Science-Based Health Benefits of Meditation
Often seen by many as ‘new age’, meditation has entered into the mainstream in more recent times. Practised by individuals throughout the world, many of the benefits of this form of therapy are backed up by solid, science-based research.
Here we look at what meditation is, why it has several benefits for health and what the scientific research says about it.
What is Meditation?
Meditation is often associated with religious practices and is a method of inducing a state of deep relaxation and, in some cases, heightened awareness. It generally involves concentrating on a single thing such as the breathing process or an object. Other forms such as walking meditation involve being acutely aware of every movement.
Meditation can be practised almost anywhere and is often used to help reduce stress and improve sleeping habits in individuals.
A Brief History of Meditation
While we don’t know exactly where and when the practice of meditation first began, we do know that it has been around for a long time. It is often closely associated with Buddhism and has been part of its spiritual practice for more than 2,600 years.
Eastern philosophies like Buddhism transferred to the West in the 19th Century but it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th Century that meditation began to gain popularity with the general public. By the late 70s, however, the first mindfulness course was being held at the University of Massachusetts.
In more recent times, technology has played a role in further popularising meditation and mindfulness through apps that can be downloaded onto smartphones. Many businesses nowadays also incorporate employee wellbeing options such as meditation classes into their daily work practices.
Health Benefits of Meditation
With increasing popularity, there has also been a growth in the research into the use of meditation for health and wellbeing.
1. Stress Reduction
Perhaps the most popular reason for people taking up meditation is to help control stress. Research carried out by the School of Nursing in Louisiana found that students self-reported decreased levels of stress after a period of mediation.
Another piece of research found that patients with chronic pain showed reduced stress and felt in greater control after 8-weeks of exposure to meditation. There is also evidence that regular meditation can also help reduce the symptoms that come with constant high-level stress including irritable bowel syndrome and fibromyalgia.
2. Controlling Anxiety
Anxiety affects more than 40 million people in the USA alone and meditation is a non-invasive and effective management tool that people can learn relatively easily.
As it can reduce levels of stress, meditation also has an impact on general anxiety disorders. One study working with patients suffering from chronic pain found that regular meditative exercise helped them reduce their anxiety and depression over their condition.
Meditation doesn’t just involve focusing on the process of breathing. People can use what is called positive affirmation to change their outlook on life. Research out of the USA found that regular meditative practice allowed individuals suffering from general anxiety disorder to be more positive in their outlook and better manage their condition.
3. Improving Sleep
Many people meditate before they go to bed because it helps calm the mind and can improve the quality of their sleep. A recent study found that patients who meditated exhibited less insomnia when they took a mindfulness course and used it in their everyday practice.
Getting a good night’s sleep, of course, has other knock-on effects. If we get the right amount of quality sleep, it helps reduce inflammation in the body, makes us more alert during the day and can have beneficial effects on memory and cognition
4. Boosting Memory and Cognition
Some of the more interesting research in recent years involves the role that meditative practice might play in memory and cognition. It’s thought that meditation may well boost blood flow so that more oxygen gets to the brain.
Some research has found an improvement in memory in Alzheimer’s patients after just 8 weeks of using mediation. The study in Arizona looked at 15 participants with memory issues and got them to meditate for 12 minutes a day. This could have huge importance for the growing rates of dementia in the world population today and how it is managed especially in the early stages.
5. Enhancing Self-Awareness
Finally, as well as working for memory and cognition, another benefit of meditating regularly is that it builds self-awareness in the individual. Some research has found that practice of meditation can help to improve emotional health and encourage individuals to experience fewer negative thoughts.
In one study, participants who used a mindfulness app for a few weeks saw their feeling of loneliness decrease and social engagement increase during that time.