Meditation Part 1 – What Science Says
Throughout recent decades, the concept of meditation has become more popular in mainstream as a form of therapy. Yet, most people who come into my office do not practice it and often say they can’t do it, that they just can’t sit still and calm their mind long enough to meditate. To be fair, it is hard to just sit and relax the mind. Buddhists call the general state of our mind, “monkey mind” because it’s always jumping and bouncing and continually doing things instead of being. But like physical exercise, meditation CAN be done by anyone. It’s like a muscle that has not been worked and, like a muscle that is initially worked, it’s very painful and so uncomfortable that most people quit like they do with physical exercise. Add to it that there is a large part of the population that lack self-love and fear the world and the only thing that makes them feel somewhat in control is constantly doing something and then the ability to meditate becomes even harder. So why do it?
For some, learning the science behind something provides inspiration and the determination to do that which improves our lives. Thus, we turn to science for the reasons why meditation is not an option, but a necessity for living a productive, positive, fruitful life.
First and foremost, it is a fact that our body has two sides to its nervous system – sympathetic and parasympathetic. Sympathetic is the state we are in when we are moving and doing a lot of things. It is the state that we are in when we are working and taking care of projects. In extreme cases, it’s the fight or flight part of our nervous system that dumps cortisol into our body to get us away from the tiger that is chasing us (whether it is an actual tiger or a metaphorical tiger of fear that rules our lives so much in modern times). If we do not have the ability to switch into parasympathetic (rest and relax mode), our body becomes systemically broken on so many levels, leading to a myriad of health and emotional problems that patients often come to their MDs for. In short, if we do not rest and relax properly, we will age and die quicker.
So why is meditation vital to rest and relaxation? Why can’t we just sleep well and be done with it? Most common answer is that most of us don’t sleep well anyway and those that do, still experience many situations in life that trigger “fight or flight”. Meditation is by far the most effective way scientifically to reduce sympathetic overload. Below is what research is finding:
·Meditation activates and thickens the prefrontal cortex: Our prefrontal cortex (front half of our brain) is what divides us from animals. It’s the part of the brain that produces higher brain functions – planning, decision making, problem solving and emotional regulation. In short, it’s our control panel that helps us take back control over our mind, brain and body. Research studies show that meditation has a direct link to increased thickness of the prefrontal cortex (more neurological connections). Meditation, therefore, makes us more conscious and in control of our brain.
·Meditation strengthens the connection between our prefrontal cortex and amygdala: The amygdala is our stress and fear center. Those with high stress/anxiety and inability to control their emotions have large amygdalas with a lot of neural connections to other primal parts of the brain. MRIs have shown that those who are experienced meditators have smaller amygdalas and fewer connections to primal parts of our brains. Not only does this help one to recover faster from emotional bouts, but it also gives rise to positive qualities like patience, calmness and resilience.
Meditation prevents prefrontal cortex age-related shrinking: Because meditation activates and thickens the pre-frontal cortex, it actual helps us fight off symptoms of old age such as memory issues and problem solving/decision-making issues. In one study, MRIs showed that experienced meditators who were 50 years old had the same gray matter in their prefrontal cortex as 25 years olds.
·Meditation increases activity in the left prefrontal cortex associated with happiness: Studies show that when a person is sad, their right prefrontal cortex is more active and when they are happy, their left prefrontal cortex is more active. MRIs in several research trials show that meditation increases the activity in the left prefrontal cortex over the right.
· Beyond the brain, studies are showing that meditation does the following:
Reduces stress caused by cortisol by down-regulating this hormone. This, in turn, promotes restful, regular sleep, promotes positive emotional balance, decreases blood pressure, reduces brain fog/cloudy thinking, PTSD.
Enhances self-awareness. Some form of meditation teaches one to be more aware of their self-defeating thoughts and decision-making. Through meditation, they were able to reconstruct more positive mind-set and, thus change their lives.
Lengthens attention span. Two large studies showed that those who listened to meditation tapes were able to perform tasks better, have greater attention spans and reverse mind-wandering so often associated with ADD.
Can generate kindness. Some meditations focus on loving-kindness towards one’s self and others. By developing positive emotions such as love and empathy, one’s life becomes more positive, leading to decrease in anxiety, depression and loneliness.
May help fight addictions. One study of 60 people receiving treatment for alcohol-addiction were taught transcendental meditation and reported lower stress levels, alcohol cravings and alcohol use within 3 months. A review of 14 studies using mindfulness meditation for food cravings found that participants reduced binge and emotional eating.
Helps control pain. Chronic pain often produces anxiety, depression and reduced quality of life. One review of 38 studies involving mindfulness meditation found that chronic pain participants had a reduction of anxiety/depression and an improved quality of life after being taught meditation. A large metastudy of 3500 participants found that meditation resulted in a reduction of chronic pain symptoms.
Balances hormonal symptoms. Many women facing infertility problems are overly stressed out and stressed out bodies produce hormonal imbalances that perpetuates problems getting pregnant. Several studies showed a positive improvement in fertility rates among those that practiced mindfulness meditation.
So, bottom-line, meditation is a vital part of living a healthy, positive life and growing old gracefully. It’s easy to fall into a pit of despair and decide to never climb out of it, this is true. But is it not worth the effort to be free from it?