The Health Benefits of Regularly Practicing Meditation and Mindfulness
Meditation is a practice, where an individual uses a technique to focus one’s mind on a particular object, thought or activity to train attention and awareness. By engaging in a particular meditation practice, we can learn the patterns and habits of our mind. Its regular practice will help cultivate new, more positive ways of thinking.
By regularly practicing meditation, an individual can achieve profoundly peaceful and energized states of mind. Such experiences can have a transformative effect and can lead to a new understanding of life. The practice of meditation encourages and develops concentration, clarity, emotional positivity so that we can see the true nature of things.
An ancient tradition, meditation is as relevant in today’s busy world as it ever was. It’s less about the faith we subscribe to and more about becoming more mindful, focused, and peaceful.
Many types of meditation have been described by experts. Mindfulness meditation is one of them.
Rather than dwelling on the past or dreading the future, mindfulness encourages awareness of a person's existing surroundings. Our daily life provides plenty of opportunities to practice it. For example, we can practice mindfulness while cooking, doing the dishes, brushing teeth, driving, or exercising. When we do an act with total awareness being fully present in it, we actually are practicing mindfulness meditation while performing the act.
When we are mindful, we show up for our lives; we don't miss them in being distracted or in wishing for things to be different. Instead, if something needs to be changed, we are present enough to understand what needs to be done.
Mindfulness has specific benefits that help us manage our day to day living with efficiency:
- Lessens rumination: It reduces rumination, resulting in decreased overall negativity.
- Lessens emotional reactivity: The notion that the mindfulness meditation decreases emotional reactivity has been well supported by research. In a study of people who had anywhere from one month to 29 years of mindfulness meditation practice, researchers found that mindfulness meditation practice helped people disengage from emotionally upsetting pictures and enabled them to focus better on a cognitive task as compared with people who saw the pictures but did not meditate (Ortner et al., 2007).
- Reduces anxiety: Anxiety softens when we can create a space between ourselves and what we’re experiencing. The regular practice of mindfulness meditation creates the required space, which gives us a better perspective of the situation. We may not be able to change a situation, but we can mindfully change our response to it. So the lesser the anxiety, the better the response.
- The practice of MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) program helps the practitioner shift one’s attention from automatic patterns of thought about different situations. It helps bring the attention of the practitioner to the experience in a wider, more open manner that isn’t involved in selecting, choosing, or evaluating, but simply becoming aware of one’s thoughts and feelings, and finally sensations throughout the entire body.
- Two randomized clinical trials published in 2000 and 2008 in The Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology indicate that MBCT reduces rates of relapse by 50% among patients who suffer from recurrent depression. Recent findings published in The Lancet in 2015 show that combining a tapering of medication with MBCT is as effective as an ongoing maintenance dosage of medication.
- Improves immunity: Mindfulness meditation is salutogenic for immune system dynamics. It has been found that mindfulness meditation reduces markers of inflammation, high levels of which are often correlated with decreased immune functioning and disease, increases the number of CD-4 cells, which are the immune system’s helper cells that are involved in sending signals to other cells telling them to destroy infections, and enhances telomerase activity. Telomerase helps promote the stability of chromosomes and prevents their deterioration. Telomerase deterioration leads to cancer and premature aging. But these results need to be replicated with more rigorous methodology.
- Increases grey matter concentration in the brain: Researchers have found that after an eight-week mindfulness course, using guided meditations and integration of mindfulness into everyday activities MRI scans show that the grey matter concentration increases in areas of the brain involved in learning and memory, regulating emotions, sense of self, and having perspective. The studies also show a larger hippocampal and frontal volumes of grey matter for long-term meditators.
- Reduces chronic inflammation: According to a study by University of Wisconsin-Madison neuroscientists with the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, people suffering from chronic inflammatory conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, inflammatory bowel disease, and asthma, in which psychological stress plays a major role, may benefit from mindfulness meditation techniques.
- Regulates gut microbiota: The human microbiota are mostly located in the large intestine or gut. Alterations and imbalances of the microbiota may contribute to inflammation, weakened immunity, and maybe even weight gain. There is a correlation between psychological stress, stress hormones and changes in microbial composition. Therefore, mindfulness-based stress reduction could be a way to help prevent negative changes in the microbiota.
- Reduces cancer progression - Mindfulness has been shown to significantly improve symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment. The mechanism for this is still under investigation, but stress reduction appears to play a key role.
The Bottom Line
Mindfulness is a practice involved in various religious and secular traditions of the world. In general, the mindfulness was mostly popularized in the East by religious and spiritual institutions, while in the West its popularity can be traced to particular people and secular institutions.
In fact, mindfulness is so easy for anyone to practice that several different mindfulness exercises can be organized into a single format. The fact that it has found many devotees, both religious and secular, in both the East and the West shows that it offers many benefits. Anyone can derive its health-related and other benefits by practicing it regularly.
- Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2016 Jun; 1373(1):13-24. doi: 10.1111/nyas.12998. Epub 2016 Jan 21. Mindfulness meditation and the immune system: a systematic review of randomized controlled trials.
- The University of Wisconsin-Madison, "Mindfulness meditation may relieve chronic inflammation." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 16 January 2013.<www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/01/130116163536.htm>.
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© 2019 Dr Pran Rangan