8 Health Benefits of Meditation and Mindfulness
If there was a practice that made you happier, healthier, calmer, more creative, and more productive by investing just five minutes of your day, you'd jump on it, right?
Well, it turns out that practice does exist. Meditation has been practiced for centuries, backed with tons of clinical research and new resources that make it more accessible than ever before.
By now, most of us have heard that meditation is "good for you." But have you ever wondered how meditation could help you? After all, sitting still and quietly doesn't sound like an obvious recipe for changing your life.
With fast-paced schedules and endless entertainment and information literally at our fingertips, finding a zen moment requires a little extra intention these days. Meditation is a way to cut through the external world's busyness and our own mental chatter by paying attention on purpose, being still in the present moment, and reacting non-judgmentally to thoughts, emotions, and situations. By setting aside just five minutes each day, you can cultivate a practice that can affect almost every part of your life.
How to Meditate and Why People Do it.
There are lots of ways to meditate, but the basic premise is surprisingly simple. Find a comfortable seated position, close your eyes, become quiet, and observe the rise and fall of your breath. As thoughts arise, observe them without judgment or worry, then release them and return to your breath and the present moment. You can continue this process for as little as 3-5 minutes or as long as desired, allowing your mind to slowly become quieter.
Sounds almost too simple to be effective, right? But if you've ever tried meditation, you know it can be challenging to quiet our busy minds. Becoming silent and present can bring up difficult emotions or thoughts of what's on today's to-do list, but don't let the initial discomfort stop you. Meditation is less about achieving some specific goal and more about training the mind to return to the present moment.
Many people start meditating to reduce stress or help them fall asleep, but they often stick with it because of its positive effects on all areas of their life. In the words of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, "Meditation wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation."
What are the Health Benefits of Meditation?
1. Stress less
We all experience stress in our daily lives, but meditation can help our minds and bodies cope more healthily.
In one study, eight weeks of mindfulness meditation training was shown to reduce participants' post-stress inflammatory response compared to a control group, despite equivalent levels of stress hormones. In other words, meditation helps you keep your cool even when your body is signaling fight or flight.
Meditation can also help you combat work-related stress and stay focused on the job. A study of nurses and healthcare professionals found that mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) helped decrease stress, burnout, and anxiety while increasing empathy, focus, and mood.
2. Improve immune response
Meditation might not be a magical healing potion, but it can help support your immune system to keep you healthier.
One meta-analysis examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on five specific immune system parameters like immune cell count and antibody response. They found evidence that mindfulness meditation improved many aspects of immunity in a way that suggests a stronger immune response. Specifically, mindfulness meditation appears to be associated with reduced inflammation, increased cell-mediated defense parameters, and increased enzyme activity that guards against cell aging.
3. Improve symptoms of anxiety disorders and PTSD
Meditation is also great for managing anxiety symptoms – and it's especially useful for people with the highest anxiety levels.
A meta-analysis of over 600 transcendental meditation (TM) studies showed that TM effectively treated anxiety, with the most significant effects observed in individuals with the highest anxiety levels.
Meditation can also help reduce reliance on prescription medication for anxiety management. In a study of military personnel affected by PTSD or another anxiety disorder, half of the group participated in a daily meditation session while a control group did not. After one month, 84% of the TM group patients had stabilized, decreased, or ceased medications, compared with 59% of patients in the control group. Only 11% of patients in the TM group increased their medication dosage than nearly 41% of patients in the control group.
4. Improve symptoms of stress-related conditions
If you've ever experienced conditions like fibromyalgia or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), you may have noticed symptoms tend to pop up or worsen when you're stressed.
Shifting awareness to the present moment and immediate surroundings seems to help shift mental bandwidth away from intrusive anxious thoughts, helping halt your body's response to those stressors. One study found that meditation improved fibromyalgia symptoms and another showed that mindfulness-based stress reduction improved irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms.
5. Reduce healthcare costs
The benefits of meditation go beyond mental health; it turns out meditation can actually save you money!
A 14-year study comparing over 2,800 people found that those who meditated saw their healthcare costs drop by 11% after one year of meditating, and after five years, their payments had dropped by 28% annually. Healthcare costs didn't significantly change for the non-meditating group (who was matched for age, gender, and region).
6. Keep your brain sharp
If you want to improve your focus, make better decisions, and stay sharp as you age, consider meditation a gym for your mind.
Research has found that long-term mindfulness meditation promotes improved executive functioning and the ability to sustain attention. One study even found that just four sessions of meditation training enhanced participants' ability to maintain concentration.
Another review of twelve studies found that meditation increased attention, memory, and mental processing speed in older volunteers, suggesting that meditation can help mitigate age-related cognitive decline.
7. Mitigate chronic pain
Ever have a coach or fitness instructor tell you the pain is all in your head? Well, they may have been right – at least partially. Although our nerves send our brains signals about what's physically happening to our body, our brain can essentially decide whether to turn the volume up or down on those signals. Meditation seems to help the brain dial down the volume.
Several studies have shown that participants who meditate can better cope with pain – and even experience reduced pain – when exposed to the same painful stimuli. A large study of 3,500 participants found that those who meditated habitually reported less pain within their lives.
Another study observed brain activity as participants experienced a painful stimulus. Participants who had gone through four days of mindfulness meditation training reported less sensitivity to pain and showed increased activity in the brain centers known to control pain.
8. Reduces blood pressure
Stress puts the body into "fight-or-flight" mode, which constricts blood vessels and creates strain for the heart. While this helps increase alertness, our bodies aren't meant to sustain this stressful state long-term.
Several studies have shown that meditation can reduce blood pressure, which reduces the risk of heart attack and heart failure.
Meditation is a simple practice that can have far-reaching effects on your quality of life. While it might feel impossible to set aside five or ten minutes a day for a meditation practice, most of us spend much longer than that scrolling on our phones each day.
If you're new to meditation, it doesn't have to feel intimidating or boring. Some people find it helpful to use guided online audio meditations or apps like Calm or Headspace, while others prefer silence, white noise, or soft music. Whatever calls to you, remember to start small and work your way up when you're ready. It may just be the best gift you give yourself this year.