Many are now turning to popular diets or workouts – the benefits of which are often questionable – to start the new year healthier. But studies have demonstrated the ability to improve mood and health of an already ancient practice: meditation.
At the end of 2022, a highly publicized study caused a stir by claiming that meditation could be as effective as a common treatment (Escitalopram) used for anxiety or depression. Over the past two decades, similar work has been published on the health benefits of mindfulness and meditation: against stress, depression or to help reduce pain and manage inflammations and a long Covidas boost brain health.
Despite the growing body of evidence showing the health benefits of meditation, it can be difficult to assess the science and know if it’s sound.
I am a neuroscientist and I study effects of stress and trauma at the children and teenagers. I also study how mindfulness, meditation and physical exercise can have a positive effect on brain development and mental health in young people.
It appears today that meditation can be used to better understand brain function. As a mental health researcher, I now see meditation as an accessible, evidence-based tool that can improve health and can be integrated relatively easily into everyday life.
While accessible, meditation does require some training, discipline, and practice — which aren’t always easy to come by. But a little help and the implementation of specific strategies are usually enough.
What are mindfulness and meditation?
There are many types of meditation, and mindfulness is one of the most common. If we seek to define it, mindfulness is a mental state which, according to Jon Kabat Zinna doctor and specialist in the field, involves “the awareness that arises from paying attention to a specific moment, in the present moment, without judgment”.
This means not brooding over something that happened in the past or worrying about a to-do list. Focusing on the present, or living in the moment, has been shown to provide many benefits, including improving mood, reducing anxietythe decrease in pain and the potential improvement of cognitive performance.
Mindfulness is a skill that can be practiced and worked on. The goal is that with repetition, its benefits extend to daily life even if you are not actively meditating. For example, if you integrate that you are not defined by a transient emotion, such as anger, it will be more difficult for you to stay angry for long.
The health benefits of meditation, and other strategies to reduce stress, are thought to come from increased levels of global mindfulness by practice. Elements of mindfulness are also present in practices such as yoga, martial arts and dance, which require sustained attention and discipline.
The diversity of arguments supporting the health benefits of meditation is too vast to be dealt with exhaustively. But the studies I refer to below go over the most important scientific data and more rigorous currently available. Many include systematic reviews and meta-analyses, which synthesize many studies on a given topic.
Benefits against stress and mental health
Meta-analyses published during the pandemic indeed show that mindfulness programs are effective in reducing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorderthe Obsessive Compulsive Disorderthe attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder and the depression – including during the period of particular vulnerabilities what constitute the pregnancy and the postnatal period.
These programs also show promise in anxiety disorders, which are the most common mental disorders, affecting approximately 301 million people worldwide. Although there are effective treatments for anxiety, many patients don’t have access to them because they don’t have insurance coverage or transportation to get to providers, for example, or because they feel only limited relief.
However, it is important to note that for people with mental disorders or addictions, mindfulness-based approaches should not replace first-line treatments such as medication and psychotherapy such as cognitive behavioral therapy. These strategies should be seen as a complement to these evidence-based treatments and interventions to promote a healthy lifestyle, such as physical activity and healthy eating.
How does meditation work?
Studies show that people who meditate regularly are able to better control their attention, their heart rate, their breathing and to act on their autonomic nervous system, which regulates involuntary reactions of the body (blood pressure, etc.). They also present lower cortisol levels – a hormone involved in the stress response – than non-meditators.
A recent review of neuroimaging studies showed that focused attention meditation is associated with functional changes in several regions of the brain involved in cognitive control and emotional processing. Moreover, in experienced meditators, theactivation of these brain areas were stronger: suggesting that these benefits improve with practice.
Regular meditation could also limit the thinning of the cerebral cortex associated with agewhich may help protect against the resulting cognitive impairment.
What are the limits for this type of study?
However, we cannot not say everything from this type of work. Often the programs used are insufficiently defined and the studies insufficiently controlled. In the high quality randomized controlled trials involving drugs, participants do not know whether they are receiving the active drug or a placebo.
In contrast, in mindfulness research, participants know they are going to be training – so they can expect health benefits. This creates a feeling of expectation, which can skew some results. Many meditation studies also often do not include a control group, which is necessary to assess comparison with other treatments.
Compared to drug treatments, mindfulness-based programs may be more easily accessible and have fewer negative side effects. However, medication and psychotherapy – especially cognitive behavioral therapy – work well for many. Rather than replacing, a combined approach may be worth considering. Mindfulness Works for Some high-risk patients (sclerosis, cancers, etc.).
Means are currently being developed (applications for computers or smartphones, virtual reality, etc.) to allow a wider audience to practice. Tools that could sometimes prove more efficient than classical training.
It is important to note that mindfulness is not just for people with physical or mental disorders. Anyone can use these strategies to reduce some risk of disease or improve mood, sleep quality or cognitive performance such as reducing stress and anxiety.
Where to start seriously?
For those looking to find out if meditation can help in the treatment of a physical or mental ailment, there are over 600 clinical trials (against pain, cancer, depression, etc.) who are recruiting participants.
If you want to try meditation from the comfort of your own home, free online videos describe how to practice — for sleep, stress reduction, and more. But check who puts them online (universities offer them). Several applications look promising, randomized controlled trials showing the benefits for users.
The hardest part is, of course, getting started. However, if you make it a point to exercise every day, it will become a habit and may even translate into your daily life – which is the ultimate goal. For some it may take time and practice, and for others it may start happening quite quickly. Even a five minute session per day can have positive effects.
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Mindfulness meditation: various health benefits
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