Meditation and mindfulness used to be considered fringe practices for hippies, New Agers or religious extremists. For a long time, the average adult felt it had no place in mainstream society. Decade by decade, that line of thinking has been changing as hard scientific facts back up claims that mindfulness and meditation can lead to better health, a better mind, and even a better life.
The Sympathetic Nervous System
They don’t call stress the “silent killer” for nothing. Stress acts on the sympathetic nervous system, creating what is better known as the “flight or fight” response (1). When the body is faced with stress, this system causes your blood vessels to constrict, increasing your blood pressure. It causes your heart to pump, your breath to grow heavy, it even causes sweat– everything associated with emotions like anger, fear and excitement.
Of course, this autonomic reaction has its place when there is an occasional threat to our well-being. The problem is that people are walking around with that response kicking in on a daily basis in reaction to life’s many challenges and problems. In the long run, this state can take a severe toll on your health.
Meditation can decrease the response of the sympathetic nervous system, helping you to circumvent this type of stress.
Harvard Medical School found that regular, long-term practitioners of meditation and other relaxation exercises have increased amounts of active genes that fight serious diseases and disorders (2). The effects of meditation practice have been shown to be extremely effective in also decreasing symtoms associated with these illnesses. In many trials meditation was proven to be equally as effective as drug treatments. The added bonus being that these meditation and relaxation techniques lacked the dangerous and uncomfortable side effects.
When two groups were compared– those who practiced regular relaxation techniques, and those who didn’t– they found the people who engaged in meditative practices had more active genes that protected them from things like infertility, high blood pressure, arthritis, pain, inflammation and even cancer.
Even more amazing was that, after the initial findings, those not practicing relaxation exercises were asked to begin practicing them every day. Within two months, significant changes occurred, increasing the disease resistance in this group as well.
One thing that we just don’t give enough attention to these days is our emotional well-being. So many people walk around sad, depressed or anxious. Its all to common for people to drown their sorrows in addictive behaviors like alcohol, drugs, sex, food, shopping, internet/video games and even work. Excessively indulging in or hiding behind these habits is often a way of coping with a feeling of dissatisfaction with life – an attempt to withdraw from reality and escape pain or boredom.
According to the Mayo Clinic (3), our emotional well-being can benefit from the daily practice of meditation. It can help us gain a better perspective, manage stress, improve self-awareness, help us focus on the present and reduce negative emotions that can overwhelm us. Considering the money our society collectively spends on therapy, chemical drugs and treatments, it almost seems absurd to overlook something as simple as a daily meditation routine.
Rewiring Your Brain Circuitry
One of the more astounding recent findings about meditation and mindfulness is that it can actually change the structure of the brain (4). Britta Hölzel of Harvard Medical School led a study examining M.R.I. scans of people before and after meditation. This gives us physical evidence that meditation increases the gray matter in the hippocampus, the part of the brain that is related to learning and memory.
If one considers the significance of this finding in relation to the surges of learning disabilities, behavioral disorders and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder in recent decades, the potential of these findings may be monumental.
Perhaps this is the key to learning why the brain activity in recent generations – overstimulated by electronics, multitasking and an increasingly busier lifestyle– is more and more debilitating than in the past. Perhaps such findings will teach us how such disorders can be corrected more with mindfulness and meditation techniques, rather than pouring chemical brain stimulants into people from early childhood.
One of the most overlooked benefits for mindfulness and meditation is simply that people who practice regularly tend to have a healthier outlook on life. This outlook enables people to really enjoy life, to be productive and reach their full potential.
Mindfulness lets our mind’s rest so we don’t fixate on the negative or drudge up the pain of the past to relive it over and over. It expands our awareness so we can see the bigger picture in life; this helps us put our problems into perspective. It makes life more rich and satisfying.
So many benefits to meditation and mindful living are continuously being revealed by scientific research, it seems we just can’t afford the skepticism anymore. But if you do remain skeptical, you don’t have to take anyone at their word. For only 20 minutes per day, you can find out for yourself just how much meditation and mindfulness can benefit your life. What have you got to lose?