Spoiler alert: To learn how to hack your meditation practice to get more benefits in less time, read on here.
Given the beneficial alterations to brain function described in part one of this science of meditation series (this is part two), it’s easy to see how meditation can reduce unhelpful stress and anxiety and improve overall psychological well-being.
But these effects are not solely due to changes in brain structure. This post explores the stress relief and well-being aspects of a successful meditation practice.
Note: This post is part 2 of Bulletproof’s science of meditation series. Read part 1 on benefits to your brain here, and check back next week for part 3 to come.
Meditation for Stress Relief and Reduction
A systematic review published in the journal Depression and Anxiety in 2012 showed that meditation significantly reduces levels of the infamous stress hormones cortisol and epinephrine (also known as adrenaline).[[x]]
Adrenaline activates the amygdala, which causes us to panic over things not worth panicking about, and unnecessarily high cortisol levels cause widespread physical damage and disease. Regulating production of these hormones through meditation (or, if you prefer, exercise) is a boon to health.
The same study suggests that meditation may help practitioners deal well with stress by honing their ability to “detach” emotionally from a difficult situation while maintaining attention to the matter, thus allowing the problem-solving brain to work toward resolution of the problem scenario without the distracting emotional fallout.
Meditation and Substance Abuse
An important example of this effect is seen in the research on recovery from substance abuse. An unwillingness or inability to endure unpleasant thoughts or experiences is considered a major component of addictive behavior, and excess stress and anxiety exacerbate reliance on drugs and alcohol for stress-relief.
Mindfulness meditation helps the practitioner develop better stress-coping strategies so that they don’t have to turn to harmful substances to do the trick.[[xi]]
Meditation and Depression
A number of studies demonstrate the beneficial effect of meditation on symptoms of depression, in particular by improving social behavior and reducing emotional reactivity.[[xii]]
A 2012 systematic review of 47 clinical trials evaluating the efficacy of meditation programs on stress-related outcomes showed that mindfulness meditation was as effective as antidepressants in reducing symptoms of anxiety and depression.[[xiii]]
The types of meditation and number of hours spent in practice varied among the studies reviewed, with one hour per week for eight weeks on the low end to three hours per week for fifteen weeks on the higher end.
The authors point out that more time spent meditating should yield betters results, which is relatively intuitive.
There is a ton more research out there on all of these subtopics; entire books have been written. This article is just here to touch on each aspect briefly and provide an overview of the benefits meditation can have for you. I encourage readers to do more reading of their own on the processes in your body that meditation can start to impact.
What Does This Mean For Every Day Life?
All of this is not to say that you have to sit in meditation every day for hours on end to see results! In fact, one of the incredible things about meditation is how little of it you have to do to see big results. To learn how to hack your meditation practice to get even more benefits in less time, read on here.
Even for someone who has never meditated, as little as twenty minutes a day for five days can measurably reduce your anxiety, anger, and depression.[[xiv]]
This post is part 2 of a 3-part science of meditation series, so check back for part 3 to come.
These are the references for parts one through three of the science of meditation series.
[i] Luders E, Kurth F, Mayer EA, et al. The unique brain anatomy of meditation practitioners: alterations in cortical gyrification. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22393318
[ii] Stanford University Vista Lab Teaching Wiki: Brain Gyrification and its Significance http://white.stanford.edu/teach/index.php/Brain_Gyrification_and_its_Significance
[iii] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
[iv] US Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health: Meditation: What You Need to Know https://nccih.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm
[v] Lazar, S., et al. Meditation experience is associated with increased cortical thickness.
Neuroreport. 2005 Nov 28; 16(17): 1893–1897. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1361002/
[vi] Taren, A., A., et al. Dispositional Mindfulness Co-Varies with Smaller Amygdala and Caudate Volumes in Community Adults. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64574, 22 May 2013. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0064574
[vii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf
[viii] LeDoux, Joseph. The Emotional Brain, Fear, and the Amygdala. Cellular and Molecular Neurobiology, Vol. 23, Nos. 4/5, October 2003 http://www.ekmaninternational.com/media/4634/fearbrain%20amygdala%20joe%20ledoux.pdf
[ix] Desbordes G, Negi LT, Pace TW, et al. Effects of mindful-attention and compassion meditation training on amygdala response to emotional stimuli in an ordinary, non-meditative state. Frontiers in Human Neuroscience. 2012;6:1–15. http://www.tibet.emory.edu/documents/Desbordes_Provisional_amygdala.pdf
[x] Chen, K. W., Berger, C. C., Manheimer, E., Forde, D., Magidson, J., Dachman, L. and Lejuez, C. W. (2012), Meditative Therapies for Reducing Anxiety: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials. Depress. Anxiety, 29: 545–562. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/da.21964/full
[xi] Marcus, M. T., and Zgierska, A. Mindfulness-Based Therapies for Substance Use Disorders: Part 1 (Editorial). Subst Abus. 2009 Oct–Dec; 30(4): 263.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2818765/
[xii] Grecucci A, et al. Baseline and Strategic Effects behind Mindful Emotion Regulation: Behavioral and Physiological Investigation. PLoS One. 2015 Jan 15;10(1):e0116541. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0116541
[xiii] Goyal, M., et al. Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being
A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. JAMA Intern Med. 2014;174(3):357-368.http://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=1809754#Abstract
[xiv] Tang, Y., et al. (2007). Short-term meditation training improves attention and self-regulation. PNAS, 104(43), 17152-17156. http://www.pnas.org/content/104/43/17152.long
[xv] Carly M. Goldstein, Richard Josephson, Susan Xie, and Joel W. Hughes, “Current Perspectives on the Use of Meditation to Reduce Blood Pressure,” International Journal of Hypertension, vol. 2012, Article ID 578397, 11 pages, 2012. http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ijhy/2012/578397/cta/
[xvi] Anderson JW, Liu C, Kryscio RJ. Blood pressure response to transcendental meditation: a meta-analysis. Am J Hypertens. 2008 Mar;21(3):310-6.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18311126
[xvii] Wright, L., B., et al. Impact of Stress Reduction Interventions on Hostility and Ambulatory Systolic Blood Pressure in African American Adolescents. Journal of Black Psychology May 2011 vol. 37 no. 2 210-233. http://jbp.sagepub.com/content/37/2/210.full.pdf+html
[xviii] Prakhinkit, S., et al. Effects of Buddhism walking meditation on depression, functional fitness, and endothelium-dependent vasodilation in depressed elderly. J Altern Complement Med. 2014 May;20(5):411-6. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24372522
[xix] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/
[xx] Ray, I., B., et al. Meditation and coronary heart disease: a review of the current clinical evidence. Ochsner J. 2014 Winter;14(4):696-703.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4295748/
[xxi] Maglione-Garves, C., et al. Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight. University of New Mexico, Exercise Science Department.http://www.unm.edu/~lkravitz/Article%20folder/stresscortisol.html
[xxii] Rosenkranz, M., A., et al. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. Brain Behav Immun. 2013 Jan;27(1):174-84.http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23092711
[xxiii] Morgan N, Irwin MR, Chung M, Wang C (2014) The Effects of Mind-Body Therapies on the Immune System: Meta-Analysis. PLoS ONE 9(7): e100903. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0100903
[xxiv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015
[xxv] Davidson, R., J., Kabat-Zinn, J., et al. Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation Psychosomatic Medicine. 65(4), July 2003, p 564–570http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/2003-07002-015