditators had more folds in the outer layer of their brains. The process that produces these folds is called gyrification, and may improve the brain’s processing ability.
Other research has found that mindfulness meditation can also decrease volume in the amygdala, which is where fear, anxiety, and stress responses are formed. In addition, the thickness of the cortical cortex of the hippocampus increased after just eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). This part of the brain is responsible for learning and memory. Other areas that saw increases in thickness deal with emotional regulation. Participants in the study reported that along with these physical changes, they felt better psychologically.
- Preservation of the Brain as it Ages
As a result of some of the changes to the brain mentioned above, meditation has been linked to preserving an aging brain. In fact, research suggests that meditating could slow or even partially reverse changes in the brain related to aging. This has possible future implications in the treatment or prevention of certain age-related issues.
- Stress Reduction
Along with concentration, many people look to meditation to reduce stress or deal with anxiety. And while there may be differences between an anxiety disorder and everyday stress, meditation may help with both, but especially the latter. There’s even a specific form of meditation for those looking to de-stress; the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR. This method, developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts’ Center for Mindfulness is also helpful with social anxiety. The reasoning behind this effect is that it accesses and controls the “Me Center” of the brain, which deals with thoughts that are centered on only yourself.
Research into meditation’s potential impact on the treatment and management of other mental disorders and illnesses such as depression and addiction also suggest those patients may benefit from the practice as well.
- Increased Empathy
Studies at the University of Wisconsin show that a certain form of Buddhist meditation called compassion meditation, may increase people’s empathic instincts according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), researchers monitored subjects’ responses to sounds that might provoke an emotional response, be it positive, negative, or neutral. Expert meditators showed more reaction to negative sounds, indicating a greater capacity for empathy when compared to beginning meditators.
- Pain Reduction
While there are mixed conclusions about meditation’s physical effect on pain, some research and many practitioners claim that mediation is a nice addition to their pain management plan. That research suggests that meditating can activate certain areas of the brain that deal with the body’s response to pain. Even if it only allows the subject to focus on something outside the pain for a period of time, it could be worth a try for those recovering from injuries or who are dealing with frequent or chronic pain.
Again, it’s important to consult your entire healthcare team before deciding to change your treatment plan. Meditation is not a cure-all or a replacement for conventional care. And while the benefits above may seem miraculous, like any treatment, results vary from person to person. It should also be noted that the practice has to be consistent to experience these benefits.
Comprehensive Care at Regional Neurological Associates
If you’re thinking of supplementing your neurological care with mediation, contact us to discuss how it might best fit your situation. The doctors at Regional Neurological Associates set themselves apart from other neurology specialists by maintaining the most advanced and in-depth training in neurological subspecialties. To make an appointment, call (718) 515-4347, or contact us here.