Psychological Benefits of Meditation
If someone asked you what the biggest reason why people meditate, what would you probably say?
The first thing that jumps to my mind is stress. I don’t think crossing their legs really looks all that comfortable, but then again I’m not a very flexible person. But man, they sure look peaceful.
Stress is the first thing that jumps to many people’s minds when they think of meditation. And you are correct that it’s one of the greatest benefits of meditation, but it’s definitely not the only one. By far. Take a quick look at some of the deeper psychological benefits of meditation.
It Reduces Anxiety
Feeling anxious can sometimes be a good thing. But in most cases anxiety can be pretty nerve racking.
It can lead to emotional sensitivity, withdrawal from social situations, and avoidance type behavior. And its usually being followed around buy it’s well known cousin, stress.
The effects of meditation on anxiety, though, is pretty well documented. In 2012 a large review of 36 controlled trials was published in the journal Depress Anxiety (which seems appropriately named).
As stated in their paper, the researchers found,
“…some consistent and robust evidence that meditative therapies may be an effective treatment for patients with anxiety symptoms.”
This is the one you all know and love. It’s the flagship benefit of meditation, and the one that helps put you at peace.
Yes, of course meditation is largely used to reduce stress in people’s lives. Not only for people in clinical settings, where individuals are dealing with stressful physical and psychological issues. But for healthy people as well.
In a critical review, 45 tightly controlled clinical trials were selected and results were tabulated. The main conclusion of the scientists? That the evidence points to a significant reduction in the negative areas of psychological stress. Something you probably already guessed at.
So just how much meditation was used to see results? About 30 minutes a day over an 8 week training program. And the benefits seemed to last over 6 months following the training. That’s pretty decent staying power. Even exceptional when comparing it against something like exercise, whose benefits drop off much quicker.
It Reduces Depression
The previously mentioned review also showed positive results that meditation had for people with depression. An interesting observation that the scientists made dealt with a comparison of meditation against antidepressant drugs in anxiety and depression. In their paper they state,
“These small effects are comparable with what would be expected from the use of an antidepressant in a primary care population but without the associated toxicities.”
Coming from a very critical review with such tightly controlled evidence, that is powerful statement. I can’t help but picture Buddha throwing a punch at Big Pharma.
It Reduce Depression Relapse
As if depression wasn’t hard enough, there’s always a chance for people to fall back into a state of depression. It’s a common problem, and one that doctor’s and clinicians try to help their patients avoid at all costs.
Normally, this is done through medication. But it appears that a certain type of meditation therapy – called mindfulness based cognitive therapy (MBCT) – could be an effective alternative to medication as for people with major depression disorders.
A meta-analysis looked at 6 controlled studies with a total of 593 participants. They found that mindfulness based cognitive therapy significantly reduced chances for relapse. These researchers also noted a comparison of effectiveness with the therapy as opposed to a medication approach. In two of the studies in their review, the researchers noted that it was as effective as antidepressants.
It Can Help Conquer Your Fears
Public speaking, death, loneliness. These are some of the biggest and most common fears in society. It’s pretty safe to say that we all fear something. And many of us would like to conquer those fears. At the very least, reduce the fear to where it may not affect our lives in a drastic way.
A big step in conquering fears is reducing your anxiety and the stress caused by it. We’ve found out that meditation can help in those areas. But there’s a couple of other ways in which it helps.
An important factor is how we emotionally react to stimuli. Can you remember a time right before you had to give a speech? Your heart rate rises, palms begin to sweat, and a feeling of dread overcomes you. It’s no wonder public speaking is still one of the biggest fears in society. It’s a natural reaction to our emotion of fear.
You may be amazed to find that meditation has to reduce emotional reactivity. In fact, this was one of the major findings from a research review in 2011.
How does meditation go about doing this?
Researchers think that two key components of mindfulness meditation might be responsible – that of focused awareness and acceptance. They believe that this helps tone down behavioral reactions to powerful stimuli.
The scientists reference a study where people are subjected to restricted oxygen intake. Sounds horrible I know. And it’s not surprising that it causes participants high levels of stress and anxiety. However, people who had brief instructions in “acceptance” techniques were less afraid and more willing to retake the awful test. They even performed better than other participants of the test that had been taught other anxiety coping techniques.
It Promotes Resiliency
Resiliency is the ability to keep working towards a goal in the face of obstacles. Where some may easily give up on goals or objectives, others may find the strength to press on when problems arise.
Stressful and demanding jobs can cause performance in the line of duty. You can mentally burn out, make lapses in judgment, and errors on the job. Among these are primary care physicians, nurses, and clinicians. Their ability to care for others when stressed is an important issue. This is where resiliency comes in.
One study used a popular mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) program with nurses and midwives. After attending a one day workshop and meditating for 8 weeks, researchers noticed a significant improvement in stress, anxiety, and depression.
In another review of literature, several studies of mindfulness were found to have improved effects for physicians. Meditation practices showed general improvements in mood, empathy, quality of life, and mental wellbeing. And some of these effects lasted for well past the intervention periods. Meaning that short periods of instruction in meditative practices can have lasting effects. Which is vitally important for those with super stressful jobs.
Researchers are still calling for larger studies to be done in this area, but overall evidence seems to be pretty promising. Applying meditation to stressful (and important!) jobs not only helps practitioners with their quality of life and burnout. It also means improved medical care for the people they see.
It Can Help Reduce Pain
The relationship between pain and mindful meditation has been studied quite a bit. A review of the literature published in 2012 highlighted the interesting relationship between meditating and the sensation of pain.
Meditating has been used in many clinical settings with patients of chronic pain. People dealing with fibromyalgia, irritable bowel syndrome, and others with chronic back pain. The mindful practice I mentioned earlier – Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction – was began back in 1982 to actually help people with chronic pain.
In studying long time meditators, researchers have noticed differences in how brain regions react to pain. Even in a non meditative state, less activity in regions of memory and emotion occurred when exposed to pain. Some studies have shown pain reduction with short durations of practice or experience. Other studies have noticed that experience in meditation may affect how pain is perceived and controlled. Research is ongoing to find out the exact mechanisms involved.
Just a Taste
While meditation can be helpful, please remember that meditation shouldn’t be used to replace conventional medical care or to postpone seeing a health care provider about medical conditions.
So there you go, a quick but intense rundown of some scientific literature and meditation. You can find the many other benefits of meditation in other articles here at TheBrainflux. Happy Breathing!
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Image: Eric Norris