It’s staggeringly clear that unmanaged stress is a primary contributor to degenerative processes, hearkening back to the 20th century research of Dr. Walter Cannon on the sympathoadrenal system and Dr. Hans Selye’s “general adaptation syndrome” theory of stress. Stress is physiological and psychological, and so are the problems it causes; not only aging and illness, but poor decision-making, relationship issues, and unnecessary suffering. The methods by which we can effectively manage our stress, as a rule, are usually free (or cheap) and simple. Meditation is one example; a gold standard.
The practice of meditation is a means of recalibration. I prefer anapanasati (mindful breathing), or the body scan which is slightly more intensive, providing different effects. Consistent, daily meditation gradually frees you from mindless novelty-seeking by synchronizing you more into your own body, allowing a seamless mindfulness to grow. When I’m continually entranced by idle novelties, meditation acts as an assistant in calmly avoiding those behaviors and makes productivity less daunting and therefore more likely to happen.
When you’re meditating regularly, it seems you don’t have to try as much to maintain mindfulness throughout the day. It becomes a natural, sustained effect from the habitual sessions. It increases the ability to delay gratification by significantly decreasing the discomfort that usually arises when we try to operate on sheer willpower.
Essentially, it’s a subtle spark that fuels an upward spiral. Everything life-giving seems to proceed from, or be encouraged by, the simple act of attunement to one’s bodily awareness.
The groundedness I have felt in my body after my best meditation sessions verged on euphoric. Just the pleasure of being so intensely aware of my own place relative to my surroundings was extremely calming and satisfying.
“Through daily meditation practice, the human brain has been proven to be physically thickened in the insula and prefrontal cortex which is very beneficial, while the human blood and body are altered in favor of a stronger immune system.”
― Thomas Valone, Modern Meditation Training (2019)
A reddit user, BigYellowLemon, reported that meditation cured their long-standing anhedonic depression, when nothing else had worked: Meditation has completely “cured” me of my depression.
Anhedonia is a neglected aspect of psychopathology, and can persist long after other ‘clinical’ depressive features abate. This is because prolonged stress, partly mediated by cortisol, endotoxin, dynorphin, and neuroinflammatory brain alterations, inhibit the ability to feel pleasure and positive emotions, and the limbic system, our emotional ‘center’, persists in a shock-like state (Stanton, et al., 2019). When the stress ends, a lack of appropriate therapeutic intervention can allow this numbed state to persist indefinitely, because not enough positive signalling is introduced to usher the organism back into homeostatic euthymia (a normal, tranquil mood).
Meditation is one of the few evidence-supported therapies that can relieve anhedonia, for example in patients diagnosed with PTSD, schizophrenia (Johnson, et al., 2009), and major depressive disorder.
War veterans suffering from PTSD, emotional numbness, and social disconnection were prescribed compassion meditation (mettā, or “loving kindness”) for 12 weeks, and reported significant satisfaction with the practice and improvement in their emotional states by the end (Evans, et al., 2019).
In a meta-analysis of six studies looking at meditation in 320 patients with heart failure, meditation not only reduced the symptoms of heart failure, but improved depression, social support, quality of life, and biophysical factors (Viveiros, et al., 2019).
Conversely to the subtle chronic benefits of meditation, I have found that a short meditation session can pull me out of a foul mood, or allow me to detach from a visceral, primal emotion and observe situations more calmly, more attuned to the moment in peaceful abiding gratitude.
By refining the mind’s attentional functions, meditation is shown to increase the subjective experience of time (Singh and Srinivasan, 2019). Not only are we attuned to calmness when we detach from rumination, but the very nature of our reality expands, or “stretches” in the form of “more” time.
Several people I’ve spoken to have dismissed the possibility that short meditation sessions, such as just five or ten minutes, will actually do anything, instead asserting that disciplinarian intensity, with much longer sessions, is required to experience change from meditation. However, recent evidence has confirmed that indeed, just five or ten minutes per day of meditation is enough to manifest changes in the structure of the brain on fMRI scans.
15 minutes of meditation:
- Heightens awareness of your environment and increases equanimity (May, et al., 2019)
- Decreases negative emotions of meditators’ romantic partners, an example of meditation’s potential extrapersonal benefits (May, et al., 2019).
10 minutes of meditation:
- Reduces mind-wandering and repetitive, anxious thoughts (Xu, et al., 2017)
- Improves verbal learning and memory (Lueke and Lueke, 2019)
- Improves executive attention and reduces neuroticism (Norris, et al., 2018)
5 minutes of meditation:
- Significantly reduced stress in mental healthcare workers, measured after 7 days (Lam, et al., 2015)
In people with anxiety, meditation improves stress-resilience and significantly reduces the adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) and inflammatory cytokines released during the body’s stress response (Hoge, et al., 2018).
Meditation causes a faster recovery from stress (Gamaiunova, et al., 2019), protects against biological aging by slowing the shortening of telomeres (Nguyen, et al., 2019), and induces an enhanced ability to conquer fears, regulate emotions, and reduce anxiety, owing in part to strengthened hippocampal circuits (Gunes, et al., 2019).
Perhaps most fascinating is the alterations in gene expression that occur from the relaxation response in meditation. After just 15 minutes of meditation, there are noticeable enhancements in genes that modulate cellular respiration, mitochondria, blood glucose control, telomere health (telomeres protect your DNA), and reduced expression of genes related to inflammation and stress. These epigenetic benefits are even greater in those who have made meditation, yoga, or prayer into long-term habits (Bhasin, et al., 2013).
From the beginning, my favorite meditation resource has been Stop, Breathe, & Think.
- Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson
- Turning the Mind into an Ally by Sakyong Miphan Rinpoche
- Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn
- Mindfulness in Plain English by Henepola Gunaratana
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Bhasin, Manoj K., et al. “Relaxation Response Induces Temporal Transcriptome Changes in Energy Metabolism, Insulin Secretion and Inflammatory Pathways.” PLoS ONE, vol. 8, no. 5, 2013, doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0062817.
Buric, Ivana, et al. “What Is the Molecular Signature of Mind–Body Interventions? A Systematic Review of Gene Expression Changes Induced by Meditation and Related Practices.” Frontiers in Immunology, vol. 8, 2017, doi:10.3389/fimmu.2017.00670.
Evans, Amanda P.b., et al. “Compassion Meditation Training for Emotional Numbing Symptoms Among Veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, vol. 25, no. 4, 2019, pp. 441–443., doi:10.1089/acm.2018.0425.
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Johnson, David P., et al. “Loving-Kindness Meditation to Enhance Recovery from Negative Symptoms of Schizophrenia.” Journal of Clinical Psychology, vol. 65, no. 5, 2009, pp. 499–509., doi:10.1002/jclp.20591.
Koszycki, Diana, et al. “Randomized Trial of a Meditation-Based Stress Reduction Program and Cognitive Behavior Therapy in Generalized Social Anxiety Disorder.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, vol. 45, no. 10, 2007, pp. 2518–2526., doi:10.1016/j.brat.2007.04.011.
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May, Christopher J., et al. “Mindfulness Meditation Is Associated with Decreases in Partner Negative Affect in Daily Life.” European Journal of Social Psychology, vol. 50, no. 1, 2019, pp. 35–45., doi:10.1002/ejsp.2599.
May, Christopher J., et al. “The Relative Impact of 15-Minutes of Meditation Compared to a Day of Vacation in Daily Life: An Exploratory Analysis.” The Journal of Positive Psychology, vol. 15, no. 2, 2019, pp. 278–284., doi:10.1080/17439760.2019.1610480.
Nguyen, Khoa D. Le, et al. “Loving-Kindness Meditation Slows Biological Aging in Novices: Evidence from a 12-Week Randomized Controlled Trial.” Psychoneuroendocrinology, vol. 108, 2019, pp. 20–27., doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.05.020.
Norris, Catherine J., et al. “Brief Mindfulness Meditation Improves Attention in Novices: Evidence From ERPs and Moderation by Neuroticism.” Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, vol. 12, 2018, doi:10.3389/fnhum.2018.00315.
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Singh, Amrendra, and Narayanan Srinivasan. “Concentrative (Sahaj Samadhi) Meditation Expands Subjective Time.” PsyCh Journal, vol. 8, no. 1, 2019, pp. 28–35., doi:10.1002/pchj.265.
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Viveiros, Jennifer, et al. “Meditation Interventions among Heart Failure Patients: An Integrative Review.” European Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing, vol. 18, no. 8, 2019, pp. 720–728., doi:10.1177/1474515119863181.
Xu, Mengran, et al. “Mindfulness and Mind Wandering: The Protective Effects of Brief Meditation in Anxious Individuals.” Consciousness and Cognition, vol. 51, 2017, pp. 157–165., doi:10.1016/j.concog.2017.03.009.