The benefits of meditation and how it affects your brain health are a hot topic with new research and information coming out on a weekly basis. Neurological benefits include changes in your grey matter and improved communication between different areas of your brain. More recent studies are discovering that meditation can help with our stress and anxiety levels as well as improving our focus, concentration and overall psychological health. In addition, physiological benefits include improved sleep, better eating habits and weight control. In this article we look at the link between mindfulness meditation and brain health, to explore in more detail how meditation affects your brain.
Meditation results are better than a stress management course
The medical profession is becoming more interested in mindfulness meditation programmes and their effect on brain health. Associate Professor Elizabeth A Hoge MD in Georgetown University Medical Centre´s (external link) Department of Psychiatry discovered that when people with anxiety participated in a mindfulness meditation course their stress hormones significantly reduced. Their inflammatory responses to stressful situations and brain health improved too, whereas patients who took a non-meditation stress management course worsened.
Meditation can lead to changes in key areas of your brain
Two studies at Harvard discovered that people who attended an eight-week course of mindfulness meditation had positive changes in their brain structure, which meant their brain health was improved. Specifically, they were better able to deal with stress and anxiety. The researchers found that the amygdala (which is an almond shape set of neurons located in the brain´s medial temporal lobe) decreased in cell volume. (Read the research here – external link. The amygdala plays a key role in the processing of emotions and regulates fear, anxiety and stress. When we were cavemen the amygdala activated our fight and flight response, but modern-day man, in theory, needs less of this survival mode response. However, our fight and flight mode can be activated by modern day stress such as financial, work or relationship issues. When this happens, our body is flooded with cortisol. If our stress levels are elevated for long periods of time, cortisol continues to be released into our system, which can throw us out of homeostatic (our body´s natural) balance. The participants who followed a course of mindfulness meditation were able to regulate these emotions as well as change their feelings and responses to stress and anxiety.
Meditation can help overcome depression
Depression is a prolonged imbalance in the mind and body that you can find more about here. Your brain has a communication network made up of billions of neurons called neurotransmitters. Research suggests that people who suffer from depression have low levels of two brain chemicals called serotonin and norepinephrine. Anti-depressant medication works by boosting these two brain chemicals, but they also have side effects.
Through a process known as neurogenesis scientists have discovered that through meditation, the number of neuron transmitters can increase and we can literally regenerate our neurons and rewire our brain.
Meditation also focuses on the now, which is very useful for depression suffers. Many of the roots of depression are anxieties and fears about the future and regrets or inability to forget the past. These are predominantly unbalanced left brain activities (check out our article on balancing left and right brain here). Through meditation we can learn to become less identified with these thoughts, equilibrate the mind and simply let them go. In this state of observation, we develop a new awareness and develop the ability to change our thoughts and behaviours. Meditation also teaches us to become more of a master of our own emotions as we can realise how these thoughts are intertwined with our emotions. Over time, you may even notice that it is not the everchanging events and ups and downs in our lives that evoke our emotional roller coaster but rather how we perceive these events. Practising meditation can therefore give us the ability to regulate our responses allowing us to stay calmer and more focused in stressful situations, leading to emotional balance and a greater clarity and zest for life!
How meditation can help keep our brains young!
Meditation can also be “nutrition” for the brain as it stimulates the hippocampus and frontal brain lobe, which store both short and long-term memory. When this area is under-active, we have memory loss and disorientation. Through meditation this area can improve and a person´s ability to recall memories as well as retrieve long term memories improves. Studies have shown that older adults can continue to live functional and happy lives by improving mental awareness and the ability to function through regular meditation sessions.
As we grow older, we can face new challenges such as health issues, disability or the loss of a spouse or friends all of which bring long term stress. Social anxiety and loneliness can be a factor of aging. Whilst these are part of life´s process, the impact of them can be significantly reduced when following a mindfulness meditation programme.
Understanding and acceptance through meditation
Our capacity for understanding and acceptance increases as we meditate. In our experience people regularly report the ability to adopt a more positive attitude and the natural ability to interact with others at a more humane level. When we are in a better frame of mind the people that we will meet in our everyday life will also benefit from our changes. History shows us that many of history´s great humanitarians were meditators.
Thinking of trying out mindfulness meditation?
If you are new to meditation, you may find it difficult at first. As we practice mediation our body and mind become used to it and build a greater resilience to stress. It then becomes more of a habit and easier to practice. Often people initially struggle with the physical challenge of sitting still for long periods. If this is you then take a look at our articles love meditation: tips for sitting in meditation and ten top tips for successful meditation.
It’s better to start with only five minutes and set a timer or use an app on your phone. As you learn the techniques then you can increase the time by adding a few minutes each time until you have reached 30 mins or more. You will soon find yourself surprised at how quickly time flies.
Mindfulness Meditation and brain health at La Crisalida Retreats
Here at La Crisalida Retreats in Spain we offer different meditation techniques – something for everyone. For those who chose to attend, the day usually starts with an early morning mediation where you can practice as part of a group.
In the evening tour programme often includes a 60-minute guided mediation or Yoga Nidra. Our mindfulness workshop will give you the opportunity to find out more about cultivating seven attitudes of mindfulness. Whatever techniques you choose to practice we are excited to be sharing this journey of discovery with you!
About the author
- Rachel is a talented Pilates trainer and workshop leader.
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