For thousands of years, practitioners of meditation have experienced its profound, transformative effects. However, until the advent of modern medicine and technology it has been almost impossible to quantify how exactly meditation affects the body and mind. As various forms of meditation migrated to America from the East, an interest blossomed, and so too did research on the effects of meditation and health begin in earnest.
In recent decades, experts in far-ranging fields of medical science including psychology, neuroscience, and physiology have experimented with meditation. This field continues to grow larger every day, and with it, so too does our understanding of the real, therapeutic effects of meditation. Based on the most current research, here are some of the ways that meditation is known to improve health. Meditation has far-reaching effects on mood.
Anecdotally, many practitioners of meditation report feeling calm, more focused, and less stressed out. There’s real scientific support for that. An eight-week study from 2014 found that people with generalized anxiety disorder had their symptoms reduced when using meditation as part of their therapy. A meta-analysis of some 1,300 adults also found that meditation could help decrease anxiety. Depression and even physical pain have been documented to be improved by meditation.
“Reviews to date report a small to moderate effect of mindfulness and mantra meditation techniques in reducing emotional symptoms (eg, anxiety, depression, and stress) and improving physical symptoms (eg, pain),” concluded a major scientific review by the Journal of the American Medical Association. In short, meditation generally appears to be good for mental health in general.
Many studies also point towards an underlying truth that is present at the very heart of meditation practice: the interconnectedness of body and mind. An experienced meditator will tell you how the body’s seated position affects breathing, and how breathing affects the mind. True meditation requires all of the systems of the human body to work in harmony.
So, it’s no surprise to see that research has also indicated therapeutic effects beyond the mind. When someone says that meditation helps lower their stress level, what they are really saying is that meditation is affecting a broad spectrum of issues, both physical and mental.
The word “stress” today has become a sort of catch-all for the way we deal with the many and varied difficult situations in our lives. In a scientific sense, stress is a sort of cluster of biological and physiological processes in our bodies. This includes the formation of “stress hormones” like cortisol, inflammation, and increased blood pressure. Stress presents itself in ways that we document and understand, like difficulty sleeping, agitation, and poor mental health.
We know that treating stress with meditation has a cascading effect on the body as well. A meta-analysis looking at 12 studies, including about 1,000 participants found meditation helped to lower blood pressure. Other studies have also come to the same conclusion.
Science has gradually pushed towards an understanding of this mind-body connection. But practitioners of meditation have known for thousands of years about this connection, because meditation exists at the epicenter of the mind and body.
For many people, their initial interest in meditation may be as simple as wanting to find an accessible solution to help deal with the daily stress of work and family — and that’s a great place to start. Whether you sit with a group or by yourself; every day or every other week; meditation is a healthy habit you can start at your own pace, from the comfort of your home, with nothing more than a cushion.