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What Does Science Say About Meditation and Mindfulness?

Were the ancient Sages, Gurus and Yogis superhuman? Did they unlock latent abilities within the human body that have been lost in the current age? Walking on coals, standing on a bed of nails and surviving in extreme temperatures are all examples of mind over matter that can be accomplished through strengthening your mental prowess. 

I am not sure if Meditation can make you superhuman, but some of the feats accomplished by Meditators, and validated by western science, are certainly beyond what is enjoyed by the average person today. Even if those are not things you want to be able to do, Meditation and Mindfulness can help every person live a more healthy and productive life. Most importantly, these abilities are not available to just a select few, they are open to anyone and everyone who has the tenacity and follow through to practice Meditation on a regular basis. 

In our first couple blogs in our Meditation and Mindfulness series, we looked at what these practices are, barriers to practicing them, a general introduction on how to meditate and some of the different types of meditation available today. Now that we've covered what Meditation and Mindfulness are and how to practice them, lets look at a few of the amazing things science has proven to be true about Meditation practitioners. Things like how Meditation is being applied in sports, performances and business, how it changes the brain and how it is impacting health and wellness.

Meditation and Peak Performance 

Performance Psychology is an emerging field of study that mixes sport psychology and positive psychology. It could just as easily be called the psychology of excellence. It is most often applied to the areas of business, athletics, tactical fields (military, police, and firefighters), and any type of performer (dance, music, theater, etc). It is a teachable process, that helps someone train their mind, so that they can be their best at whatever they are trying to do. So what does performance psychology have to do with Meditation and Mindfulness?

Commonly used techniques in Performance Psychology are arousal regulation, attention/focus, mental toughness, self talk, imagery, and goal setting (check out our blog on Behavior Change and SMART Goals for more on this). The techniques being employed in this field are essentially forms of meditation, visualization, and breath related practices. 

Arousal regulation in regards to sports is when one is in an energized state of readiness to perform. Too little or too much arousal can hinder your performance. The secret is to learn various strategies to be able to cope with pressure situations. This will allow you to be “dialed in” to your optimal arousal zone for successful performance. Using Meditation to manage the pressure will improve your execution, allowing you to not be under or over aroused. 

Imagery is when people use visualization meditation practices to see themselves going through their performance and having a positive outcome. This could be a basketball player seeing themselves (in their mind's eye) making the shot into the basket, or a runner envisioning themselves making their best time. Another example would be imagining yourself at the podium, reciting your speech and seeing that you do so eloquently and without forgetting your words or stumbling. Once your mind has seen this visualization, it becomes much easier to actually accomplish the goal, when the times comes to do it in reality. 

Mindfulness based techniques and breath techniques are used to help with being aware of self talk and to help regulate arousal, such as anxiety or jitters. So, performance psychology is pretty much rebranding Meditation techniques in a secular form and applying them to performing our best. 

The anxiety around performing, whether in the boardroom, on the field, or on a stage, is the stumbling block to reaching your goals. The ability to train your mind has been proven to increase successful outcomes in all of your endeavors. 

Meditation And The Brain

Meditation and Mindfulness have quantifiable effects on the brain. Two of the most interesting are how they impact neuroplasticity and the Default Mode Network (DMN). Neuroplasticity can be seen as the brain's ability to change, adapt and grow. When experienced Meditators (those with at least 10,000 hours of Meditation) are tested, they can actively control which state their brains are in. Meditation has been proven to have a positive impact on neuroplasticity.  

The DMN is the part of the brain that seems to be responsible for self-related thinking and mind wandering. During times when the DMN is highly active, we are being self-centered and/or fixated on the past or future (which often leads to stress, anxiety or depression). Essentially, when the DMN is active, we are not being mindful. Studies have now shown that Meditation leads to significantly decreased DMN activation.

Therefore, Meditation leads to Mindfulness, which decreases DMN activity, which lowers stress and anxiety, allowing you to become more present. Research has also shown that meditation can help its practitioners change their brain waves, increase focus, create new neural pathways and help ward off brain degeneration. Meditation is a bit like exercise for your brain, keeping it healthy and fit.

Meditation, Health and Wellness

You may have heard that Meditation and Mindfulness can improve your health, but what does that actually mean? Well, it looks like Meditation and Mindfulness can help both physical heath and mental health, and we will take a look at both.

Most of the research done so far has used MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), which was developed by Jon Kabat Zinn at the University Massachusetts Medical School. MBSR is taught to groups of people over eight weeks. MBSR was the first evidence based approach using Mindfulness and Meditation as a treatment option, so it is not surprising that is used for research purposes. 

Over the years, other Mindfulness based treatment options have also become popular. One such modality is MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy), which is used by Psychotherapists. MBCT, like MBSR, is typically done in a group setting over eight weeks. MBCT helps people recognize their negative thought patterns and heighten their metacognition (essentially being aware of being aware). It was developed to help those that are vulnerable to depressive relapse and is sometimes used as an alternative to antidepressants.

  • Mental Health

Meditation and Mindfulness seem to help with Mental Health in three main areas; stress reduction, reducing and slowing cognitive decline, and with alleviating depression and anxiety.

For most of human existence, our flight or fight response was triggered by real, life threatening situations, such as a wild animal in our midst. As your body perceives a danger, your adrenal glands release the hormone cortisol into your bloodstream. Often called the “stress hormone,” cortisol causes an increase in your heart rate and blood pressure, as a way to help you escape the situation. After the perilous circumstance has passed, your cortisol level should go back to baseline. In today's world, we are chronically stressed out by things like work, bills, pandemics, and wars. These keep us in a heightened level of stress for extended periods of time, never allowing us to return to our baseline. This high stress lifestyle is unhealthy, both mentally and physically. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) techniques can be used as a treatment option for our overly stress filled modern lifestyle.

 

Studies using Meditation techniques have demonstrated that Meditation can help improve attention, memory, time needed to process information, cognition and executive function. Executive function is a set of mental skills that include working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things. Mindfulness has also been proven to help slow down Alzheimer's Disease, as well as cognitive decline as we age. Sounds pretty amazing, doesn't it?

Additionally, MBSR has been shown to help people who suffer from Generalized Anxiety Disorder and MBCT has been shown to help with recurrent depression. Overall, it can be concluded that including Meditation and Mindfulness into our lives will result in a higher, more positive state of mental health. 

In addition to the continually growing list of positive health outcomes Meditation and Mindfulness have on mental health, there is also a lot of evidence pointing towards the positive health benefits these practices have on physical health.

  • Physical Health

Within the physical health arena, Meditation and Mindfulness seem to help most with pain management and bodily distress, sleep issues and heart disease.

Mindfulness has been proven to help people manage their bodily pain. Sometimes it is hard to tell where the body ends and the mind begins. Although pain is felt in parts of the body, it is created in the brain. By training your brain, you can learn to alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychosomatic, and psychiatric disorders. As well as Bodily Distress which includes things such as fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and somatization disorder.

 

Sleep is vital to good health. Ongoing sleep deficiency is linked to an increased risk of heart disease, kidney disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, and stroke.

When we are stressed, depressed, or anxious, our brain stays “wired” and we find it more difficult to fall asleep. Mindfulness and Meditation help bring about a relaxed state of mind that is conducive to falling asleep more easily. Research suggests that various types of meditation can help improve persistent insomnia. Mindfulness Meditation in particular appears to reduce daytime disturbance in people with chronic insomnia as well as improve overall sleep quality.

 

One study found that using Meditation can help those who suffer from prehypertension. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United Sates according to the CDC. Heart Disease includes things like Hypertension, also known as high blood pressure, heart attacks and coronary artery disease. Interestingly, they found that MBSR worked better than progressive muscle relaxation techniques for reducing both diastolic and systolic blood pressure. This means that Meditation, especially those with a Mindfulness focus, could help people with Heart Disease. The American Heart Association has come to the same conclusion.

  • Other Possible Health Benefits

The research on the health impacts of Meditation and Mindfulness have exploded in recent years. It would appear that most studies that research Meditation and Mindfulness have focused primarily on what are known as lifestyle diseases, or things that are created by the way in which live. It would seem however, that we have only scratched the surface of the impacts these practices can have on our health. Undoubtedly, there are many unforeseen positive health ramifications of Meditation and Mindfulness that we are yet to discover. The current research on Meditation and Mindfulness suggest that they might also help improve immune function (Lymphocytes and T Cell Activation), HIVcertain types of cancer, cellular aging (telomeres)and acute respirator infections, as well as general well-being, emotional distress and diabetes. The possibilities seem to be endless in the way that meditation can help us all live longer, healthier lives. 

There is also evidence that Mindfulness Meditation helps reduce peoples' automatic responses and tendencies, allowing one to live more consciously and live a participatory existence, rather than one of circumstances.  A 2014 study found that Mindfulness Meditation helps increase compassion and reduce implicit age and racial biases via this very mechanism.

You see, each of us have many frequently used neural pathways in our brains. These are actions and thoughts that we have had many times before and our brain uses them again and again with ease. Our habitual tendencies thus become well worn grooves in the brain that electrical impulses run down more easily than other, less used paths. 

Much like the Grand Canyon, which was created by water traveling through the area. Slowly, over time, water ran down the lowest elevation area, making this groove a little deeper. Which in turn, attracted more water to the area, which made it even more deep, which brought more water. I'm sure you get the idea.

The same is true of the brain. Although this mechanism exists for a reason and saves valuable resources (such as energy, as the brain uses approximately 20% of your daily energy expenditure), we do not want to live our entire life on autopilot. This is where Mindfulness comes into play.

After Meditating regularly, our general level of Mindfulness increases. This Mindfulness gives us a second to pause and consider our circumstances and options, which allows us to choose how we want to react, rather than living a reactionary existence. It's almost like Mindfulness allows for free will. Once this basic level of Mindfulness has been built up, it can be applied to all aspects of our lives.

For example, when you get cut off in traffic, do you cuss at the person who cut you off? Drive right up next to their bumper? Honk at them? Flip them off? Unfortunately, many of us have probably done these things. Often times, we regret our actions later, feeling bad about it, or foolish for driving recklessly. When we are living mindfully, we can choose to not be triggered by such situations. Rather than react impulsively, or with aggression, we can choose to slow down, let the other person continue on rushing, while we move on with our day in a calm or tranquil state.

Once you have built this skill up, you really can apply it to any situation. Mindful of feelings, mindful of sensations, mindful of thoughts. Once you live mindfully, you are free to be exactly who you want to be, and this is why we, here at Lotus Tribe, find Meditation and Mindfulness to be so important. It is nothing short of life changing.

Final Thoughts

So, will Meditation give you superpowers? No, but it will increase your focus, your performance and your health. One of the biggest benefits of Meditation and living mindfully is the reduced stress level you will experience. The truth is, stress is a part of our daily lives. Stress impacts the human mind and body in many destructive ways. Meditation's ability to reduce people's stress is one of the biggest reasons why these practices are so beneficial. Knowing how to regulate your personal stress levels will increase both mental and physical health, as well help you perform better in every way. 

In recent times, Meditation and Mindfulness practices have regained their popularity and with the resurgence, the claims of superhuman abilities have resurfaced. So much so, that the scientific community has undertaken the task of separating the truth from the snake oil. Every study on the effects of a Meditation and living a mindful lifestyle have shown amazing benefits. Additional studies are sure to find even more benefits, and the research is ongoing. What was once considered esoteric and spiritual is now well known to be a proven remedy for many conditions, often with better results than pharmaceutical and other traditional treatments. 

For additional information on stress, its impact on the body, and how to manage it, check out our blog: 5 Breath Techniques To Reduce Stress and Calm The Nervous System. 

 

*Please note that although Meditation and Mindfulness have been shown to help with many health issues, they are not intended to replace treatment from a health professional. This blog is for educational purposes only.