Meditation: why it works

Numerous studies prove that it permanently modifies brain activity. A practice that is both ancestral and effective in reducing our perception of stress. at home, now or never to get started?

“Each of us has the necessary potential to free ourselves from the mental states that maintain our suffering and that of others, to find inner peace and contribute to the well-being of beings. Meditation helps us do that.” A real remedy for suffering, always advocated by the biologist and Buddhist monk Matthieu Ricard.

On this practice, originally religious but now secularized, there is no lack of received ideas. In common language, for example, to meditate means “to think”. It is however not an intellectual exercise which would consist in thinking, in concentrating. “When we concentrate, we tense up, as if we wanted to hold something,” explains Fabrice Midal, founder of the Western School of Meditation. “However, meditation is based on the discovery that there is in us a resource that does not rely on the will, it is attention. We often confuse it with the will because, since childhood, we are constantly told, “want more”, “have more will”. But being attentive is just extending your antennae, being a little more open, more curious, more alert. To meditate is to train attention. »

A misconception: to meditate is “not to think”

“Our brain is an extraordinary machine for producing thoughts, very difficult to stop, notes Christophe André. In meditation, we don’t stop the thoughts, but we step aside to think and see ourselves thinking. “At the beginning, there is only great chaos,” says a single mother who has been meditating for 5 years. With practice, we realize that they are often unfounded and that they trigger automatic reactions. We then learn to welcome them, to recognize them as friends who annoy us but whom we love all the same, and to understand them: by constantly asking me, my daughter has awakened my inner demon of annoyance.”

“Meditation is very concrete”, confirms Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn, who adapted it to stress reduction by creating MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) in 1979, at the University of Medicine of Massachusetts. At the end of the 1970s, he had the idea of ​​helping his patients fight stress and pain by giving them the power to manage them on their own. How ? By listening to what is happening around them and in their bodies. Unlike relaxation, which aims to loosen muscle tone and the mind, meditation involves great vigilance. Anchored in the present, the meditator does not seek to avoid unpleasant sensations, but to take them into account without being overwhelmed by wandering thoughts or by ruminations of the past. Little by little, he learns to differentiate his sensations from the feelings they inspire in him and from the judgments he passes on them. His program offers 8 weeks of practice (2h30 per week in a group and 45 min daily at home). It familiarizes with tools from Buddhist meditation, such as body scanning, which consists of exploring one’s sensations from head to toe, attention to breathing, to the body in movement (yoga), etc. Little by little, we learn to distinguish sensations, emotions, feelings, judgments, etc. “The MBSR has not changed my life, testifies Caroline, graphic designer, mother of four children, but it allowed me to be in a state that led me to change my life. After the program, faced with the pressure at my job, I weighed the pros and cons, the real risks and what was fantasy, and I became independent. It’s not easy but I have no regrets. MBSR and its derivative, MBCT (Cognitive Therapy) spread in the United States and then throughout the world. In France, it is commonly referred to as Mindfulness or “full awareness”.

Preventive effects superior to those of an antidepressant

With his team, Antoine Lutz, doctor in cognitive neuroscience, demonstrated a much greater effect on the regulation of inflammation induced by stress than an anti-stress program used in the United States, based on sport and music therapy. . And according to Harvard researchers, who compared neophytes to meditators practicing for an average of 9 years, meditation would go so far as to inhibit the expression of more than 2,000 stress-related genes (responsible for inflammation, cortisol production, etc.). But even in beginners, once trained, there is a decrease in the expression of these genes. A study conducted by Zindel Segal, a researcher and also a specialist in meditation, has shown that MBCT lowers, after eighteen months, the risk of depression relapse to 38% against 46%. The MBCT program closely resembles that of the MBSR. “The exercises are based on the body, thoughts or emotions,” explains Dr. Rosenfeld, psychiatrist at the Lyon-Lumière clinic (Meyzieu). You bring your consideration to the stressful event. You intentionally stay in the moment by accepting the situation without judging it, running away from it, or denying it,” he explains. “Participants are hospitalized at the clinic or come from outside. They are fine, but have experienced at least three depressive episodes in their life. The exercises are done in groups of three to fifteen, seated or lying down. »

With him, the patient must repeat the exercises every day until the next session. But the game is worth the effort: he has the keys to managing the problem or illness for which he consulted. And, above all, to know how to cope when a difficulty, stress, anxiety, pain, will come up again. Very quickly, he will no longer need to put meditation on his agenda. “It’s an art of living which consists in being present here and now, a turn of mind to acquire in the face of the vicissitudes of life, to insert into the most banal acts, such as cooking, being in a queue , read a story to your child, etc., unlike a drug to be taken for life. »

Stress and depression are not the only areas where meditation shows its benefits. According to a study of October 2010, it is a source of longevity: an enzyme, telomerase, increases its activity during the practice of meditation. However, this enzyme acts at the level of immune cells, promoting their longevity and slowing down cell aging. In 2003, Richard Davidson, of the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States, measured, with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the antibodies of two groups, including one of MBSR practitioners. Result: in the meditators, the level of antibodies had increased significantly more than in the other group. As early as 1990, Herbert Benson, an American cardiologist, studied Tibetan monks during meditation: their heart slows down, blood pressure drops, sweating decreases, salivation increases, digestion takes place. Another study by Jon Kabat-Zinn, in 1998, showed that it prevents postpartum depression, reduces the symptoms of heart, respiratory or autoimmune diseases such as psoriasis.

The connection between body and mind is stronger in meditators

How does meditation work? “By reducing the level of hormones and neuromediators, it allows a return to general calm”, analyzes France Haour, psychotherapist and Inserm research director. A study by researchers at the University of California shows that, faced with moving film scenes, the variations in the heart rate of meditators are intimately synchronized with the emotions felt. This is not the case for professional dancers or non-meditators. In other words, the link between body and mind is stronger among meditators. According to a Canadian study, when they are confronted with a source of painful heat applied to their leg, Zen meditators feel pain, but do not interpret it as such. In the long term, the brain learns to stop listening to pain information, even though it is still receiving it. In reality, meditation seems to develop the famous plasticity of the brain, capable of modifying its neuronal connections and thus promoting the regeneration of positive emotions. Good news: even short (5 to 15 minutes) regular meditation is effective…


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Meditation: why it works

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