Most of us have been told at one point or another in our lives to “take a deep breath and relax.” Turns out, there is scientific evidence in the context of meditation to back up that advice.
But what exactly is meditation anyway? There are different ways to meditate, and because it is such a personal practice, there are many ways to go about meditating. When I write about meditation, I am referring to the act of relaxing with your eyes closed or open in a downward gaze, and focusing on the flow of your breath; if a random thought arises, acknowledge the thought and then non-judgmentally let it pass by gently bringing your attention back to the flow of your breath. It may sound easy, but keep in mind that it is a practice, it takes time and effort and to cultivate this psychological stance. Some days, and with certain emotions, it will be easier than at other times to meditate. During those difficult times, remember to take a compassionate stance towards yourself; your struggle is perfectly okay.
Most of us are familiar on a general level with the powerful effects of meditation on the mind and body. Physically, it can reduce blood pressure, bolster the immune system, and enable the body to thrive (Schneider et. al., 2012). This state of relaxation is linked to higher levels of happy chemicals, such as serotonin, and to the growth hormone that repairs cells and regenerates tissue.
There is a growing body of research that has found brief periods of meditative practice helpful in reprogramming the mind (Moyer et al., 2011). Regular meditation can lead to structural changes in the brain, specifically, changing the way that neurons communicate with each other, creating new neural pathways for how we process emotions.
Meditation can also increase gray matter in the brain, increasing the cortical thickness of your brain, associated with decision making, attention, and memory (Kurth, MacKenzie-Graham, Toga, and Luders, 2014). This leads to more positive emotions, longer-lasting emotional stability, and enhanced focus. A meditation practice can reduce the impact of aging on the brain. This means that our cognitive functioning declines at a slower pace by greater protection of our “telomeres,” which are the ends of our chromosomes.
Psychologically, a meditative stance can be helpful in achieving emotional balance. Emotional balance is being able to remain grounded and healthfully cope with our own neurotic behavior and challenging emotional states. As we work through our own emotionally-laden memories and experiences, we can achieve greater freedom and greater balance. Our responses to events in our lives are then not as tainted by the burdens we carry, but are more true, direct, and appropriate to the situation.
Another psychological benefit of meditation is a greater state of calmness. In a meditative mind, upsetting thoughts can occur and be witnessed, rather than taking over entirely. Upsetting feeling states occur in all humans; however, through more self-awareness, old feelings that become triggered no longer have to consume the person. In some cases, therapy can be a wonderful place to help cultivate these mindfulness skills and learn how to tolerate and work through difficult feelings.
A greater state of calmness and emotional balance is scientifically referred to as neuroplasticity, which is defined as the brain's ability to change, structurally and functionally, on the basis of environmental input.
In reality, you don't need hundreds or even dozens of hours of meditation training to have an impact on brain functioning. And that is welcome news for people who are intrigued by the benefits of meditation, but find the intensive practice undertaken by life-long meditators to be a daunting time commitment.
Remember, seemingly small acts can have a great impact. The more compassionate you are with yourself along this meditative journey, the greater the effect of this relaxation practice.
Kurth, F., Mackenzie-Graham, A., Toga, A. W., Luders, E. (2014). Shifting brain asymmetry: The link between meditation and structural lateralization. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience.