Mental illness is more prevalent than ever in the high-tempo, high-pressure environment that we live in today. Research and modern medicine have taught us a lot about many different types of mental disorder. What still remains somewhat a mystery is how to treat them without having to take prescription medications. Though these medications can be incredibly effective, they often have unpleasant side effects. Many people are left seeking treatment alternatives.
Though stress levels nowadays are exponentially higher than they used to be, stress was not a foreign concept to earlier human societies. Thousands of years ago the earliest Buddhist monks learned an invaluable technique to help them keep their mind and spirit at ease during times of stress. This was meditation.
Over the last century and thanks to developments in science, researchers have proven that meditation has health benefits for the mind and the body1. Engaging in this practice regularly can yield a meaningful reduction in negative stressful emotions, habits, and ways of thinking.
3 For Mind
If you have experienced anxiety or a panic attack, you know that it can often appear without warning or explanation. Prolonged or repeated anxiety can have enormous negative effects on your body, but meditation can help. Studies show it can not only stop the anxiety and calm you down quickly, but it can actually heal the damage that anxiety may have caused in your brain2. Simple mindfulness meditation practices that bring you back to the present moment can, in fact, rebuild gray matter.
Gray matter is a network of cells that make up about 40% of your brain. These cells transport nutrients and energy to the neurons (the brain cells that send signals to the rest of your body). The efficacy of this transport can influence how well the neurons function and communicate. If the gray matter in your brain is not healthy, there is a much higher chance that you will experience some form of anxiety. And this is a self-perpetuating cycle: the more anxiety you experience, the more damaged your gray matter can get, leading to more susceptibility to anxiety, and so on.
Keeps Depression At Bay
There is a vast number of issues that trigger depression and negative emotions. Tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone suffer from depression, and it’s a tricky beast to tackle because it comes in so many forms.
The most common of these is Major Depressive Disorder (MDD). MDD is strongly correlated with abnormalities in the delivery of certain key neurotransmitters (chemical messengers in the brain). Perhaps the most important neurotransmitters related to depression are serotonin and dopamine. These primarily help us experience feelings of well-being and self-acceptance. Imbalances in your brain’s serotonin and dopamine levels can (and most likely will) trigger depression and other mood disorders. Fortunately, meditation has been found to help increase serotonin and dopamine levels, in turn helping to offset the symptoms of depression.3
This condition has been a controversial one recently. The National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Psychiatric Association all recognize ADHD as a medical condition. Whether you accept it as a diagnosis or not, you’ll certainly agree it has a large impact on many lives. The most common symptoms associated with ADHD are a lack of focus and hyperactivity, but there are many more. Some of these are impulsivity, forgetfulness, restlessness, anxiety, disorganization, time management problems, poor self-image, and mood swings. Just like anxiety, there are many prescription drugs you can get that help temporarily, but they only function as band-aids.
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These drugs actually have the potential to cause brain damage, heart attacks, strokes, sudden death, depression, suicide, and, many other undesirable side effects. Meditation, on the other hand, doesn’t cause any of those problems. In 2013, the International Federation of Clinical Neurophysiology published a study showing meditation reduces hyperactivity, reduces impulsivity and increases “act-with-awareness” capabilities, contributing to an overall improvement in their ability to focus and be in the moment4.
3 For Body
Helps You Kick a Bad Habit
One of the most publicized bad habits that plague society is smoking cigarettes. According to cancer.gov, smoking is one of the U.S.’s leading causes of cancer and cancer-related deaths.5
One effective way to quit smoking is breathing meditation, which helps to cultivate mindfulness. Breathing deeply can have very real physical benefit6. When you inhale deeply your body takes in more oxygen than normal. In turn, when you exhale, your body releases more carbon dioxide than normal. This process helps to get toxins out of your blood and helps you enter a relaxed state. In addition to detoxification, the self-control and awareness you will learn with meditation can also help control your urge to smoke.
Fortifies Your Immune System
Getting sick is never a fun experience. As humans, we crave the ability to stay strong and resilient. We are always finding ourselves buying vitamins and trying to eat healthily. Mindfulness meditation is not something that’s commonly associated with strengthening your immune system, but it can actually be very helpful.
Think of your immune system as a little army inside of you. Whenever your body encounters foreign toxins, bad bacterias and viruses this little army comes to the rescue and saves the day.
A 2003 study found that after participating in weekly meditation training for 8 weeks, the test group had significantly higher levels of antibodies than they did before the study as well as than the control group (co-workers who didn’t meditate)7.
Mindfulness meditation has shown increases in electrical activity in the brain areas that control positive emotions, awareness, and anxiety. These are also the areas of the brain that act as a command center for your immune system – when stimulated, they make the immune system function more effectively. This means that your body’s ability to ward off potential illnesses, as managed by the immune system, improves with meditation. Like with any other benefits of meditation (and of any other positive habits, for that matter), consistency is key. Even if you only meditate for 5 minutes daily, it’s important to continue this routine regularly to keep seeing results.
Strengthens Your Brain
Carl Sagan once said, “The brain is just like a muscle. When it’s in use we feel very good.” And he was right.
Your brain is the command center of your body. If any part of it is off balance, chances are your whole body will feel it. It’s definitely not the easiest part of your body to keep in shape, but taking care of your brain should be a top priority. This can improve your ability for cognitive processing and the regulation of emotions, among various other benefits. Meditation is one tool you can use to increase functioning in specific brain areas8. For example, your prefrontal cortex (right behind your forehead) is the part of your brain that controls our conscious thinking ability. Meditation has greatly been shown to increase activity in your prefrontal cortex, which in turn can increase your productivity. A recent study reported that meditation leads to lower levels of stress and better memory in performing tasks; the participants also switched tasks less often and remained focused on tasks longer9.
Whether you have one of the above problems or you just want more clarity in your life, mindfulness meditation practiced on a regular basis can improve your mental effectiveness in everything you do. To learn some simple mindfulness meditation practices check out these methods in this guide.