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How to Meditate: Meditation 101 for Beginners

10 Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation

What is Meditation?

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10 Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation

Meditation is recognized for reducing stress and anxiety, but research shows that it can also improve our health and outlook in powerful and sometimes surprising ways.

Interest in meditation has grown exponentially over the past few decades thanks to a growing body of research showing its effectiveness for reducing stress and anxiety. But alongside helping with these common challenges, meditation has proven a powerful tool for managing a broad range of health concerns, from high blood pressure to chronic pain.

What is Meditation?

Meditation is a practice of turning your attention inward, using “anchors” like the breath or a sound to focus your mind. The traditional purpose of meditation was to help the practitioner move beyond the constant chatter of the thinking mind in order to discover a deeper sense of quiet and contentment within. And while this quieting aspect of meditation is still an important benefit, science has discovered many additional, and sometimes surprising, boons to regular meditation practice.

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How Meditation Changes the Brain

Most of the benefits—mental, emotional, and physical—from meditation can be linked to how it affects your brain.

Research shows, for example, that the brains of long-time meditators have a larger volume of grey matter in the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain in control of decision-making, attention, and sensory processing.

Even short-term meditation interventions produce changes. In one study, participants in an 8-week mindfulness meditation program showed less activation of the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for emotional response and regulation.

These changes seem to be related to how meditation alters the way we process information.

Most of the benefits—mental, emotional, and physical—from meditation can be linked to how it affects your brain.

The brain has many jobs, and one of the ways it manages the workload is to find the most efficient method for getting each task done. Neural pathways are the superhighways of the brain, the most direct route from initial thought to desired result. The more efficient a neural pathway is, the more it's used, becoming part of our default mode.

In many cases, this works well. When we learn a new skill, for example, our brains lay down a new neural pathway in order to integrate the new information. That’s why practice is so important!

But sometimes this default process doesn’t serve our overall well-being.

For example, if, in the face of conflict, your default reaction is to fly into rage, it becomes problematic on many levels. A constant flood of the hormones adrenaline and cortisol, the chemicals released through the stress response, take their toll, increasing your risk of:

  • insomnia
  • inflammation
  • reduced immunity
  • high-blood pressure

Over time these physiological effects can lead to health problems including heart disease, metabolic syndrome, and more.

How Meditation Helps

When we disengage from our mental narrative, and instead lightly hold our attention on the wider, quieter space beyond the thinking mind, we disrupt our habitual mental loops.

In this spaciousness, we’re also able to draw upon other mental resources that usually get drowned out by the noise of a reactive state: reason, compassion, wisdom, and an ability to see the larger picture.

These higher cognitive functions can point us toward more healthful ways of handling a situation.

When we repeatedly disrupt the old reactive pathways and make different choices, over time we lay down new neural pathways, effectively rewiring how our brain reacts to certain situations. In this way, meditation can support behavior change.

Here are some other science-backed ways that meditation supports our mental health and our physical health.

1. Meditation Can Ease Anxiety

Anxiety can be described as runaway thoughts and feelings that cause distress. In a self-perpetuating cycle, the thoughts trigger fear and worry, which trigger physiological responses (accelerated heart rate, rapid and shallow breathing) that fuel anxious feelings, and on it goes.

Meditation helps both by interrupting the thought-reaction cycle, and by supporting a more calm, spacious state from which you might question the validity of the fearful, anxious thoughts and consider a different option.

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2. It Can Help You Feel Less Stressed

Like anxiety, stress is caused by our brain’s (and body’s) reaction to events and thoughts that, in the moment, feel overwhelming. This doesn’t mean that stress isn’t real. Big, stressful things happen all the time. So do any number of smaller stressful events, that, when they build up, can overwhelm our capacity to feel we can manage.

Meditation helps you maintain a greater sense of calm during challenging times by allowing you to disengage from the habitual thought-reaction cycle.

Another big way that meditation helps you feel less stressed is by cultivating a deeper sense of overall steadiness and calm. From this state, which continues beyond the actual activity of meditating, events and situations that usually feel stressful may no longer seem as overwhelming.

Meditation also cultivates greater self-awareness, and can help you recognize, for example, when you’re feeling a bit stressed before you get too overwhelmed, allowing you to take self-care measures that can help.

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3. It Can Help You Sleep

When disrupted sleep is caused by stress, anxiety, or any hyper-aroused state, meditation can help bring both mind and body into a deeper state of relaxation.

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4. It Can Help Manage Depression

From interrupting the stress response to cultivating self-compassion, meditation can be helpful in countering the thoughts and feelings that trigger a depressive episode. By fostering self-awareness, meditation can also help you to see what you might need when feeling vulnerable, whether it’s taking a walk or calling a friend.

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5. It’s Good for Your Heart

By reducing the stress response, meditation supports a healthy heart and cardiovascular system. Research has shown that meditation practice can lower blood pressure, and may reduce risk of cardiovascular disease.

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6. It Can Support Addiction Treatment

The psychological and physiological mechanisms behind addiction are complex, making both treatment and long-term success challenging. Meditation has shown some promise as an adjunct to substance-abuse treatment, for helping support behavior change, disrupting unhealthy thought patterns, and for increasing self-awareness, self-regulation, and self-compassion.

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7. It Helps Manage Chronic Pain

Numerous studies have found that people who suffer from chronic pain experience some relief, both in their perception of pain and in their outlook, after meditation training. Research subjects have also reported reductions in pain intensity.

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8. You May Recover Faster from Surgery

In supporting greater outlook and reducing stress and anxiety, meditation may be a useful post-operative recovery tool. Researchers have found that patients need less pain medication following meditation interventions, and they feel less worried and anxious, all of which support better outcomes and shorter recovery periods.

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9. It May Help Social Anxiety Disorder

Meditation practices offer a range of benefits that support greater sense of comfort and less anxiety for people who struggle with social anxiety. By cultivating self-acceptance and self-compassion, they can help you to feel less judgmental toward yourself. By disrupting negative thoughts, they support healthier outlook and lower susceptibility to triggers that might normally incite anxiety.

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10. It’s Sometimes Used to Treat PTSD

Post-traumatic stress disorder results from experiencing something so stressful that it continues to trigger both psychological and physiological reactions long after the event has passed. Meditation may be a useful adjunct treatment for PTSD sufferers. In helping to disengage from repetitive thought loops and stay focused in the present moment, practitioners can gain some relief from re-triggering thoughts and feelings. People struggling with PTSD may also benefit from meditation’s impact on stress and anxiety, helping them to come down from a state of hyperarousal, which makes it difficult to relax, concentrate, and sleep, among other challenges.

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Meditation for Specific Populations

In addition to the broad range of health benefits for individuals, there’s great interest in how meditation can support specific groups.

Benefits of Meditation for Kids

While the imperative to sit quietly in meditation might be difficult for young children, practices that employ meditation techniques, such as mindfulness, are easy to grasp. They’ve also become increasingly popular in schools for their ability to counter many of the stressors and challenges faced by young people, and also for supporting cognitive function. In particular, meditation interventions for kids has been shown to improve:

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Benefits of Meditation for Seniors

Older people enjoy the same range of health-related benefits of meditation as other people do, and particularly for conditions that can worsen with age, including chronic pain, heart disease, and even irritable bowel syndrome.

Research also indicates that meditation offers some protection against age-related brain deterioration, and may offset some cognitive decline. It might even increase cognitive ability and stave off age-related memory loss.

As important, some of the most promising findings about meditation for older people comes from its ability to foster greater feelings of connection and reduce feelings of loneliness.

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Benefits of Meditation for Athletes

There's a good reason that many professional athletes and sports teams use meditation. Its ability to help athletes focus and recover from mental set-backs makes it a powerful performance tool. Athletes also benefit from meditation’s overall ability to:

  • manage pain
  • improve sleep
  • cultivate self-awareness

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Benefits of Meditation at Work

Businesses have embraced meditation training for its proven benefits to employee health and well-being, especially in areas that matter most on the job, including:

Meditation is also a popular management-training tool to support leaders to better handle the demands of their jobs. In particular, it’s been found to help business leaders:

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Benefits of Meditation in Psychology

While meditation has been practiced for thousands of years in contemplative traditions, such as Buddhism, it entered modern mainstream culture by way of support for the mind. In 1979, a researcher named Jon Kabat Zinn, who had studied Zen meditation, started a stress-reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and created the landmark 8-week program Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). Originally intended as a complementary and adjunct therapy to counteract the stress that impedes physical healing, MBSR and its offshoot, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT), which was developed specifically to help manage chronic depression, launched a powerful new therapeutic model that is widely used today.

At the heart of these and other therapies, including Meditation Therapy, is the recognition that mindfulness, which is strengthened through meditation, offers numerous psychological benefits. Among other things, it:

  • Reduces stress
  • Reduces anxiety
  • Can improve sleep
  • Reduces reactivity
  • Fosters self-awareness
  • Fosters self-compassion
  • Boosts emotional regulation
  • Decreases depressive relapse

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10-day Mindful Meditation Program for Beginners

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Join Mindfulness.com co-host Cory Muscara for a 10-day course to master the foundational principles of mindfulness and establish a realistic daily mindfulness practice that can easily integrate into your modern, busy life.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long should I meditate?

Any amount of meditation is beneficial, but the more you do, the stronger the effects. When you start out, try 5-10 minutes of meditation per session. Increase the length by one minute each time until you reach 30 minutes, or a length of time that feels right for you. You might also plan to do one longer session each week or to attend a meditation retreat to help develop your practice.

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