Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons why people decide to take up meditation. A study including over 3,500 adults shows that meditation lives up to its reputation for stress relief (1). The harmful effects of stress, like the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals (Cytokines), result in disturbed sleep, increased blood pressure, fatigue, cloudy thinking and can promote depression and anxiety. An eight-week study found that a style called ‘mindful meditation’ reduced the inflammatory response caused by stress (2). Another study demonstrated that meditation may reduce stress notably, in individuals with highest levels of stress saw the strongest effects of meditation (3)
Less stress leads to less anxiety. An eight-week study of mindful meditation found reduced anxiety in the participants, as well as reducing symptoms of anxiety disorders: such as phobias, social anxiety and panic attacks (4). 18 of the volunteers participated in a study three years later with most of them continuing to practise regular meditation and maintained lower levels of anxiety long term (5). A form of physical activity which has been shown to help people reduce anxiety is yoga, due to the meditative and physical activity elements (6). You may not be surprised to read that in high-pressure work environments, meditation can help to control job-related anxiety. With a study finding a meditation programme reducing anxiety in a group of nurses (7)
PROMOTES EMOTIONAL HEALTH
Some forms of meditation are effective at improving self-image and having a more positive outlook on life. Two studies looking at over 4,600 adults found decreased depression using mindful meditation (1 & 9). A controlled study looked at the electrical activity of people’s brains who practised mindful meditation and those who did not. Finding that those who meditated showed measurable changes in the areas of the brain which related to positive thinking and optimism (10). Developing an ongoing habit of meditation may help to maintain emotional health benefits long term.
LENGTHENS ATTENTION SPAN
Weightlifting for your mind is known as focused-attention meditation. It helps to increase the strength and endurance of your attention. A study found that meditation improved the participant’s ability to reorient and maintain attention (11). Another study looked at HR workers and found that those who regularly practised mindful meditation stayed focused on a task for longer, as well as remembering details of the tasks better than their peers – who did not practise meditation (12). Interestingly a review concluded that meditation may even be able to reverse patterns in the brain related to worrying, poor attention and mind-wandering (13). However, do not feel you have to commit to meditation for the long run if you are not sure if it’s for you, it has been found that four days of meditation may be enough to increase attention span (14).
DECREASE BLOOD PRESSURE
Meditation helps improve physical health by reducing the strain on the heart. High blood pressure over time makes the heart work harder, which can lead to poor heart function. A study of 996 volunteers found that focusing on a silent mantra (a repeated non-verbal word), reduced blood pressure by 5 points on average. With results being most effective in those who had high blood pressure prior to the study (15). Meditation appears to control blood pressure by relaxing the nerve signals which are responsible for coordinating heart function, tension in the blood vessels and the “flight or fight” response (16)
Did you know almost half of the population struggle with insomnia at some point? A study looked at comparing two mindful meditation programmes by randomly assigned participants to a group. The participants who meditated fell asleep sooner and stayed asleep longer, compared to those who did not meditate (17). Taking the time to become skilled in meditation may be beneficial in helping to control those “runaway” thoughts that often lead to insomnia. With the added benefit that meditation can relax the body, release tension and bring you into a more peaceful state which may lead to being more likely to fall asleep.
The bottom line is meditation is something everyone can do to improve their mental and emotional health. Finding a meditation practise that is suited to your goals is a great way to improve your quality of life. Even if you have as little as a few minutes to spare each day the benefits are scientifically proven.