From reducing stress and anxiety to developing strong coping mechanisms, there are many reasons to practice meditation.
“When you’re a kid, you lay in the grass and watch the clouds going over, and you literally don’t have a thought in your mind. It’s purely meditation, and we lose that.” —Dick Van Dyke
Meditation is a mind-body practice with a long history. Archaeologists found evidence of meditation in wall art in the Indus Valley dating to 5,000 to 3,500 BCE. Despite its longevity, the practice has surged in the popular consciousness in recent years; between 2012 and 2017, meditation rates tripled among U.S. adults. Behind all the hype and history, though, meditation has deep roots and a presence across the world for one simple reason: it works.
If you’re thinking of adding meditation to your intentional living tool kit, here are five essential benefits of meditation that you need to know.
1. Meditation Brings Stress Relief
The most common reason people turn to meditation is for stress management. The good news? It lives up to the hype.
According to one review of 47 trials with 3,515 participants, researchers concluded that mindfulness meditation programs moderately reduce multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress.
A separate eight-week study compared mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, which includes meditation, to an active control intervention. After the training, participants in both groups showed comparable rises in the hormone cortisol when exposed to stress. However, those who received MBSR training had a significantly smaller post-stress inflammatory response despite having the same level of cortisol. This suggests that interventions to reduce stress on the body and emotional reactivity—such as mindfulness meditation—may actually have a greater benefit.
“Meditation can help us embrace our worries, our fear, our anger; and that is very healing. We let our own natural capacity of healing do the work.” —Thich Nhat Hanh
2. Meditation Enhances Self-Awareness
All forms of meditation share one basic requirement: expanding your awareness. Essentially, meditation moves you from being a passenger to a pilot, putting you in the driver’s seat of your own mental experience. This is essentially what self-awareness is all about, and it’s a critical benefit of long-term meditation.
Scientists now know that improved self-awareness actually works on a neurological level.
A 2006 study used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology to assess the cortical thickness of 20 participants with extensive meditation experience. Those with meditation experience had thicker brain regions associated with attention, interoception, and sensory processing than the control group. The difference in the prefrontal cortex was especially pronounced in older patients, suggesting that meditation may maintain your brain’s capacity to focus, organize your thoughts, and be aware of what is happening on the inside, as well as on the outside, of your body as you age.
“Awakening self-compassion is often the greatest challenge people face on the spiritual path.” ―Tara Brach
When you can intentionally focus your self-awareness on what matters to you, such as noticing positive emotions and experiences, you can rewire your neural pathways. Thus, self-awareness involves processes that benefit how you deal with your emotions too.
How does this happen?
Mindfulness meditation, for example, involves an important emotion-regulation tool: nonjudgmental awareness, or observing your emotions without judgment. In scientific terms, mindfulness promotes a non-conceptual sensory pathway so that you can refocus attentional resources on a limbic pathway for present-moment awareness. In lay terms, mindfulness helps you train your brain to press pause and identify your emotions at the time you are experiencing them. Greater emotional awareness gives you the opportunity to choose your responses rather than act out impulsively.
3. Meditation Pushes Back Against Addictive Patterns
As you cultivate self-awareness, you’ll discover another benefit of meditation: strengthening your capacity to push back against addictive behavior patterns.
“Only this actual moment is life.” ―Thich Nhat Hanh
Addiction depends on automatic behavior patterns. These are the unhealthy coping mechanisms you may habitually fall back on without even making an explicit decision to do so. The process of recovery involves acknowledging uncomfortable situations, noticing overpowering thoughts, and then making a choice to take a healthier action. In doing so, you make room for your own voice—and replace addictive habits with behaviors in line with your values.
Remember, the key in mindfulness is slowing things down and paying attention to the present moment without judgment. You can learn to quiet stress and other forms of mental chatter without reaching for unhealthy coping strategies. Meditation strengthens your ability to direct your attention onto other positive sensory experiences instead.
4. Meditation Improves Focus
According to Harvard researchers, our brains are lost in thought 47 percent of the time. As it turns out, meditation can help you turn down the volume on all that mental noise.
A 2012 study using MRI to study brain patterns found that meditators have more stability in their ventral posteromedial cortex (vPMC). The vPMC is linked to spontaneous thoughts and mind-wandering. Essentially, it’s a default network that’s almost always operating in the background to process information.
While both meditators and non-meditators had some activity in their vPMC, researchers found that meditators had much steadier activity compared to the fluctuations seen in non-meditators. In fact, meditators outperformed non-meditators in tasks requiring intense focus. The conclusion? Meditation may give us a better ability to control snowballing thoughts.
5. Meditation Reduces Depression
For individuals struggling with depression, noticing and sitting with your thoughts might sound unpleasant, but research shows it can actually be a great help.
An eight-week course of MBSR in patients with past depression found that mindfulness meditation can decrease ruminative thinking, or negative-thought loops, that are a major contributor to depressive thought spirals.
“At the end of the day, I can end up just totally wacky, because I’ve made mountains out of molehills. With meditation, I can keep them as molehills.” —Ringo Starr
We know that depression has a demonstrable effect on your brain’s physical composition, particularly in two areas: the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) and the amygdala. Both the mPFC, which processes information about yourself, and the amygdala, which triggers the fight-or-flight response, become hyperactive in depressed patients. These are two areas that are associated with depression.
When you meditate, you switch off that vicious feedback cycle between fear and stress. With prolonged practice, you can change how your body and mind respond to aspects of life that bring about stress and anxiety. You may be able to meditate your way out of the spiraling negative thought loops that are linked to depression and into a greater awareness of life’s moments that bring joy.
Meditation and Intentional Living
Meditation is beneficial for all of us and for many reasons. Think of it as an essential part of your mental tool kit. It’s also a major component of therapy for intentional living, which can help you home in on what you care about, whether you’re trying to recover from an eating disorder, reduce chronic stress, or find more joy in life.
Choosing to grow and change can happen at any moment. If you’re ready to slow down, press pause, and be in the present moment, start by making an action-oriented plan to incorporate a daily mindfulness meditation practice into your routine.
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Reprinted with permission