Meditation has been a common spiritual and religious practice for thousands of years. More recently, the practice has been making its way into mainstream and secular use as a strategy to improve stress management, mindfulness, and overall quality of life. Researchers are beginning to take note as meditation becomes increasingly popular and shows promise as an integrative treatment option. Currently, 8% of Americans engage in meditation, and 11% spend time practicing deep breathing. Almost 1 out of every 10 Americans do yoga, which is considered by most to be a form of meditation, and 45% of those who don’t say they are interested in trying it.
Mediation’s growing popularity is easy to understand. Anyone can practice, anytime, anywhere. Meditation requires no special equipment or training. Although teachers and classes certainly exist and techniques vary, practicing meditation can be as simple as spending 15 minutes a day quietly focusing on your breath. Practitioners swear by these simple methods, with many reporting that they feel calmer and more relaxed throughout their day, more compassionate, and better equipped to handle difficult interpersonal situations. Many also report benefits in the form of new perspective and mental clarity, increased intuition and creativity, an ability to live in and appreciate each present moment, and an overall increase in happiness and wellbeing.
Scientific and medical research on the effects of meditation are still in the early stages, but a growing body of data promises a strong future for the use of meditation as a healthy, available, drug-free integrative medical treatment option.
Americans today face an epidemic of stress, and meditation may offer a powerful source of relief. Stress-related health problems are at the root of up to 80% of doctor appointments and make up the third highest health care expenditures, behind only heart disease and cancer. Given these numbers, it is shocking that only 3% of doctors attempt to address stress reduction techniques with their patients. A recent study suggests meditation goes a long way to address the problem.
People who participated in a meditation based relaxation program found that they required 43% less medical services compared to the previous year, and the newly relaxed patients enjoyed health care savings from $640 to as much as $25,500 per year. Also indicative of the success of such programs is that Aetna, a health insurance provider, offered its own employees a mindfulness program as an experiment of their own. The company itself enjoyed an increase in worker productivity of over an hour each week, or $3,000 yearly – a 1:11 return on their investment. The employees reported 28% less stress, 19% less pain, and 20% better sleep.
In a similar vein, mindfulness meditation is a natural match for treating both garden variety anxiety and patients suffering from Generalized Anxiety disorder. Based on her research, Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital and an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, recommends mediation for anyone “dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power” and “nagging worry that has no benefit.”
New research suggests that the positive shifts in subjective emotional states that mindful meditators have been reporting for years may even have an objective, traceable physical basis. Harvard neuroscientist Sara Lazar has been studying the effects of meditation on the brain, and she is reporting some fascinating results. After just an 8 week meditation program, brain scans showed increased grey matter in the frontal cortex, an area of the brain associated with memory and decision making.
They also found thickening in the left hippocampus, which is associated with learning, cognition and emotional regulation, as well as areas which assist with perspective taking, empathy, and compassion. Most notably the amygdala, a brain structure famously called the “fight or flight” center and closely linked to fear, anxiety, and stress, shrank considerably in people who had practiced meditation for 8 weeks. Finally, Lazer found that 50 year old meditators had grey matter density in the prefrontal cortex that rivaled an average 25 year old, instead of the shrunken cortex she would expect to find in someone at that age.
Researchers continue to study and learn about the myriad effects of meditation, but you can start reaping the benefits right now. Even 10-15 minutes a day spent meditating is thought to improve quality of life and reduce stress and anxiety. Meditation certainly can’t cure everything, but it can serve as a powerful tool alongside other therapy and treatment, or simply help to improve your stressful day.
Click here to check out some downloadable guided meditations