Feeling trapped within the grasp of unmanaged stress and anxiety can feel overwhelming if there is no solution to be found. In the East, the practice of meditation has long been a solution to many of the mind’s problems including a feeling of peace when under high stress and anxiety. This mental health tool has been shown by science to have a positive impact on many aspects of life, but unfortunately, modern society has conjured up a cartoonish depiction of meditation where Buddhist monks sit high in the Himalaya’s with their fingers held high and legs folded in some contorted position. Because of this, many will never be open to try and experience the power that meditation holds. Hopefully, by the end of this article, you will see the value of meditation in everyday life and give it a try without having to take a trip to Nepal.
It is fairly well known that practicing meditation consistently will help keep the mind clear, but other than that, many people don’t really know what it is, how it works, or what it can actually do. Although there is a lot of mysticism surrounding the practice, meditation has been scientifically studied to find some surprising mental and physical benefits.
One of the most widespread forms of meditation and the form that almost all studies utilize is called mindfulness meditation. This method is very simple. In short, it includes sitting in a stable, comfortable position, keeping a clear mind and focusing on the breath. Once you feel centered, you then may begin to focus on your surroundings, including different sights and sounds. The goal is to maintain a state of being in the present, or as the name implies, be mindful. Inevitably, your mind will wander but all that is required when this happens is to bring yourself back to the present. At first, it will be difficult, so don’t set your goals too high. Start out with five or ten minutes. Once the practice comes easier, increase the time periods as long as you can, doing it daily. Many find more success with meditation in the morning when there are fewer distractions floating around in our minds.
How Meditation Works
Now that we know how to meditate, it would be useful to know what is going on in our brains throughout the process. The leading theory on what occurs is that we are training our brains to be more self-aware which then allows us to think more objectively about our stress and anxiety. We are able to realize what our worries stem from and that they are not worth the stress and anxiety we attribute to them. In other words, we judge which anxious and distressed thoughts are warranted or unwarranted through self-analysis . Thoughts of “I am worried about X” turn into “I am having thoughts about being worried about X”. After this, we gain the ability to change how we feel about the issue. However, when it comes to the astonishing effects meditation can have on the body, we really only know that lowered stress and anxiety is good for health in general without any more detail.
During meditation, there are actually physiological changes that occur which can act as a way to measure the reduction of stress and anxiety. One interesting finding is that electrical activity in the frontal portion of the brain is altered (increased alpha-wave activity) and is accompanied by an increase in resistance to electrical current on the skin. Both are correlated to a decrease in anxiety . Furthermore, oxygen consumption and blood lactate levels are lowered during meditation. These are also correlated to a decrease in anxiety . These changes reduce our body’s use of the sympathetic nervous system, which controls a large part of how we handle stress and anxiety.
Meditation has also been correlated with reduction of many other biomarkers of stress and anxiety. One study showed that participants who participated in mindfulness meditation had lowered cortisol levels and blood pressure. Another study showed that, amazingly, portions of the brain that control cognitive and emotional processing actually grew in size . Although it may seem a bit abstract, all of these are phenomenal indicators that meditation is making drastic changes to your body through a reduction of stress and anxiety.
How Meditation Can Help
While the physiological changes are telling, they may not be the best examples to show you that meditation can have a drastic effect on your mental health. However, many studies measure the effect mindfulness meditation has in other ways that provide better examples of the practice being put to use. It isn’t hard to guess what the outcome will be, but I will go through a few of the most significant findings.
Let’s start with the most severe of cases to show the true power meditation holds. In patients with diagnosed anxiety disorders, their anxiety was significantly improved following an 8-week mindfulness meditation therapy. Three months later, 91% of the participants still showed a reduction of symptoms and the same benefits held even as long as three years . If people with diagnosed anxiety disorders had their condition improved as far out as three years with just eight weeks of meditation, imagine what it can do for you if practiced daily.
You may be going through a troubling time in life that is causing much of your stress and anxiety. Once again, science has shown that meditation can help us in this area as well. Cancer patients who meditated for 1.5 hours just once a week for seven weeks experienced lowered stress, anxiety, mood disturbance, anger, and confusion when compared to a control . Getting cancer is a terrible experience for anybody, but even in such a dreadful situation, meditation was able to lend a hand to their mental health.
Other mindfulness meditation studies have had the goal of reducing pain through controlling stress and anxiety. In two such studies, 51% of fibromyalgia patients showed a reduction in their symptoms  as well as 65% of patients with general chronic pain being able to find relief in addition to lowered mood disturbance . Once again, meditation was shown to have a dramatic effect on the lives of very distressed people.
While these studies are important, it may also be helpful to see how it can work in your everyday life even if you aren’t burdened with a serious medical condition. Meditation has been shown to work in these situations as well. In one study, participants were randomly chosen from the general population and put through an 8-week mindfulness meditation routine. Can you guess what the outcome was? Most of the participants had a statistically significant reduction in stress and anxiety which was accompanied by an increase in immune function, which can be harmed by out of control stress and anxiety . The list of studies goes on and on, like another that showed among the general population, meditation decreased stress and anxiety and increased positive mood states . This same study also showed that rates of telomere shortening (slow shortening=slower of aging) slowed. We can all imagine someone where you can tell they are chronically stressed just by looking at the wrinkles on their skin, the bags under their eyes or their lack of luster. This study gives an insight as to why they are this way.
Other Interesting Benefits of Mindfulness Meditation
Aside from the amazing impact mindfulness meditation can have on your mental health and possibly rate of aging, there is a plethora of research relating the practice to other possible effects on our bodies and psyche. For example, mindfulness meditation was shown to speed up recovery from alcoholism through a reduction of stress-related drinking as well as a reduction of thought suppression, which allowed patients to bring the true reason behind their alcoholism to light . In the same way, meditation decreased the severity of binge eating disorder . There was also an increase in self-control which greatly aided the result as well. Being able to take command of their habits also led to a large reduction of stress and anxiety among participants.
Another interesting twist in the story of meditation is that it was able to decrease reaction time by an average of 22% after an extended period of practice . It’s easy to imagine how this would not only be helpful to those who perform on stage or athletically, but also how the average Joe could have better control of their own bodies and emotions.
We may not know exactly how meditation works, but one thing is for certain: it does work. It does not matter whether it is practiced in people with extraordinary medical conditions who are begging for a solution or someone who is simply looking for a way to control their stress and anxiety. I truly believe that all can find value in meditation. Even if it does not have the effect you desired, there are enough benefits shown here along with numerous more in the literature so that no matter what, you’re bound to hit at least one of them. It is easy, free, and takes just a few moments of your day. So, all I ask is that you give it a shot so that the profound benefits can become a reality in your life.