When you think of meditation, you may think of a yogi sitting in a crossed legged pose with their palms facing up on each knee. While this is a popular meditation position, the truth is that meditation can be done while sitting, laying down, standing and even walking! As long as you’re comfortable, meditation can be practiced almost anywhere.
To simply define, meditation is a practice of awareness that brings our body to a calm and stable state, clears our mind of distractions, and puts focus on our breathing and motion. This discipline allows us to be fully present and engaged in the current moment.
For centuries, meditation has been a practice of both spirituality and stress reduction. Most cultures have practiced meditation in some form throughout history, with the earliest recorded evidence dating back over 5,000 years ago. Today, a great deal of research has been done to highlight the emotional and biological benefits of this ancient practice, and its power to elevate feelings of tranquility and overall contentment. This is thanks to the positive effect that meditation has on the brain and body.
Meditation Reinforces the Parasympathetic Nervous System
The “fight-or-flight”or stress response, which is controlled by the body’s sympathetic nervous system, is activated when we are faced with something perceived to be a physical or psychological threat. In turn, this stimulates the adrenal glands and raises heart rate and respiration. This serves as a survival instinct that kept our ancestors alive centuries ago.
On the other hand, the parasympathetic nervous system controls the body’s ability to relax and maintains resting heart and respiratory rate, allowing us to recover. However, today’s stressful lifestyles can cause our sympathetic nervous system to become overactive and trigger this reaction even when faced with non-threatening situations creating an imbalance that suppresses the parasympathetic system when it should be kicking in.
We are bombarded daily with stressors such as; a demanding job, financial obligations, eating processed foods, not enough sleep, social media overload, and constant multitasking. This creates chaos within the nervous system by keeping blood pressure elevated and stress levels high.
Meditation produces the opposite effect of the stress response, and helps balance us. We decrease our emotional reactivity to stressors when we meditate, which helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and allows us to relax. Over time, this can help reduce anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
Meditation Reduces Activity in the Default Mode Network
Constant mind-wandering has been associated with feelings of unhappiness and anxiety. The default mode network (DMN) is a network of brain areas responsible for this type of self-referential processing. Two major parts of the brain that provide input into the DMN are the mid brain, aka the “lizard brain”, and the highly evolved prefrontal cortex.
Our most native instincts, behaviors, fears, and fury are stored and processed in the midbrain region called the medulla. In comparison, the prefrontal cortex helps us to process complex thoughts, make plans and stimulate our creativity. In a balanced brain, the DMN connection between the limbic cortex and prefrontal cortex is regulated in a way that the blood is shunted to the region that needs to be the most active at that instant. This makes sure that our basic needs are met such as obtaining food and avoiding dangerous situations as needed and our creative pursuits and executive functions are optimal the rest of the time. Still, when we are continuously exposed to stressful situations, the DMN is hyperactive and more blood flow is sent to the “lizard brain” and away from the highly evolved brain. This creates an imbalance, and soon our behaviors are more likely to be influenced by fear and anger. In this fight or flight dominant state, the blood is shunted away from the prefrontal cortex, blunting its function.
How can we avoid this shift in balance? Some studies show that meditation can help reduce activity in the default mode network. This is because meditation helps us to engage with the highly evolved, prefrontal cortex by reducing the blood flow in the mid brain and shunting it back to the highly evolved region. When we train our brain to focus on the present moment, when we take attention away from the distraction of past or future fears and anxieties we literally change our brain’s physiology. This strengthens the mind-body connection and allows us to feel more rational, at peace, and more fulfilled.
Meditation Changes the Structure of the Brain and Slows Aging
Now we know the frontal cortex is vital for decision making and highly developed skills such as problem solving. Unfortunately, as we age this area of the brain begins to shrink, and as a result we see a decline in neural connections and neurotransmitter systems.This plays a major role in age-related cognitive decline and other complications associated with aging. Not to mention modern, highly stressed lifestyles promote inflammation and premature aging of the brain and body.
But there’s good news! Promising research out of Harvard has shown that mindfulness and meditation have the ability to change the structure of the brain. The studies show that those who meditate not only have more gray matter and cortical thickness in their frontal lobe, but a decrease of volume in areas linked to anger, fear and anxiety. Participants in the eight week long study meditated for around twenty minutes per day and reported feelings of significant stress reduction. Not only did this change the structure of the brain, but the participants’ psychological well-being as well.
Research has documented many of the emotional and biological benefits of meditation.To experience these benefits, regular practice is necessary – but it doesn’t have to be complicated. Remember that meditation is a “practice and not a perfect”. The key is to make time to get comfortable, slow down, and clear the mind of distractions. Setting aside even just a few minutes a day for focused breathing and mindfulness can lead you on the path to better health and overall well-being.
To find out how OWM helps its clients become more mindful, check out our Brain Spa.