The power of the mind is yet to be fully understood and there’s no telling if we’ll ever be able to. However, there’s one way that shows us its potential – meditation – and more people are turning to it than before. Meditation is an old holistic practice but it continues to be a sought-after way to deal with certain issues. A report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said that as much as 14.2 percent of Americans practiced meditation at least once in 2017. By comparison, only 4.1 percent said they practiced it in 2012.
When done right, meditation can address anxiety, stress, and lack of concentration to name a few. While we still don’t know how far-reaching its benefits are, there are studies that highlight its usefulness. Meditation is appealing but most stories we hear seem anecdotal. It can turn you off trying it especially if you’re someone who needs proof that it actually works. If you’ve always wanted to give it a go but want to know just how it benefits you, take a look below.
One of the main reasons people try meditation is to reduce stress. That’s understandable considering Americans are among the most stressed out people on the planet. A Gallup poll reported that about 55 percent of US adults said they experienced stress during the day compared to just 35 percent globally.
When you’re stressed your body’s cortisol levels increase, which produces effects like the release of cytokines that promote inflammation. High cortisol can increase blood pressure and interfere with sleep. Meditation has been shown to reduce stress and anxiety. In a study by Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, researchers reviewed nearly 19,000 meditation studies and found that mindfulness meditation showed evidence of reducing stress and anxiety.
Meanwhile, increased mindfulness is associated with lower cortisol levels. A small study in the journal Health Psychology shows 57 people found that the participants had lower cortisol after spending three months in a meditation retreat. They were taught mindful breathing, cultivation of positive mental states and observational skills.
Anxiety can be a trigger for depression. In 2015, as many as 16.1 million Americans reported having major depression in 2014. There are treatments such as medication and cognitive behavioral therapy but meditation has begun to gain traction. Dr. John W. Denninger, director of research at the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine, says that meditation trains the brain to focus on something and return to that state whenever negative emotions enter the mind. Meditation has also been found to alter regions in the brain associated with depression. It breaks the connection between them so that you can ignore negative feelings of stress and anxiety that can trigger depression.
Improving cognitive function can help your brain acquire and process information better. This can translate to more productivity, better memory, and better problem-solving skills. Meditation is believed to increase cognitive function. In a study published in Consciousness and Cognition, participants with no prior meditation experience were tested for verbal fluency, working memory, visual coding, and mood. They were made to undergo four sessions of meditation training or listening to a recorded book. It was found that both improved mood but only meditation training heightened visuospatial processing, executive functioning, and working memory.
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Pain management is usually based on medication. While effective, there’s the risk of dependency. Cost is also a factor. An alternative approach is meditation. It’s been shown to help reduce chronic pain and improve quality of life. A study funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that participants who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) reported improvement in function and back pain. Lifestyle medical expert, Jane Ehrman, says that the body doesn’t release stress hormones when meditating. Rather, it can release feel-good hormones called endorphins that are natural pain relievers. The mind also shifts focus away from the pain when in a meditative state.
Another important area that meditation helps with is sleep. Stress can keep you awake at night and not getting enough sleep can leave you stressed during the day. Each drives the other. When you meditate, you learn to calm the mind and not become emotionally reactive to negative sensations and thoughts. It triggers a relaxation response and interrupts the train of everyday thoughts that can prevent you from sleeping. You’ll find it easier to quiet your mind and sleep better. Note: when meditating for sleep, you should do it right when you wake up and when you’re feeling stressed. You should avoid meditating before bed so that your mind doesn’t confuse it with sleep. Remember that meditation puts you in a relaxed but alert state of mind. If you have trouble sleeping, you can combine meditation with other sleep-friendly habits like unwinding before bed, not taking work to bed, and powering off gadgets at least an hour before sleeping. A cool, dark and quiet bedroom can also encourage sleep. You should also use a comfortable mattress so that your body has a flat, even surface to sleep on.
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The mysteries of meditation are slowly being uncovered. While it could be long before they’re fully explored and understood, there are plenty of reasons why you should consider making meditation a part of your life. It’s easier than it seems too – you can start by sitting comfortably, focusing on your breathing and gently guiding your mind to it when it starts to wander. Do it for 15 minutes in the morning and gradually lengthen the time as you become accustomed to it.