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Practicing meditation or mindfulness techniques is, at least anecdotally, supposed to smooth your way to a happier, more healthful life. But what does science say about these practices?
Meditation “keeps our minds and hearts calm, peaceful, and loving, i.e., in the right place,” a casual practicant of mindfulness and meditation told.
Indeed, most people who become interested in meditation are drawn to it thanks to the widespread notion that it will help them feel calmer, more balanced, and less exposed to the effects of daily stress.
Meditation is by no means a new practice. In fact, it has been around for hundreds, if not thousands, of years and a part of diverse cultures. Originally, meditation had strong ties with religion — not just Buddhism, with which people usually associate it — but also with Christian practices.
Indeed, many people today with different religious beliefs like to incorporate meditation as a spiritual practice.
One person even told us that, for her, meditation amounts to a “combination of focused thought and conversation with God,” while also providing a set “[t]ime to listen for the ‘still, small voice’ of calm.”
Mostly, however, and especially in Western countries, meditation has moved away from its spiritual and devotional roots, becoming more of a straightforward practice for mental health and general well-being.
There are many types, including loving-kindness meditation, mindfulness meditation, and transcendental meditation.
Mindfulness has also branched out as a series of practices involving focusing on small details in the present moment. The aim is to help a person stay rooted in the here and now and de-escalate unwelcome feelings or moods, such as episodes of anxiety.
People who engage with mindfulness techniques and meditation often allege that these practices allow them to boost or maintain various aspects of their well-being. But what has research found about the effects of meditation on the mind and the body, and are there any potential harms involved? In this Spotlight feature, we investigate.
One of the top reasons that people cite when claiming that meditation is beneficial is that it allows them to get rid of the stress that accumulates on a daily basis due to job or family pressures.
A study that researchers associated with the Center for Wellness and Achievement in Education in San Francisco, CA, conducted last year confirms that people who practice transcendental meditation reported feeling less stressed at work than peers who did not meditate.
During transcendental meditation, typically, a person focuses on and repeats a mantra — a special word, sound, or phrase — which is meant to help the mind settle down. But why would meditation have a positive effect on our minds’ and bodies’ reactions to stress?
A previous study, published in 2017, reveals that meditation — alongside other mind-body interventions — is associated with lower levels of the molecule “nuclear factor kappa B,” which influences the regulation of gene expression.
The team who conducted that research explains that our bodies typically produce that molecule in response to stress and that it, in turn, activates a series of molecules called “cytokines,” some of which are pro- and some of which are anti-inflammatory.
High cytokine activity contributes to many physical and mental health problems, including abnormal inflammation, cancer, and depression.
“Millions of people around the world already enjoy the health benefits of mind-body interventions like yoga or meditation, but what they perhaps don’t realize is that these benefits begin at a molecular level and can change the way our genetic code goes about its business,” says the study’s lead researcher, Ivana Buric, from Coventry University in the United Kingdom.
Other evidence, also uncovered in 2017, indicates that meditation, alongside yoga, promotes stress resilience by increasing levels of the brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that protects nerve cell health and helps regulate metabolic processes.
Similarly, recent research — published in Evidence-Based Mental Health, a BMJ journal — shows that mindfulness is about as effective as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) in relieving the symptoms of chronic pain associated with conditions such as fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, and osteoarthritis.
“While CBT is considered to be the preferred psychological intervention of [chronic pain], not all patients with [this type of pain] experience a clinically significant treatment response,” the research authors write, recommending that:
“[A]n additional solution may be to offer patients mindfulness-based stress reduction [therapy], since it shows promise in improving pain severity and reducing pain interference and psychological distress.”
Meditation and mindfulness seem to improve, not just a person’s resilience to stress factors, but also their overall mental health.
For instance, one study looked at the effects of mindfulness on women who experienced depression, anxiety, and mood swings following menopause.
The authors found that this practice helped the participants minimize the effects of these emotional and psychological symptoms.
“The goal during mindful moments is not to empty the mind but to become an observer of the mind’s activity while being kind to oneself,” says the study’s lead author, Dr. Richa Sood.
“The second step,” she goes on, “is to create a pause. Take a deep breath and observe one’s own space, thoughts, and emotions nonjudgmentally. The resulting calm helps lower stress.”
Robert Wright, an author and former visiting lecturer at Princeton University in New Jersey, argues that there is a clear reason why mindfulness and meditation practices allow a person to fight anxiety and other mood disorders.
In his most recent book, Why Buddhism Is True, Wright writes that human beings have evolved “to do certain things that helped our ancestors get their genes into the next generation — things like eating, having sex, earning the esteem of other people, and outdoing rivals.”
For this, our brains have developed a reward system, which makes us want to seek experiences that we find pleasurable — eating, drinking, and having sex.
In itself, this mechanism is meant to help us not only survive but thrive. However, it can also lead to addiction if, for instance, the brain gets “stuck” in an unhelpful feedback loop with a pleasurable stimulus.
Research shows that meditation and mindfulness techniques can help a person fight back against those unhelpful impulses and gain more self-control. Thus, a study from 2015 found that people who smoked were able to cut down on their smoking after taking up mindfulness training.
Similarly, research published in the International Journal of Neuropsychopharmacology in 2017 showed that people who usually engaged in heavy drinking consumed 9.3 fewer units of alcohol, which is the equivalent of around 3 pints of beer, in the week that followed brief mindfulness training.
Mindfulness, research suggests, also helps people who want to lose weight. “Mindful eating,” as it is called, teaches people to become aware of their eating-related impulses in the moment and to truly become aware of the sensation of every bite.
A study from last year confirmed that participants who attended three or four mindfulness sessions were able to lose about 6.6 pounds (3 kilograms), on average, over 6 months, while peers who attended fewer sessions only lost around 2 pounds (0.9 kilograms), on average.
“Meditation, when practiced regularly, can rewire the neural pathways in the brain,” Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a licensed psychologist based in New York, told.
“Studies indicate that meditating even 20 minutes per day for a few weeks was already enough to start experiencing the benefits,” she explained.
Indeed, numerous studies have found that meditation can also help maintain brain health and neuroplasticity — the capacity of brain cells to form new connections.
In one study, researchers followed 60 individuals, who were experienced meditators, for 7 years. The investigators found that the participants not only saw improved stress resilience but also better attention.
These benefits, the researchers say, lasted for a long time, and the people who meditated most frequently did not present the attention problems that come with age.
Research published in 2017, in the journal Mindfulness, also found that mindfulness meditation, alongside a type of yoga practice, was associated with better executive functioning and improved vigor.
And these practices may actually reduce the risk of dementia, according to a study from the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease. Its senior author, Dr. Helen Lavretsky, even goes so far as to suggest that “regular practice of yoga and meditation could be a simple, safe, and low-cost solution to improving your brain fitness.”
Nevertheless, although so many people and so many studies point to the benefits of meditation, some individuals feel put off by the practice, saying that, rather than helping them improve their own well-being, it triggers unwanted emotions.
One person told:
“I’ve tried several meditation apps and videos, as well as tried to meditate with a person in real life, and every time the problem is the same — when asked to focus on my own breath, I get very anxious.”
“Because focusing on my physiological states is often the source of my anxiety, [it] gets me spinning because I start wondering if my states are ‘normal’ […] Like, is my breathing normal or am I having a breathing problem? Does my chest hurt or am I having a heart attack?” she explained.
Another person told us, “Meditation makes me hypersensitive to everything — like sounds and movements — and it stresses me out!”
There is research to indicate that these are not unique cases. In one study, the results of which appear in PLoS One, the investigators surveyed 342 individuals who practiced mindfulness and meditation either casually, by themselves, or as part of meditation retreats.
The surveys indicated that 25.4 percent of the participants reported experiencing unwanted effects of varying degrees of severity. These included symptoms of anxiety or panic attacks, physical pain, depersonalization, symptoms of depression, and dizziness.
The investigators note that most of the unwanted effects — 41.3 percent — occurred during individual, not group, practice. They also report that 17.2 percent of the unwanted effects took place in the course of focused attention meditation and that 20.6 percent occurred when a person meditated for longer than 20 minutes.
According to the researchers, 39 percent of these unwanted effects did not last long and were not severe enough to require medical intervention.
The authors of a review analyzing the findings of other studies that reported potential adverse effects of mindfulness practices argue that “rather than mindfulness per se, […] it is a lack of understanding of the nuances of mindfulness among some instructors — and the subsequent poor teaching of mindfulness — that is likely to pose the greatest risk to patients.”
As a result, they recommend that individuals interested in these kinds of practices pick their instructor after conducting careful background research.
Moreover, they say that therapists wishing to incorporate mindfulness into their clinical practices should, for added safety, “undergo supervised mindfulness training for a period of at least 3 years […] prior to attempting to administer mindfulness in a treatment context.”
As for individuals who have attempted mindfulness or meditation, but are not seeing any improvements, Dr. Hafeez advises patience. “As with many things we do to improve life, the results are not always immediate,” she told.