by Emma Caddick DipBSoM
Meditation is widely accepted as having many benefits to health and well-being.
Although previously considered only something to be done by mystics and hippies’, meditation and the growing scientific evidence base behind it is beginning to be recognised for the pragmatic life skill that it is or as Sarah Salzburg says:
“...the psychological and emotional equivalent of a physical training program”-Sharon Salzburg
Benefits of Meditation to Mental Well-Being
Neuroplasticity is the term given to the capacity of the brain to ‘re-wire’ itself. It used to be accepted that the brain was ‘hard wired’ and capacities were fixed, so if damage was done to the brain, functions were irretrievable. This is not the case. The brain is malleable and its capacity for growth, development and change is very much demonstrable in those who practice meditation regularly.
Recent research, has found that the areas of the brain responsible for ‘higher level’ information processing (e.g., decision making, attention, clarity of thought, problem solving, learning and memory) have more grey matter in people who meditate regularly compared with people who don’t.
Overall mental performance is enhanced through meditation.
Meditation has also been found to reduce levels of stress significantly.
In the 1970’s Dr. Herbert Benson of Harvard Medical School demonstrated how meditation could prompt the physiological mechanism of the ‘relaxation response’ within the body.
The relaxation response brings the body out of the ‘fight or flight’ response that we see in stressful situations and instead brings about a reduction in heart rate, in breathing rate and in turn in blood pressure within the body.
These more relaxed physiological processes promote muscle relaxation and an increase of Alpha waves in the brain – these are the brain waves that occur when we are relaxed.
Benefits of Meditation to Physical Well-Being
Stress and Insomnia create many of our 21st century health problems.
As part of a healthy, balanced lifestyle meditation can support promote optimal health in almost all areas.
Meditation brings about positive cardio-vascular changes in the body, such as lowering the heart rate, blood pressure and cholesterol levels. It is associated with greater levels of energy, more effective pain management, better digestive functioning and even weight loss – as a result of mindful eating and a lowering of cortisol levels.
Meditation before sleep can help to reduce levels of anxiety and therefore promote sleep.
It can help to reduce inflammation in the body and therefore support the immune system, speed up healing and ease respiratory diseases such as asthma or hay fever.
Meditation even impacts hormonal activity which can slow down the ageing process.
Benefits of Meditation to Emotional Well-Being
Meditation helps us to practice being with what ‘is’ in the present moment.
This present moment thinking allows us to gain awareness of our thoughts, emotions, reactions and even habits and builds the skills of self-awareness. It allows us to begin to let go of difficult thoughts and emotions from our past that keep us held back or from going too far into the future with anticipatory fearful thoughts.
When we give ourselves the space to witness our thoughts and emotions rather than being swept along with them, we are more able to examine them and decide on our response. This helps us to begin regulate difficult emotions such as anger or stress rather than being consumed by them.
This increase in awareness can enable us to feel more emotionally stable, less attached to thoughts and feelings that appear and promote a greater sense of well-being.
Certain types of meditations (e.g., Loving Kindness) have been found to increase feelings of compassion both towards the self and towards others. Thereby supporting a feeling of connection and community, both important features of living a contented life, particularly in these times of disconnection and separation.
Self-compassion and kindness to the self can be a great antidote to the critical inner voice and voice of comparison many people live with. By becoming aware of the self-critical thoughts through meditation it is possible to re-train the thoughts to more helpful and positive ones. Over time, this no doubt increases levels of self-esteem and self-confidence.
Other qualities important for happiness such as equanimity, calm and resilience (the power to bounce back) can all be enhanced through a regular meditation practice.
Benefits of Meditation to Spiritual Well-Being
A regular meditation practice offers the practitioner an opportunity to connect with the sense of something outside of themselves.
In the stillness and calm that meditation brings, the mind and body are able to be receptive, to step outside of the constant chatter of the brain. This will be experienced differently for everybody; it is unique and individual.
Spiritual well-being for some is a religious connection to a higher being, for others it is finding a connection to their own inner voice. It is becoming aware of and connecting to something bigger than ourselves.
Meditation allows us to cultivate feelings of inner peace, insight into ourselves, our lives and ultimately connection with others through noticing the similarities between us.
The benefits of a regular meditation practice are wide ranging and can have positive impacts on almost all aspects of health and well-being. The counter to this is that in rare cases (in around 8% of the population) symptoms of depression and anxiety may worsen, the jury is out on the impact of meditation on epilepsy sufferers. It is always advisable to consult your health team (if you have one) before commencing a meditation practice.
As technology and science develops, so too I hope will the acceptance of meditation as a ‘lifestyle medicine’ for the 21st century, a way to optimal health for body, mind and spirit regardless of background, age or status.