Many people look to new diet trends or exercise regimens—often with questionable benefit—to get a healthy start in the new year. But there is one strategy that has been shown over and over again to boost mood and health: meditation.
In late 2022, A.J High level study It caused a stir when it claimed that meditation might work as well as a common drug called Lexapro to treat anxiety. Over the past two decades, similar evidence has emerged about the wide range of health benefits of mindfulness and meditation, for purposes ranging from stress to Reduce pain to Depression treatments to Promote brain health It helps to manage excessive Inflammation and COVID-19 are long.
Despite the growing body of evidence showing the health benefits of meditation, it can be difficult to assess the science and know just how powerful it is.
I A neuroscientist studies the effects of stress and trauma on me Brain development in children and adolescents. I also teach how to mindfulness and meditation Playing sports It can positively affect brain development and mental health in young adults.
I am very excited about how meditation can be used as a tool to provide powerful new insights into the workings of the mind and brain, and to radically change a person’s outlook on life. As a mental health researcher, I see the promise of meditation as a low-to-no-cost, evidence-based tool for improving health that can be integrated relatively easily into everyday life.
Meditation takes some training, discipline, and practice—which isn’t always easy to come by. But with some specific tools and strategies, it can be within everyone’s reach.
What is mindfulness and meditation?
There are many different types of meditation, and mindfulness is one of the most popular types of meditation. Basically, vigilance is State of mind That, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn A renowned expert on mindfulness-based practices, he includes “awareness that is created through paying attention, intentionally, in the present moment, without judgment.”
This means not ruminating on something that happened in the past or worrying about that to-do list. Focusing on the present, or living in the moment, has been shown to have a wide range of benefits, including Improve mood and reduce anxietyAnd Relieve pain And potentially improve cognitive performance.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and honed over time. The point is that with repetition, the benefits of mindfulness practice carry over into everyday life — when you’re not actively practicing meditation. For example, if you know that you are not identified with feelings that arise fleetingly, such as anger, it may be difficult to stay angry for a long time.
It is believed that the health benefits of meditation and other strategies aimed at reducing stress stem from increased levels of stress overall vigilance through practice. Elements of mindfulness are also present in practices such as yoga, martial arts, and dance that require focused attention and discipline.
The overwhelming amount of evidence supporting the health benefits of meditation is too extensive to cover comprehensively. But the studies I outline below represent some of the higher level, or The highest quality and most rigorous abstracts of scientific data on the subject so far. Many of these include systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which bring together many studies on a particular topic.
Stress and mental health
Meta-analyses published during the pandemic show that mindfulness programs are effective in reducing anxiety Symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorderAnd Obsessive-compulsive disorderAnd Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder And depression – including Particularly weak time During Pregnancy and the postpartum period.
Mindfulness-based programs are also showing promise as a treatment option for anxiety disorders, the most common mental disorder, affecting an estimated 301 million people worldwide. Although there are effective treatments for anxiety, many patients do not have access to them because they lack insurance coverage or transportation for caregivers, for example, or they may only experience limited relief.
It is important to note, however, that for those affected by mental disorders or substance use disorders, mindfulness-based approaches should not replace first-line treatments such as medicine and psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy. Mindfulness strategies should be seen as a complement to these evidence-based therapies and as a complement to healthy lifestyle interventions such as physical activity and healthy eating.
How does meditation work? look in the brain
Studies show that regular meditators have a better ability to control attention, improve control of heart rate, breathing, and heart rate The functioning of the autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary responses in the body, such as blood pressure. Research also shows that people who meditate have
Decreased cortisol levels – a hormone involved in the stress response – from those who don’t.
A recent systematic review of neuroimaging studies showed that focused attention meditation is associated Functional changes in many areas of the brain It is involved in cognitive control and emotion-related processing. The review also found that more experienced meditators had stronger activation of brain regions involved in those cognitive and emotional processes, suggesting that brain benefits improve with more practice.
Regular meditation practice can also be done Preventing age-related thinning of the cerebral cortexwhich may help protect against age-related diseases and cognitive impairment.
Limitations of Meditation Research
this search It has limits. These include the lack of a consistent definition of the types of software used, and the lack of well-controlled studies. In gold-standard randomized controlled trials with medications, study participants don’t know whether they’re getting the active drug or a placebo.
By contrast, in trials of mindfulness-based interventions, participants know the condition they are assigned to and are not “blind,” so they may expect that some health benefit may occur to them. This creates a sense of expectation, which can be a confounding variable in studies. Many studies of meditation often do not include a control group, which is necessary to evaluate how it compares with other therapies.
Wider benefits and applications
Compared to medication, mindfulness-based programs may be easier to access and have fewer negative side effects. However, medication and psychotherapy – Specifically, cognitive behavioral therapy – works well for many, and the combination approach may be best. Mindfulness-based interventions are also cost-effective and have better health outcomes than usual care, particularly among Patient population at high risk So there are economic benefits, too.
Researchers are studying ways to deliver mindfulness tools on a computer or smartphone app, or using virtual reality, which may be more effective From traditional personal meditation training.
Importantly, mindfulness is not just for those with a physical or mental health diagnosis. A person can use these strategies to reduce disease risk and reap health benefits in everyday life, such as improved sleep and cognitive performance, elevated mood, and reduced stress and anxiety.
Where do you start?
Many recreation centers, fitness studios, and even universities offer personal meditation classes. For those looking to find out whether meditation can help treat a physical or mental condition, there are more than 600 Clinical trials Participants are currently being recruited with various conditions, such as pain, cancer, and depression.
If you want to try meditation from the comfort of your own home, there are many free videos online on how to practice, including meditations for sleep, stress reduction, mindful eating and more. Several apps, such as Headspace, look promising, with randomized controlled trials Show benefits to users.
The hardest part, of course, is getting started. However, if you set an alarm to exercise every day, it will become a habit and may translate into everyday life – which is the ultimate goal. For some, this may take some time and practice, and for others, this may start to happen very quickly. until a One five-minute session It can have positive health effects.