The Science-Based Health Benefits of Meditation

As meditation has emerged into the modern zeitgeist and grown in popularity, more and more people are beginning to appreciate it not for the spiritual element but for the practical benefits it brings to their day-to-day life.

Now that meditation has taken root in the west, many therapists, neurologists, and other healthcare professionals have become more and more interested in the measurable health benefits that meditation can offer a person. 

If you’re getting into meditation, or you’ve been practicing it for a while, and you’re interested in learning more about its effects, here are seven science-based health benefits of meditation and a brief guide on how to meditate for the first time.

It Helps Reduce Anxiety

It’s common knowledge that meditation reduces stress levels, which translates to a reduction in anxiety.

One meta-analysis on studies covering a pool of over 1,000 adults showed a general reduction in anxiety among participants and that the positive effects were strongest in people who reported the highest levels of anxiety.

A separate study focusing on mindfulness meditation, one of the most popular forms of meditation today, showed that people who struggled with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and took part in group meditation significantly reduced the ACTH, a hormone related to stress.

Various other experiments and reports show that those who meditate to deal with anxiety are less likely to experience the manifest symptoms of anxiety, such as irrational phobias, panic attacks, and obsessive behaviors. 

It Reduces the Risk of Heart Disease

As an offshoot to reducing stress and anxiety, regular meditation has been shown to help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, which can contribute to coronary heart disease. 

One AHA study focusing on African-Americans suffering from heart disease showed that regular transcendental meditation almost halved the risk of cardiovascular problems like myocardial ischaemia and atherosclerosis, as well as medical emergencies like strokes and heart attacks.

A separate meta-analysis of 12 studies, also dealing with transcendental meditation, found that the practice helped reduce blood pressure, especially in older participants who reported higher blood pressure before taking part in their studies.

It Improves Cognitive Abilities

In the course of reducing stress and anxiety-related symptoms that can impair your ability to think clearly, meditation can also offer a range of benefits that actively improve your cognitive abilities.

For example, in one study published by the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience, it was found that people who listened to meditation tapes exhibited better attention while completing a predetermined task when compared to a control group.

Another review of multiple studies that dealt with different meditation techniques practiced by elderly participants also showed that practicing meditation can improve attention span, mental quickness, and memory, showing promising potential to offset the symptoms of age-related memory loss and general cognitive difficulties.

It Can Mitigate Pain

As physical pain happens entirely within the brain in response to external stimuli, it follows that the mental health benefits of meditation can help mitigate our experience with pain. 

Though this may be hard to believe for people who are new to meditating, several studies have shown that regular meditation practitioners are better at coping with physical pain.

This meta-analysis, for example, which covered 38 studies of people experiencing chronic pain conditions, showed that mindfulness meditation can decrease pain and symptoms of anxiety, improving chronic pain sufferers’ overall quality of life.

Another large-scale meta analysis, covering studies with a total of 3,500 participants, also showed that practicing regular meditation could mitigate the effects of both chronic and intermittent pain.

It Can Improve the Quality of your Sleep

Between 33% and 50% of American adults experience symptoms of insomnia at some point in their lives. Though these symptoms usually pass naturally, there’s still a universal demand for healthy, natural ways to get a better quality of sleep.

One study published by Oxford Academic, a journal aggregator for Oxford University Press, found that people who meditated regularly were able to stay asleep longer and reported less severe symptoms of insomnia, and a separate academic review showed that people who meditate regularly are able to fall asleep faster than members of a control group.

Because meditating teaches you to reign in and redirect racing, overactive thoughts, it would make sense that those who are practiced in meditation have an easier time relaxing their mind and avoiding the kind of restless thought patterns that can keep anyone up at night.

It Improves Self-Awareness

Certain forms of meditation are geared towards helping the practitioner gain a better understanding of who they are, their thoughts, and actions, helping to dampen common sources of cognitive dissonance and strengthen conscious self-improvement.

For example, self-inquiry meditation, a relatively young form of meditation that was first codified in the 20th century, is used to gain a better understanding of yourself, your thoughts and actions.

One study review focussed on the mental health of tai chi practitioners showed that the meditative aspect of tai chi could cause an improvement in self-efficacy, a term that refers to a person’s belief in their own abilities.

It Dampens Mental Sources of Unhappiness

One of the most interesting health benefits of meditation is that it can reduce the mind’s tendency towards directionless and impulsive thoughts that can cause unhappiness, thereby improving a person’s overall mood.

A study by Yale University showed that regular mindfulness meditation effectively reduced activity in the default mode network, or DMN, of the brain. This circuitry of the brain is responsible for wandering, self-referential thoughts that characterize those moments when you feel like you’re not thinking about anything particular.

Separate studies have shown that these kinds of wandering thoughts are associated with worrying about the future and ruminating about the past or feeling troubled due to more abstract, existential issues. In meditation, a practitioner is consciously trying to quieten these kinds of thoughts, and with enough experience, they’re able to snap back to the present moment more easily than non-practitioners.

How to Meditate

Now that we’ve looked at some of the great health benefits that meditation can offer you, here’s a quick step-by-step guide to how you can get started with mindfulness meditation. There are many different forms of meditation, but mindfulness is generally regarded to be the easiest and most accessible for people of all backgrounds.

Step 1: Find a Place to Meditate

Though experienced practitioners can meditate anywhere at any time, when you’re first starting out, it’s a good idea to find a peaceful environment free of as many distractions as possible, such as a quiet bedroom, living room, or yard. 

Some people like going to a beautiful nearby location to meditate too, and studies have shown spending time out in nature can have an array of mental health benefits.

Step 2: Find a Comfortable Position

Though most people sit cross-legged to meditate, it can be done in almost any position that’s comfortable to you, such as sitting straight in a chair or kneeling. As long as it’s a position you feel you can stay in comfortably for however long you’re planning to meditate, then you can take it as a good meditation pose.

The only position we’d advise against is lying down. Meditation is a very relaxing experience, though you need to remain conscious to do it effectively, so don’t risk falling asleep!

Step 3: Find Something to Focus On

Meditation involves focusing the front of your mind on a single stimulus so the rest of the mind can relax and heal. When most people begin meditation, they’ll focus on their breath, but if this doesn’t work for you, there are plenty of other options. 

White noise, the sound of birds singing, waves breaking on the shore, and similar calming sounds are all popular stimuli that you may want to use for meditation. For some practitioners, it’s easier not to focus on any one stimulus in particular, and instead listen to the general sounds around them in the same way they’d listen to music.

If you want to lean more into the spiritual side of meditation, then Better Me has a great list of simple mantras rooted in Buddhism, Hinduism, and other eastern religions.

Step 4: Notice When your Mind is Wandering, and Bring it Gently Back to your stimulus

Unless you’ve spent your life in a Tibetan monastery, it’s inevitable that your mind will wander away from your stimulus and break your meditation. This happens to everyone, and it’s nothing to fret about. The important thing is realizing when your mind has wandered and bringing it back to the stimulus you’re focusing on.

However often your mind wanders, and whatever the content of your thoughts are, make sure you’re re-focusing gently and not judging yourself or obsessing over the way your mind wanders. Directing kindness and goodwill to all things, including yourself, is a core principle of the religions that meditation originates from. Remember to practice this “maitrī” for a more effective and enjoyable meditation session!

Final Thoughts

We hope you’ve found our round-up of these science-based health benefits of meditation helpful as you work to improve your physical and mental health. 

For more information on meditation, yoga, and general wellness, be sure to check out our other articles and tutorials here!

By Sophie Bishop

Sophie Bishop is a medical journalist. Sophie aims to spread awareness through her writing around issues to do with healthcare, wellbeing and sustainability and is looking to connect with an engaged audience.

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Twitter: @SophBishJourno
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Photo by Sage Friedman on Unsplash