Over the past 70 years in the United States, there has been a drastic perceptual shift as to how individuals think about the practice of meditation. What was once thought of as a quasi psychedelic practice used by hippies to alter states of consciousness, is now recognized as a scientifically-backed tool prescribed by doctors to improve their patients’ levels of subjective well-being. While opinion-shifting occurrences have taken place in each decade since the practice made its way to America, the 1960s was undeniably a time of pivotal importance. Not only was it during this decade when Maharishi Mahesh Yogi helped popularize Transcendental Meditation (TM), but it was also when Harvard University cardiologist and researcher Herbert Benson began scientifically studying the benefits of the practice. Although Benson’s lesser known story doesn’t garner attention like those of famous Hindu sages and Buddhist monks making their way to America, it is perhaps the single event that most shifted the western perception of meditation.
After being approached by a group of TM meditators wanting to scientifically prove the health benefits of meditation, Benson would soon embark on a lifelong journey filled with a number of important medical discoveries. Even though he was almost fired for studying what was considered a bohemian practice, Benson became one of the first medical professionals to verify the benefits of meditation. Specifically, by determining that mediation induces a calming physical and mental reaction in practitioners, which he coined the relaxation response, Benson was able to put the scientific study of meditation on the map. Since Benson’s early work, a number of other pioneering figures such as Jon Kabat-Zinn and Richard Davidson have helped further our scientific understanding of the health benefits of meditation. Assuredly, it is only because of these men’s work, and the vitally important efforts of countless others, that we now have a substantial amount of evidence-based research pointing to the positive physical, psychological and cognitive benefits that come from meditation.
The Evidence-Based Benefits of Meditation:
Before we begin looking at the specific evidence-based health benefits of meditative practices, it’ll be important to mention a number of overarching truths that are relevant to the practice of meditation. First, because heightened levels of stress can lead to a wide variety of physical, psychological and cognitive health issues, the ability to lower stress levels with meditation practice will be a reoccurring theme that is seen throughout the remaining sections of the article. Second, because the concepts of the mind-body connection and CBT Triangle are considered to be medical facts, it’ll become apparent to see how calming the mind provides benefits in a number of different ways. Lastly, while we have divided the 30 evidence-based health benefits of meditation equally into the three sections of physical (biological), psychological (social & emotional), and cognitive (neurological), the vast majority of benefits positively affect individuals in a variety of ways.
Psychical Benefits of Meditation:
The practice of meditation has been shown to have a massive impact on a variety of psychical health issues. More specifically, researchers have discovered that meditative practices reduce symptoms of physical pain, slow the production of stress hormones, and helps with the management of a variety of diseases. While it may be easy to assume the the practice can magically halt feelings of bodily pain, the truth is that its healing properties come in the form of relieving mental afflictions related to psychical discomfort. To help exemplify this truth, the Buddha himself used an analogy of being hit with two darts almost simultaneously. He told us that while the first dart represents real psychical pain, most individuals unknowingly amplify their suffering by allowing a second dart of mental distress to penetrate them.
1.) Boosts the Immune System:
Biologically speaking, each of us relies on our immune system to detect and fight disease causing pathogens such as viruses, bacterium and funguses. When the network of cells, tissues, organs and proteins that make up the immune system isn’t functioning effectively, we become susceptible to illnesses, infections and diseases. In addition to more serious autoimmune diseases, cancer, and inflammatory diseases, other common health issues such as the common cold, flu, allergies, eczema and asthma are associated with immune system deficiencies. Due to the consistent threat of pathogens affecting our physical well-being, it is important for each of us to take steps to keep the immune system operating at full efficiency.
While getting an adequate amount of sleep and sticking to a nutritious diet have long been considered as scientifically backed recommendations for boosting the immune system, more recent research has pointed to meditation for enhancing immune system functions. In one 2016 study, for example, Drs. David Black and George Slavich, of the University of Southern California (USC) and the University of California Los Angles (UCLA) respectively, set out to determine the affects Mindfulness Meditation has on the immune system by conducting a meta-analysis of all existing studies on the topic. In total, the duo examined findings from 20 randomized control studies which had a combined total of 1,602 participants. Based upon their research, the doctors were able to verifiably report that Mindfulness Meditation naturally boosted the immune systems of practitioners. Specifically, the meta-analysis tells us that the practice of meditation reduced markers of inflammation associated with decreased immune functioning, increased immune system booster cells known as CD4 cells, and increased the activity of a chromosome known as telomerase which promotes immune system stability.
2.) Improves Sleep Quality & Helps Treat Insomnia:
Due to the fast-paced cultural environments of the western world, which come with a seemingly endless amount of enticing external stimuli to grab our attention, large percentages of the population in countries such as the United States don’t get enough sleep or suffer from sleep disorders. According to the Center for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), over 85 million Americans have trouble sleeping because they are either focusing their attention on various things or replaying memories in their heads. When individuals don’t get enough sleep, typically because of an overactive mind, their abilities to operate effectively at work and home become compromised by lethargic feelings of sleepiness. Fortunately, one of the easiest ways for individuals to calm their minds and get a good night sleep is by undertaking a regular meditation practice.
Today, there is a sustainable amount of scientific research that shows how meditation improves sleep quality and helps treats sleep disorders such as insomnia. In fact, studies have shown that by meditating for as little as ten minutes each day before and after work, individuals experience improvements in sleep quality, sleep duration, and are more able to mindfully detach themselves from racing thoughts in their heads. According to Dr. Michael J. Breus, a clinical psychologist who’s garners the nickname of The Sleep Doctor, Mindfulness Meditation can vastly improve sleep. He tells us:
Mindfulness has also been shown effective in helping to improve sleep, including reducing symptoms of insomnia and other sleep disturbances, as well as reducing daytime tiredness and fatigue. Mindfulness, according to research, also can help alleviate one of the prime obstacles to sleep: worry.”
3.) Lowers Blood Pressure Levels:
One of the most commonly acknowledged biological benefits of meditation is that it naturally lowers practitioners’ blood pressure levels. Due to this natural benefit of meditation, and because it is estimated that around 75 million adults in the United States suffer from hypertension, the relationships between meditative practices and blood pressure has garnered much attention from world class researchers. Additionally, because consistently high blood pressure levels can lead to a number of devastating and deadly health outcomes, such as vision loss, kidney disease, heart attacks and strokes, cardiologists are beginning to understand what a important medical tool the practice of meditation can be.
While additional studies need to be conducted to fully verify a number of the suspected health benefits of meditation, there is already a substantial amount of evidence-based research pointing to the practice’s ability to lower blood pressure levels. In 2017, for example, a team of researchers at Clemson University, led by Lu Shi and Liwei Chen, conducted a meta-analysis of all literature published over a 35 year period that examined the relationship between meditation and blood pressure. While the team determined that only 19 studies out of the hundreds conducted during the timespan met their eligibility criteria, they were able to report that meditation lowers both systolic blood pressure (SBP) and diastolic blood pressure (DBP) levels.
4.) Helps Treat Chronic Pain:
Another one of the most well documented physical benefits of meditation is that the practice helps with the management and treatment of chronic pain. Due to the facts that an estimated 100 million Americans suffer from some sort of lingering pain and that highly addictive opiates are often used to relieve persistent physical discomfort, the link between meditation and pain reduction is an extremely important one. While meditative practices alone can’t completely eliminate chronic pain, they can reduce the severity of symptoms that become magnified by individuals’ mental afflictions. The previously mentioned dart analogy taught by the Buddha exemplifies how individuals are able to learn to live with reduced physical discomfort.
Since Jon Kabat-Zinn began researching the pain reducing affects of meditation in his now highly celebrated Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program in the late 1970s and early 80s, numerous scientific researchers have continued to provide additional evidence that backs up this physical benefit of meditation. In one noteworthy 2011 experiment, a team of researchers at Wake Forest University induced physical pain to a group of willing participants before and after teaching them Mindfulness Meditation over a four day period. By developing the study with the understanding that mental processes can alter sensory phenomena such as pain, and measuring pain intensity with MRI brain scans and participant questionnaires, the research team lead by Fadel Zeidan was able to report that participants experienced a nearly 40% reduction in pain intensity after learning meditation.
5.) Increases Energy Levels:
In the success driven cultures of the western world, physical exhaustion and burnout are detrimental states of being shared by large percentages of the working population. For the 64% of American citizens who report high levels of work-related stress, feelings of low energy and extreme fatigue limit their levels of subjective well-being and make them susceptible to a wide variety of health issues. Fortunately, for the individuals who want to increase their levels of vitality, evidence-based research has shown how meditation helps increase energy levels and decreases feelings of tiredness and burnout.
A number of important scientific studies have shown how slowing down in meditation, and evoking the relaxation response, helps to diminish fatigue caused by the stresses of work. In one such 2013 study, a team of researchers at Kaiser Permanente Medical Groups led by Dr. Charles Elder conducting a study at an in-residence school for students with behavioral problems. A total of 40 secondary school-teachers and support staff members at the Bennington School in Vermont were randomly assigned to either a group taught Transcendental Meditation (TM) or a control group that was put on a waiting list for the same program. Researchers discovered that over the course of the four month intervention, those who were taught TM saw drastic decreases to their levels of perceived stress and burnout, in comparison to the waiting list control group, which helps to illuminate the energy increasing affects of meditation.
6.) Helps Alleviate Symptoms of Premenstrual Syndrome (PMS):
For all too many women, a monthly battle to relieve premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms, a week or two before their periods begin, is a draining process that limits their levels of subjective well-being. In the United States, it is estimated that around 85% of women between the ages of 20 and 40 years old experience bothersome mental, emotional and physical PMS symptoms during the luteal phase of the menstrual cycle. While many women struggle to find relief from physical PMS symptoms, such as fatigue, bloating and cramping, without taking medicine, science has shown how the practice of meditation can help alleviate their distress.
Based upon evidence-based research, it is believed that meditation can help relieve PMS symptoms in a number of ways. When an individual suppresses the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system during meditative practices, their body naturally stops producing stress-related hormones and instead releases mood-enhancing ones. The low levels of melatonin that are directly related to PMS symptoms, for example, are boosted during meditation practice. In addition to these positive biological changes, a variety of studies have shown how meditation helps women more adequately deal with the physical symptoms that do arise. In one such study published in 2011, a team of researchers at Seattle Pacific University examined the relationship between severity of premenstrual symptoms, menstrual attitudes, and levels of mindfulness in a sample of 127 women by using self-assessment tests. Through their research and statistical analysis, the team was able to determine a direct correlation between heightened levels of mindfulness and less severe PMS symptoms.
7.) Slows the Body’s Aging Process:
It was in 2009 when an Australian-American biologist by the name of Elizabeth Blackburn was awarded the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine for both discovering the previously mentioned telomerase enzyme and determining that individuals with higher levels of it their bodies have stronger telomeres at the end of their DNA strands. These protective telomere caps, which can be compared to the plastic covers found at the end of shoelaces, help to protect our chromosomes but naturally wear down as the process of cell division occurs with age. While it is may be easy to assume that there is nothing we can do to slow down the natural processes of cell division and aging, scientific research has proven otherwise.
After winning the distinguished award in 2009, Blackburn herself has been able to scientifically show how meditative practices raise telomerase levels in a way that slows the aging process. In one such 2011 study, for example, Blackburn and a team of researchers sent willing participants to a three-month meditation retreat at the Shambhala Mountain Center in Colorado. After individuals completed the retreat, their telomerase levels were compared to those of a control group of individuals, matched by age, sex, body mass index, and prior meditation experience, who were on a waiting list for the same retreat. The results indicated that the levels of telomerase in retreat participants measured 30% higher than individuals who were on the waiting list.
8.) Helps Treat Migraine Headaches:
The immortalized meditation teacher S.N. Goenka gained the reputation for being ‘the man who taught the world to meditate’ after spearheading a global effort to spread the Vipassana Meditation instructions that were believed to be taught by the Buddha himself. Yet, it was only because of persisting migraine headaches that Goenka, who was unable to gain relief through traditional medical approaches, sought out the practice of meditation. After becoming immersed in meditative practices, Goenka quickly discovered the healing power of meditation as his headaches diminished in seemingly miraculous fashion.
While Goenka’s story illuminates only one account of the migraine reducing potential of meditation, scientific research has more recently given us verifiable evidence that backs up the claim. In one important 2014 study, researchers at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center led by Dr. Rebecca Wells studied meditation’s affects on a group individuals suffering from chronic migraine headaches. In total, 19 individuals were splint into two groups: one group that underwent eight-weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction training and a control group that received standard medical care. What the researchers discovered was that not only did those who practiced meditation have around 1.4 fewer migraines per month, but they also had migraines that lasted on average 3 hours shorter in duration.
9.) Improves Overall Heart Health:
Earlier in this section of the article we examined a meta-analysis that showed how meditation naturally lowers the blood pressure levels of practitioners and discussed how living with hypertension over an extended period of time can lead to potentially deadly consequences. While the correlational link between meditation and lower blood pressure levels is alone enough for cardiologists to recommend meditation to at-risk patients, there are additionally a wide variety of other heart health benefits that come from the meditative practices.
As the scientific study of meditation has expanded in nature, verifiable research has shown how meditation lowers heart rate, removes toxic hormones from circulatory systems, and decreases risks levels of the full spectrum of cardiovascular related diseases. It is due to the overwhelming amount of evidence showing the heart health benefits provided by meditation that organizations such as the American Heart Association (AHA) have recommended the practice as a natural way to maintain heart health. Additionally, this sentiment has been echoed by numerous world class doctors. Harvard University cardiologist Deepak L. Bhatt, for example, tells us meditative practice can be a useful part of cardiovascular risk reduction and that:
It [meditation] appears to produce changes in brain activity. It also can lower your heart rate, blood pressure, breathing rate, oxygen consumption, adrenaline levels, and levels of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress.”
10.) Improves Management of Diabetes:
Medically speaking, the term diabetes describes a disease in which the body’s pancreas is unable to produce, or appropriately use, the blood-sugar regulatory hormone of insulin. In the United States, it is estimated that over 29 million individuals, or 9.3% of the population, live with the debilitating condition that requires continuous monitoring and management. Because the process of diabetes management is tedious in nature, however, individuals who are affected by the disease often subject themselves to both serious short and long-term medical consequences. Fortunately, for those looking to improve their abilities to regulate their blood-glucose levels, we now know that the practice of meditation can help with diabetes management.
While the biological issues for type 1 diabetics, who are unable to produce insulin, differ from type 2 diabetics, who don’t process insulin effectively, scientific research has shown how both types of diabetics can benefit from meditative practices in a number of ways. First, because meditation is widely known to increase levels of self-awareness, both type 1 and type 2 diabetics can improve their abilities to monitor and mange their blood sugar levels. Similarity, by evoking the relaxation response in meditation, both types of diabetics can reduce the body’s levels of stress-hormones, such as cortisol, that are known to wreck havoc blood glucose levels. Additionally, a substantial amount of research has shown how meditation can help prevent type 2 diabetes by increasing the secretion of insulin.
Psychological Benefits of Meditation:
Perhaps there is no single individual who understands the immense psychological benefits that come from meditation practice than His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. By training his whole life in Buddhist meditative practices, the Dalai Lama has enjoyed the social and emotional benefits that one attains by committing themselves to regular meditation practice. It is because of his first-hand experiences that he now works alongside numerous psychologists and scientists aiming to verify the psychological benefits of meditation and also the reason that he regularly teaches about the importance of emotional hygiene. As you will soon discover, scientific researchers around the globe have shown, with verifiable evidence, exactly how individuals benefit socially and emotionally from meditation.
1.) Decreases Levels of Stress:
Jon Kabat-Zinn forever changed the perception of meditation in the western world after he founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. It is from here where Kabat-Zinn, who is a celebrated figure in meditation communities and a decorated molecular biologist, began studying the affects meditation and mindfulness have on individuals’ levels of stress. As we previously pointed out, many of the physical, psychological and cognitive ailments examined throughout the article have roots that trace back to problematic stress levels, and it is for this reason that the evidence-based research showing how meditation and mindfulness reduces stress levels is so important.
Thanks to the work of Kabat-Zinn and others, the correlational link between meditation and lower levels of stress is now backed up by a plethora of evidence-based research. In one such study published in 2014, a team of researchers at John Hopkins University led by Dr. Madhav Goyal conducted a meta-analysis of 47 clinical trials with a total of 3,515 participants to determine if meditation programs improved stress levels and a wide variety of stress-related health issues such as anxiety, depression, mood, pain, substance abuse and weight-loss. Based upon their research, the team was able to determine a clear link between meditation practice and lower levels of stress.
2.) Improves Emotional Intelligence (EI) Skills:
The term Emotional Intelligence (EI) is used to describe a set of five distinctive constructs related to an individual’s ability to recognize, manage and use social and emotional information as a guide for thinking and behavioral decision-making. Although the term was first used in the 1960s, it only became prevalent in 1995 after celebrated psychologist Daniel Goleman published his best selling book Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ. According to Goleman, who is a major proponent of mindfulness and meditation, the five constructs of self-awareness, self-regulation, social skills, empathy, and motivation are crucial skills that largely determine an individual’s potential for life success.
Thanks to a wide variety of evidence-based research, we now understand how meditation generally improves these’ social and emotional emotional skills. While the most obvious EI-related benefit to come from meditation is an increase in self-awareness, research has more recently shown how the full spectrum of EI skills improves with practice. In an interview with Jason Marsh at the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California-Berkeley, Goleman first tells us how mindfulness improves individuals’ meta-awareness, which is vital skill for emotional regulation, before adding:
In Emotional Intelligence I looked at distressing emotions, which are generated by the brain’s amygdala and emotional threat. In order to manage the amygdala hijack, you have to be aware that it’s happening. Meta-awareness becomes the fulcrum from which you can handle emotions, handle your inner world, handle the thoughts which generate upsetting emotions or which help you, in a positive way, manage them for the better.”
3.) Helps Combat Anxiety:
Anxiety is one of the most common mental health disorders in the United States and it is estimated that as much as 30% of the American population suffer from some sort of anxiety disorder. In the eyes of world renowned doctors, the fear and nervousness that is commonly associated with anxiety is caused by an overreactive response to the stressors of life. While feeling stressed when faced with difficult situations or circumstances is a normal biological response, the nagging and prolonged feelings of anxiety are not. A plethora of scientific research has shown how meditation combats anxiety by helping individuals separate themselves from fearful thoughts and feelings. Instead of being swept away by their anxiety, individuals are able to live more fully in the present moment.
Earlier this year, in 2017, a team of researchers at Georgetown University led by Dr. Elizabeth Hoge released their findings from an eight-week study in which the affects of mindfulness were measured in participants with generalized anxiety disorders. In total, 89 patients were separated into two groups, one taking a mindfulness-based stress reduction course and a control group taking a stress management education course, and had their blood tested for an anxiety-related stress hormone called ACTH. Based upon the research, the team discovered that the meditation group not only experienced greater reductions in ACHT levels but also significantly lower levels of anxiety.
4.) Helps Treat Depression:
As scientifically verified evidence has continued to back up the benefits of meditation, new and emerging third-wave therapies for mental illness, such as Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), have become popular in psychiatric circles around the globe. Undeniably, one of the mental health disorders most profoundly affected by the transformative benefits of meditation is depression, and because statistics show how prevalent depression is, this correlational relationship can’t be understated. The World Health Organization (WHO), for example, estimates that over 300 million people around the globe suffer from depression, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America estimated that the lifetime risk for a major depressive episode is around 17%.
Because medications for depression can be costly, and because meditation has been shown to treat depression just as effectively, mindfulness-based interventions are quickly becoming more popular for treating the gloomy mental health disorder. Recent research has shown how meditative practices can not only treat depression by increasing the DOSE chemicals (Dopamine, Oxytocin, Serotonin, and Endorphins) associated with happiness, but also prevent depressive relapse which traditionally affects up to 80% of individuals. One meta-analysis published by the University of Oxford in 2016 looked at nine randomized trial studies where some depressive patients were taught MBCT and other received standard forms of treatment. The results of the meta-analysis indicated that those taught MBCT were 31% less likely to relapse during the 60-week follow up timeframe.
5.) Relieves Symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD):
The debilitating condition of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is characterized by persistent mental and emotional stress that occurs as the result of a traumatic life experience or a severely distressing set of events. While PTSD is most commonly associated with military personnel serving in combat, the disorder can similarly occur when individuals are subjected to shocking occurrences in their everyday lives. It is is estimated that at any given time around 8% of the United States population suffers with the PTSD related symptoms of flashbacks, frightening cognitions, and bad dreams that cause them to live on edge and avoid situations, people and things.
Fortunately, researchers have begun showing how the practices of meditation and mindfulness can help individuals reduces the symptoms associated with PTSD. In one 2016 experiment conducted by Dr. Anthony King and other faculty members at the University of Michigan, military veterans diagnosed with PTSD were recruited to participate in a study that measured the effectiveness of mindfulness-based exposure therapy versus therapeutic strategies typically used in PTSD treatment. While both those who were taught mindfulness and the comparison control group saw decreases in PTSD symptoms, only the group that was taught mindfulness experienced changes at the level of the brain. Based upon data collected thought neurological MRI scans, researchers concluded that those who were taught mindfulness saw an increased ability to shift their focus away from cognitive PTSD episodes.
6.) Helps Treat Addiction & Reduces Relapse Rates:
Another vastly important benefit that stems from meditation is that it help individuals overcome addiction and reduces the likelihood of relapse. Seeing that standard therapeutic strategies have had little impact on lowering substance abuse rates within the past decade, and the evidence-based research pointing to mindfulness’ effectiveness of decreasing substance dependence, the use of meditation in combination with other therapeutic strategies will most likely become the gold standard for addiction treatment. By developing mindfulness, individuals suffering with addiction are able to separate themselves from addictive thoughts and emotional attachments to particular substances in a way that allows them to ride out cravings from a place of non-judgmental awareness.
In one highly acclaimed 2013 study, a team of psychologists at Pacific University led by Dr. Sarah Bowen examined the effectiveness of mindfulness-based relapse prevention in comparison to traditional preventative strategies. To conduct their research, a total of 286 individuals who completed an initial treatment for substance abuse were randomly assigned to one of three educational support groups (Mindfulness-Based Prevention [MBRP], Mindfulness-Based Intervention and Cognitive Behavioral Relapse Prevention [RP], or a Traditional 12-Step Program and Psycho-Eduction [TAU]) for eight weeks of training and then monitored throughout the following year. The findings showed that individuals who were given one of the two mindfulness based relapse treatments, MBRP or RP, had significantly lower rates of relapse.
7.) Improves Relationships:
A great amount of attention has recently been shown to the fact that the technologically advanced societies we live in today are decreasing intimacy in meaningful relationships. While individuals are becoming masters of communicating through digital means like email and text message, quality relationships built on face-to-face communication are becoming ever more rare. While meditation alone can’t reverse isolated communication trends, it can help improve relationships in a variety of ways. In addition to lower stress and increasing levels of subjective well-being, which undeniably helps relationships, research has shown how meditation makes us more present when communicating others, more aware of others’ feelings, and more able to empathetically understand the viewpoints of others. It is certain that by up taking a meditation practice, our relationships at home, work and in our communities will become vastly improved.
One scientifically-based example that shows how meditation can improve relationships comes in the form of a 2014 study conducted at Virginia Tech University. In the study, which was led by Dr. Eric McCollum, researchers explored the effects Mindfulness Meditation had on Marriage and Family Therapy students’ abilities to interact with their patients. By examining journals supplied by 13 students, the researchers were able to determine that Mindfulness Meditation helped the future therapists stay in the present-moment during therapy sessions and increased their feelings of compassion and acceptance.
8.) Decreases Emotional Reactivity & Increases Resiliency:
Another benefit of meditation that is beginning to be backed up by evidence-based scientific research is that the practice naturally reduces emotional reactivity expressed in the form of irritability and anger. Like many of the statistics we have examined in this section of the article, anger statistics in the United States paint a grim picture of society’s collective well-being as a whole. In 2015, a study conducted by researchers at the Universities of Harvard, Columbia, and Duke determined that roughly 22 million Americans, or 8.9% of the population, not only have impulsive anger issues but also have access to guns. While occurrences of irritability and frustration are common to us all, statistics such as these show why decreasing emotional reactivity and anger is one of the most important benefits of meditation.
One relevant 2016 study that aimed to explore the relationship between Mindfulness Meditation and decreases in emotional reactivity examined individuals working in what is considered one of the world’s most stressful and anger-inducing job: Law Enforcement. To conduct the research, a team of researchers from Pacific University, led by Aaron L. Bergman, enrolled 47 police officers from around the Pacific Northwest in a eight-week Mindfulness-Based Resilience Training program. By measuring officers’ levels of stress and anger, the team of researchers discovered significant reductions in anger and stress across the course of the program. Additionally, researchers found that officers felt a sense of liberation from negative thought patterns and enjoyed greater psychological resilience.
9.) Improves Self-Esteem & Subjective Well-Being:
By exploring the numerous psychological benefits provided by meditation, a clear correlation emerges between the practice and increasing levels of subjective well-being. Since many of the most prevalent mental health disorders in the western world are caused by over-identifiying with thoughts, emotions and behaviors, meditation naturally promotes psychological health because it allows individuals to separate themselves from their overtly associative nature.
By learning how to non-judgmentally let go of the critical voice inside their heads, meditators are able to improve their self-esteem. When individuals further their practice and begin offering loving-kindness to themselves, their feelings of self-worth and levels of subjective well-being continue to rise. For these reasons, the all important correlational link between meditation, self-esteem and subjective well-being becomes quite clear to see. Rick Hanson, a celebrated psychologist and author of a number of highly acclaimed meditation books including Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom, tells us of the link between meditation and enhanced well-being:
With practice, you’ll learn to light up the neural circuits of positive states even when you’re rattled or upset, like reaching through clutter to get the tool you need.”
10.) Decreases Binge Eating & Emotional Eating:
Diet and weight loss statistics in the United States illuminate a grave cultural health epidemic that isn’t going away. Today, it is estimated that roughly 69% of American adults are overweight and 36% are considered obese. It is especially troubling to consider the fact that while Americans spend nearly $60 billion annually on products and services coming from the weight-loss and diet industries, 90-95% of people who lose weight regain the lost pounds back within 1-5 years. For nutritionists and doctors around the country, it is clear to see how much of the weight epidemic stems from unwholesome habits like binge eating and emotional eating. Due to the fact that the strategies and tools used in the diet and weight loss industry have already proven to be incapable of creating true weight-loss change, it is these same medical professionals who are looking to the practice of meditation to reverse the deadly weight trends.
Fortunately, research is continuing to show how the practice of Mindfulness Meditation can help individuals break detrimental eating habits, loss weight and actually keep it off. In one such meta-analysis conducted in 2014 at Rush University Medical Center, a team of researchers led by Shawn Katteman systematically reviewed 14 studies with hopes of determining Mindfulness Mediation’s effectiveness for decreasing binge eating, emotional eating, and weight loss. While the team determined that more research was needed to verify meditation’s effectiveness for weight loss, the evidence showed that the practice successfully decreases binge eating and emotional eating.
Cognitive Benefits of Meditation:
The practice of meditation has been scientifically shown to promote beneficial changes to mental functions, cognitive capabilities and brain chemistry. Whether an individual is hampered by mental deficiencies or just wants to enjoy more professional and personal success, meditation offers a wide range of evidence-based cognitive benefits. By regularly resting in a calm meditative state, individuals gain an enhanced ability to change problematic thought problems. Additionally, as you’ll soon discover, the transformative power of meditation is so profound that the physical structure of the brain actually changes with practice.
1.) Improves Memory:
Found within the brilliantly complex structure of the human brain are a wide variety of important operational systems and functional mechanisms that help us process information and make sense of the world. The cognitive function of memory, for example, allows us to hold and store information in our brains so that we can learn from past experiences and make better decisions when facing similar circumstances in the future. While neuroscientists may argue about the exact number of cognitive mechanisms that play a role in memory, they’ll all agree that this capacity is one of the most important functions of the mind. Broadly speaking, it is believed that there are two overarching memory systems, working memory and long-term memory, that allow us to store and recall information. Within the past decade, scientific research has shown how meditative practices have the ability to generally improve both of these cognitive system, and more specifically the working memory system that allows us to focus, retain, and use environmental information in short amounts of time.
While research looking into meditation’s affects on the brain’s cognitive systems is still in its infancy, early evidences points to promising correlations between the practice and mental efficiency. In a 2013 study conducted by researchers at the University of California at Santa Clara, the notion that meditation can improve memory was put to the test. To conduct the research, 48 undergraduate students were tested on the Graduate Records Examination (GRE) and a number of other memory related activities before and after being separated into two groups: One group was taught Mindfulness Meditation over a two-week period and the other group learned about nutrition in the same window of time. Based upon the study results, researchers were able to verifiably report that while the nutrition group’s tests scores didn’t change, the mindfulness group saw improvements in GRE scores and a number of working memory related tests.
2.) Improves Executive Function Processes:
Many of the cognitive benefits that will be examined in this section, including working memory, play a role in humans’ broader mental capacity to selectively monitor, choose and control behaviors that lead to the attainment of goals. In the world of neuroscience, cognitive processes such as attentional control, cognitive inhibition and cognitive flexibility collective make up what is referred to as the brain’s executive function. Individuals whose executive function operate at highly efficient levels are more capable to plan, reason and solve problems in ways that push them towards personal success.
One of the most important mental benefits of meditation is that it has been shown to improve one’s executive function processes or cognitive control. By learning how to monitor one’s cognitions and develop emotional acceptance in meditation practice, individuals improve their attentional focus, their abilities to plan, and make decisions based on logical reasoning rather than emotional impulses. Over the past two decades, scientific research has shown how meditative practices improve individual executive function processes and the tasks associated with this all important cognitive system. Eline Snel, a distinguished author, therapist and mindfulness teacher from Holland, tells us:
In adults, mindfulness training has been shown to positively influence important regions of the brain having to do with executive functioning, including impulse control and decision making, perspective taking, learning and memory, emotion regulation, and a sense of connectedness with one’s own body. Under intense and unremitting stress, all these brain functions rapidly degrade.”
3.) Reduces Risk of Dementia:
One of the most fear-inducing health issues faced by older adults around the globe is the onset of age-related types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, and the symptoms that accompany the disease. Today, an estimated 47 million people in the world are affected by dementia and risk levels increases as individuals age. Statistics tell us that around 3% of people between the ages of 65-74, 19% of individuals ages 75-84, and nearly half of those over 85 years old are affected by the debilitating cognitive disease. While dementia can present itself in an array of seemingly dissimilar ways, it is said, that in order be diagnosed with the disease, individuals must show significant decline in a number of cognitive functions such as memory, communication skills, ability to focus, and/or visual perception. Before the onset of the disease, however, a gradual process of mental decline begins with precursor symptoms of mild cognitive impermanent (MCI).
Fortunately for older adults worried about MCI or age related dementia, scientific research has shown how the practice of meditation decreases individuals’ susceptibility to the cognitive disease and slows the progression of its symptoms in previously diagnosed patients. In one such 2016 study at the University of California-Los Angles (UCLA), a team of researchers led by Dr. Helen Lavretsky determined that meditative practices reduces older adults’ risk of mild cognitive impermanent. To conduct their research, 25 participants aged 55 and older were separated into two groups: One learned a form of yoga called Kundalini that centers around breathing techniques, Kirtan Kriya Meditation and chanting, while the other group was giving memory enhancement training. Both groups meet once a week for three months and practiced their newly learned skills at home for 20 minutes each day. Before and after the study, all participants completed memory tests and underwent MRI scans to measure brain activity. While both groups showed greater verbal memory skills, only the group that learned yoga and meditation saw considerable improvements in visual-spatial memory skills, increased coping skills, and beneficial changes in brain connectivity.
4.) Improves Creative Thinking Skills:
Creative thinking is not only an invaluable skill for individuals working in pioneering professional industries and fields, but also a priceless tool each of us can use to find innovative solutions to everyday problems. While most of us mistakenly come to believe that creativity is a characteristic of artists, musicians and writers alone, science has shown how untapped creative resources can undoubtedly be found within us all. Of course assessing an intangible characteristic like creativity is harder to measure than one’s blood pressure, but psychologists and scientists have been able to innovatively conceive measurable tests for creativity levels. Moreover, scientific research has been able to show how certain types of meditation enhance creative thinking skills.
In order to measure creativity levels, scientific researchers examine both divergent and convergent thinking skills. While divergent thinking skills represent one’s ability to intuitively and flexibly develop numerous solutions to problems that have multiple correct answers, convergent thinking skills describe one’s ability to logically and analytically discover a solution to problems with a single answer. Although it is easy to assume that only divergent thinking skills are associated with creativity, both divergent thinking and convergent thinking are important components of creativity.
In 2008, a team of researchers at Leiden University, the oldest university in the Netherlands, aimed to determine if particular types of meditation techniques increased individuals levels of creativity by measuring their divergent and convergent thinking skills. To conduct the experiment, the team of researchers led by Lorenza Colzato and Dominique Lippelt tested 40 participants, with various levels of meditation experience, on either divergent thinking or convergent thinking tasks after meditating with different techniques for 25 minutes. Based upon the experiment, the researchers were able to determine that practicing open monitoring meditation techniques resulted in higher divergent thinking test scores and practicing focused attention meditation techniques resulted in higher convergent thinking scores. In conclusion, the team was able to show how it is possible to use certain types of meditation practices to promote creativity in different ways.
5.) Rebuilds Brain’s Gray Matter:
Within the internal structure of human beings are two important nervous systems that transmit signals between different parts of the body in a way that processes information and coordinates behavior. The central nervous system (CNS), which acts as the information processing command center, is composed of the brain and spinal cord, and the peripheral nervous system (PNS) is composed of neurological pathways that connects the CNS to the rest of the body. Neuroscience tells us that the cerebral cortex, a vastly important part of the CNS, is made up of white and gray matter that allows various parts of the brain to process information and communicate with one another. While the white matter helps connect various regions of the brain, it is the gray matter that actually handles the all important task of processing information. Specifically, the grey matter of the brain is associated with a wide variety of vital processing tasks that deal with sensory perception, memory, emotional regulation, decision-making, and speech.
Although it has been widely assumed that the size of the cerebral cortex, and the gray matter it is composed of, decreases as individuals age, new scientific research is showing how meditation can actually increase the amount of grey matter in the brain. By increasing grey matter density, through the practice of meditation, the human brain becomes more efficient at processing information, decision-making, and managing emotions. In 2011, a team of Harvard University researchers led by Dr. Sara Lazar showed how meditative practices could increase grey matter by using MRI scans to measure the grey matter density of individuals before and after taking eight weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) training. To help verify the legitimacy of the observable changes, Lazar and her team also compared the findings to a control group that was put on a waiting list for the same MBSR program. While analysis of new meditators brain MRI images showed increased grey matter density in parts of the brain associated with learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection, none of these changes were observable in the control group. Additionally, the only brain regions of the meditation group that saw reductions in grey matter density were in areas that plays a prominent role in stress and anxiety.
6.) Helps Manage Symptoms of ADHD:
The cognitive condition of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) prohibits both children and adults from focusing on tasks for prolonged periods of time because they lack the attentional skills to do so. For those who are diagnosed with ADHD, an inability to persistently focus one’s attention is mirrored by hyperactive and impulsive tendencies that limit their abilities to succeed with school or work-related tasks. Today, it is estimated that around 4% of American adults have ADHD and 6.1% of American children are currently being treated for the cognitive disorder. When considering the facts that there has been a 42% increase in ADHD diagnoses from 2006 to 2014, and that many prominent individuals within medical communities worry about the medications used to treat the disorder, the beneficial outcomes meditation provides those suffering from ADHD should be considered vastly important.
One such prominent 2008 study examining the correlation between Mindfulness Meditation and reductions in symptoms associated with ADHD was conducted by researchers at the University of California Los Angles (UCLA). In the study, which was led by The Mindfulness Prescription for Adult ADHD author Dr. Lidia Zylowska, 24 adults and 8 adolescents with ADHD were enrolled in an eight week mindfulness training program. Based upon the research, Dr. Zylowska and her team were able to report that 78% of the study participants had reductions in ADHD symptoms and 30% of participants reported clinical reduction level decreases, meaning their symptoms were reduced by 30% or more.
7.) Increases Focus & Productivity:
Throughout the western world, large corporations, small businesses and entrepreneurs are beginning to discover the work related benefits individuals attain from meditative practices. In addition to lower levels of stress, meditation provides individuals with enhanced abilities to focus and increases their levels of productivity. It is due to these benefits, and increased levels of employee satisfaction, that some of the world’s most recognizable companies are beginning to offer mindfulness training at work. Google, for example, has been offering a mindfulness training program called Search Inside Yourself since 2007.
In 2012, a computer scientist at the University of Washington named David Levy put meditation’s work-related benefits to test by conducting a study with around 40 human resources managers. To conduct his research, Levy and his team separated the managers into three groups: The first group underwent eight weeks of mindfulness training, the second group underwent body-relaxation training, and the third group initially receive no training but was later given the same mindfulness training as the first group. Both before and after receiving training, all participants were given a stressful multitasking test which helped researchers analysis their abilities to quickly and effectively perform common work-related tasks. What Levy and his team discovered was that the meditation group had lower stress levels and were able to concentrate longer without being distracted. While stress levels of individuals in the second and third groups didn’t initially lessen, the third group’s levels similarly decreased after receiving the mindfulness training.
8.) Reduces Cognitive Rigidity:
In the world of psychology, the term cognitive rigidity is used to describe the mental habit of being unable to transition train of thought and unable to take on the perspective of other individuals. When individuals remain closed-minded to the views and beliefs of others, they limit their abilities to connect with those they come in contact with and remain unable to find innovate solutions to problems they may have. In stark contrast to cognitive rigidity, individuals who possess cognitive flexibility, or the ability to mentally shift between concepts and perspectives, are more able to adapt to the situations and circumstances they face. While it may seem as though cognitively rigid individuals will forever remain stuck in their ways, scientific research has shown how meditation can reduce cognitive rigidity and promote cognitive flexibility.
In one such 2012 study examining cognitive rigidity, Jonathan Greenberg and a team of researchers at Ben-Gurion University in Israel used a variation of the Einstellunger water jar test to show how higher levels of mindfulness produces greater cognitive flexibility. To test individuals’ levels of cognitive rigidity, participants were tasked with using three hypothetical jars to obtain a specific amount of water. While the initial problems were complex in nature, researchers later asked ‘trap’ problems which were unknowingly much easier to solve. In two separate experiments, Greenberg, who is now a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard University, first tested experienced mindfulness meditators vs individuals about to undertake mindfulness training for the first time and then tested the non-meditating group of individuals after completing their training vs a separate group of individuals on a waiting list for the same mindfulness program. In both experiments, test scores showed a correlation between mindfulness experience and a reduction in cognitive rigidity because the practice helped limit participants’ blindness to particular situations, experiences and problems.
9.) Reduces Rumination:
The term rumination is used to describe a cognitive pattern of negative thoughts that repetitively plays out in one’s head and often results in individuals being diagnosed with anxiety or depression. Those who live with rumination are typically unable to discover life-affirming solutions to their problems because they remain unable to focus on anything besides the symptoms, causes and consequences of their distresses. While cognitive patterns of rumination can revolve around a seemingly endless number of topics, such as an embarrassing life event, work or relationships, every case of rumination is characterized by an inability to stop negative thought patterns from playing out in one’s head. Fortunately, scientific research has shown how meditation allows individuals to distance themselves from the persistently negative cognitions associated with rumination.
By learning how to observe one’s thoughts with nonjudgmental mindfulness, curiosity and compassion, individuals are able to recognize how cognitive rumination negatively affects their personal well-being. In this way, individuals are able to slow the thoughts patterns down and eventually distance themselves from their problematic cognitions. Celebrated English psychologist and author Peter Kinderman, who is a major proponent of practicing mindfulness for mental health, tells us:
Rumination tends to be eased if we learn to be mindful; if we are able to be aware of, and understand how our own thoughts work. This does NOT mean taking up any kind of religious practice, but some of the practical techniques of clearing the mind of ‘clutter’ can me helpful… In part, it means becoming able to decide where we focus our attention, because if we are good at this, it makes it less likely that our thoughts will always be dragged back to our ruminations.”
10.) Promotes Positive Changes in Brainwave Frequencies:
By way of innovative technological advancements in medicine, neuroscientists are now able to measure the frequencies of energy within individuals’ brains. The term brainwave is used to describe the synchronized electrical activity that takes place inside of the brain, and depending upon the particular situations and circumstances individuals face, different brainwave frequencies become scientifically observable. In total, there are five brainwave categories that are exhibited with corresponding types of activities: Gamma (a hyperactivity state associated with active learning), Beta (a alert state associated with analytical thinking and planning), Alpha (a peaceful state associated with grounded balance), Theta (a calm meditative state associated with higher intuition and awareness), and Delta (a state most commonly experienced during deep sleep). While each of the five brainwave states serves particular purposes, citizens in the western world commonly spend too much time living in the gamma and beta brainwave states. Through the practice of meditation, however, individuals can naturally enter into the alpha and theta states which promotes balance, enhanced awareness and more rationally sound decision-making.
There has been a plethora of scientific research showing how humans’ brainwave frequencies change during meditative practices. In 2010, for example, researchers at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) examined willing participants brainwave activity while practicing an open-monitoring form of meditation developed in Norway called Acem. By analyzing the frequency and location of brainwaves in individuals’ brains while practicing meditation and comparing them to while the participants resided in a relaxed non-meditative state, researcher were able to show how meditation promotes calming brainwave frequency changes. In particular, the study showed how theta and alpha brainwave activity increased during meditative practices, while gamma and beta frequencies diminished.
Giving Yourself the Gift of Meditation:
Scientific research has shown, and will continue to show, the vast benefits that individuals attain from meditative practices at the physical, psychological and cognitive levels. Regardless of one’s religious beliefs, each and everyone of us has the opportunity to use the practice of meditation to promote higher levels of subjective well-being and life-satisfaction. Hopefully it is now clear to see how the immense health benefits of meditation make it imperative for each of us to give ourselves the gift of meditation. Hopefully the words of celebrated Buddhist monk Sogyal Rinpoche now ringer truer then ever before. He tells us:
The gift of learning to meditate is the greatest gift you can give yourself in this lifetime.”