With the endless demands of modern life, most people can attest to feeling pulled in several different directions and, as a result, stressed and tense. This can have emotional and physical consequences—frustration, unhappiness, impatience, and anger, as well as headaches, exhaustion, and muscle aches.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. In my last article, I discussed the recently discovered link between chronic stress and memory loss. As if chronic stress isn’t bad enough on our health and psyche, now research is finding that it can lead to brain inflammation, which results in short-term memory loss.
I’m a strong believer in exercise and physical activity to reduce stress, but in this article, I want to focus on another incredible therapy that science shows can have emotional and physical benefits: meditation. For me, as a workaholic, this type of mindfulness has been an absolute game changer for my overall wellness.
Meditation is a state of deep, profound peace that occurs when you allow your mind to be still and silent. It’s well established that meditation can bring about a better sense of peace, tranquility, focus, and balance. Regular practice helps transform your thinking. If you’re unhappy, you center on happiness. If you’re angry, you learn to let go more easily. If you’re an “overthinker,” you are able to regain focus.
Meditation is also an excellent way to calm your nervous system. Studies indicate that mindfulness meditation (which teaches you to live in the moment and be unconditionally present) can lower stress, depression, and anxiety.1-2
It makes sense. Living for today and not dwelling on the past or worrying about the future can ease feelings of regret, guilt, and worry.
And that’s just the mental benefits. More and more research is starting to uncover several physical effects that come from meditation practice.
Of course, the reduction of stress alone causes a cascade of physical effects, such as migraine relief, improved blood pressure, and better sleep.3-5
Moreover, meditation may actually increase gray matter in certain regions of the brain. The gray matter is responsible for processing all the information. The greater the volume of gray matter in different regions of the brain, the better your brain function and your skills/abilities.
In one study, 16 healthy non-meditators underwent brain MRIs before and after participating in an 8-week meditation program (about 30 minutes per day). After the program, the researchers noticed changes in gray matter in regions of the brain involved in learning and memory, emotion regulation, self-referential processing, and perspective taking.6
Just as importantly, the part of the brain that is responsible for anxiety, fear, stress, and other fight-or-flight responses—the amygdala—got smaller in those who meditated.
These physical transformations in the brain lead to pretty significant and positive mental and emotional changes.
Can You Really Calm Your Brain?
I’m sure you’re thinking, “This all sounds great…but there is no way I can calm my brain and meditate. I have too much on my mind!”
Valid point. But remember, all those who successfully meditate thought the same thing once upon a time.
Consider meditation like any other form of exercise. In the beginning, you may not be able to do it all that well, but over time it becomes second nature.
If you decide to give meditation a try (and I hope you do), here are some useful tips as you get started:
- Find a good teacher. An experienced mentor can help you understand how your mind works and how to focus your thoughts. Once you get the hang of it, you likely won’t need any additional instruction.
- Start small. There’s no need to meditate for 20 or 30 minutes right from the get-go. Try it for only three or four minutes and go up from there.
- Choose a location. Make sure it’s comfortable, quiet, and free from distractions.
- Deep breathe. Take a few moments to focus on and even count your breaths. You also may want to do simple yoga poses to help steady your breathing and clear your mind.
- Don’t get frustrated. There’s no right or wrong way to meditate. As long as you feel calmer, happier, and more relaxed and focused, then your practice is obviously helping you, and that’s all that matters.
- Sharma M and Rush SE. J Evid Based Complementary Altern Med. 2014 Oct;19(4):271-86.
- Song Y, et al. Nurse Educ Today. 2015 Jan;35(1):86-90.
- Wells RE, et al. Headache. 2014 Oct;54(9):1484-95.
- Chen Y, et al. Nurse Educ Today. 2013 Oct;33(10):1166-72.
- Hubbling A, et al. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2014 Feb 10;14:50.
- Holzel BK, et al. Psychiatry Res. 2011 Jan 30;191(1):36-43.