Understanding the Science Behind Mindfulness Meditation
The practice of meditation originated in the ancient Vedic times of India and is described in the Vedic texts (some of the oldest spiritual texts known to have existed). Meditation is one of the modalities used in Ayurveda (Science of Life), the comprehensive, natural health care system that originated in the ancient Vedic times of India. The term "meditation" is now loosely used to refer to many diverse techniques. However, according to Vedic science, the true purpose of meditation and its practice is to connect oneself to one's deep inner Self. And we can see that such a deep-rooted practice has found its place in modern-day science and medicine too.
There are two branches to the autonomic nervous system: sympathetic and parasympathetic. The sympathetic nervous system prepares our body to react to stress (“fight or flight”) and the parasympathetic system helps us recover from stress (“rest and digest”). When we are stressed, our body releases chemicals that let sympathetic nerves take precedence. With acute stress, once the perceived threat has passed, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over, allowing us to relax and recover from the stressful event. But during chronic stress, the body is continually exposed to the hormones that regulate stress. The system’s natural feedback loop is interrupted. The relaxation response is not activated, and the pathway that regulates cortisol (the stress hormone) is shut down, rendering it unable to stop the effects of the stress.
The physiological benefits of transcendental meditation and its practice include activating the parasympathetic and quieting the sympathetic nervous system. Medical studies have shown that individuals who practice meditation daily had lower blood levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. The benefits of meditation are lower respiration rates and heart rate and better blood flow to the brain, indicating less constriction of blood vessels.
Why is Mindfulness the Buzzword in Psychological Medicine?
Belonging to the traditional eastern school of medicine, people in India have been practicing mindfulness and meditation for centuries. Most of our Gods supposedly had deep yogic roots. Be it Shiva-the Adi-Yogi, Buddha, Mahavira, and many others; they found profound spiritual experience in their meditative state. However, in the more recent years, mindfulness has become a popular way to help people manage their stress and improve their physical, mental, and emotional well-being — and a wealth of research shows it's effective. And it is now backed by science!
Several studies, even in the western medical world, have concluded with psychologists who found that mindfulness meditation techniques positively changes our brain and biology, improving mental, physical, and emotional health. As we all already know, there are many ways to treat depression, such as talk therapy and antidepressant drugs, but the fact that they don't work for everyone is a fact in itself.
Studies have shown that experimental medicine can help with various physical and mental conditions, such as IBS, fibromyalgia, psoriasis, anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder. But some of these conclusions have been questioned because studies had small sample sizes or were wrong in setting up their experiments. Still, there are a few key areas, like depression, chronic pain, and anxiety, where well-designed, well-run studies have shown that mindfulness meditation techniques can help patients, with effects similar to other treatments.
If you are still not convinced, here are six researches that have extensively proven that mindfulness meditation benefits can improve your mental health and well-being.
1. Meditation can reduce anxiety and depression.
A meta-analysis of 47 studies conducted by JAMA Internal Medicine in 2014 suggests that stress-related illnesses like anxiety and depression may be amenable to treatment with mindfulness practices. Study after study has shown that participating in mindfulness meditation and its practice can positively affect mental health, similar to taking an antidepressant. Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) was found to lower relapse rates in patients with high levels of depression symptoms for up to 60 weeks, regardless of age, sex, gender, education, or relationship status, according to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry.
2. Mindfulness meditation improves immune function.
A randomized controlled study by Richard A. Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, published in Psychosomatic Medicine, found that after receiving a flu vaccine, meditators who had completed an eight-week mindfulness training program had significantly more antibodies than their own non-meditating peers. Brain scans of meditators revealed an uptick in the proportion of people who reported feeling better and who responded positively to tests of their immune systems compared to non-meditators. Improved immune system function may help explain the increase in healing found in the psoriasis treatment studies with mindful reflection during treatment.
3. Mindfulness meditation can protect your brain from declining due to aging and stress.
Brain matter, which regulates functions including muscle control and sensory perception, is believed to shrink with age. Long-term mindfulness practitioners' brains are more protected from gray matter atrophy than non-practitioners, according to a study by Dr. Eileen Luders of the UCLA School of Medicine and Nicholas Cherubin of Australia's Centre for Research and Ageing. Guided meditation and its practice may improve focus, in healthy older individuals' brain function. A systematic review of research suggests that memory, attention, processing speed, and executive functioning are just some of the areas that may benefit from practicing mindfulness that may show a cognitive decline.
4. Meditation improves mental clarity and focus.
Recent studies have shown that individuals who engage in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) show significant improvements in short-term and autobiographical memory, cognitive flexibility, and meta-awareness (e.g., self-awareness). All of these are crucial for becoming more self-aware and thus able to alter maladaptive thought patterns. The "attentional blink," or the period during which new information is missed (because the focus is maintained on the previous stimulus), is reduced in those who engage in mindfulness practices, according to other studies (by Alan Wallace, Richie Davidson, and Amishii Jha).
5. Mindfulness meditation can improve your heart health.
In one study conducted by the National Center of Biotechnology Information (NCBI), people diagnosed with prehypertension were randomly allocated to either mindfulness meditation training or a progressive muscle relaxation program to complement their meditation therapy. Systolic and diastolic blood pressure decreases were much larger in those who practiced mindfulness. Other studies have showcased that while receiving standard care for their condition, participants in a trial were randomly allocated to an online program designed to teach them how to meditate or be on the waitlist. Compared to the waitlist group, those who participated in the mindfulness program had lower heart rates and performed better on the six-minute walking test, a measure of cardiovascular capability. According to research, meditation improves heart health and the likelihood of survival after a heart attack by increasing respiratory sinus arrhythmia, the normal fluctuations in heart rate that occur during breathing.
Benefits of Practicing Meditation
So, how does practicing meditation affect our health and well-being? Let's find out.
Mindfulness helps us to deal with negative emotions with much more calmness and ease. Through regular mindfulness practice and increased familiarity with the unpleasant feelings that emerge from trying circumstances, we learn to respond to stress and challenges calmly, intentionally, and empathetically.
It improves the biomarkers for stress. By stimulating the parasympathetic nervous system, guided meditation and its practice has been shown to benefit various stress biomarkers, including heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels (the stress hormone).
It alters our brain, reprogramming it to be more resilient to stress. Guided meditation can weaken neural connections to the medial prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain in charge of stress, while strengthening connections to the regions of the brain in charge of concentration and decision-making.
How to Ground Your Feet in Mindfulness
Guided meditation or mindfulness practice offers many scientifically proven benefits, although the advantages may need to be specifically spelled out when we first begin. You can meditate with complete dedication and still feel things aren't going as planned. It may take some time to figure out how your practice is unfolding.
We have seen that meditation and its practice transcend beyond the physical; it extends to mental, emotional, and psychological aspects. However, Before you commit to the practice, understand that it is like any other exercise, it won't work if you expect the benefits of mindfulness to show up immediately. Don't expect miracles at the outset, but as you keep practicing it, you will observe your stress levels and mood disorders are reduced.
Try this mindfulness technique where you can experience deep calm with a few minutes of silence.
With regular practice, you will discover mindfulness as a powerful tool for relieving stress and improving well-being. Guided mindfulness meditations can be a wonderful way to learn mindfulness and help you sail through your initial learning phase.
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