Demystifying Meditation: A Look at the Science
If you’ve started taking an interest in meditation, you may have uncovered some terminology that has left you scratching your head. Wait, what’s my sacral chakra? uhh… Kundalini? Pranayama? For the non-meditator, many of these concepts can seem like mumbo-jumbo. One could easily (and mistakingly!) believe that meditation is a practice reserved only for monks and devout yogis.
At least, this was my experience when I started looking into meditation. Living in a very left-brain, analytical society I think it’s easy for many people to feel quite closed towards the more intuitive/ philosophical aspects of meditation. However, the more that I started reading into it, I’ve come to understand that meditation need not be complicated or affiliated with any particular faith or religion – in fact, it is a it is a powerful tool that can deliver a number of health and stress-relieving benefits that is accessible to anyone and everyone (whether you’re familiar with chakras or not!).
In its most simple sense, meditation may be understood as a process of becoming more aware and present in the moment, without judgement. This may involve techniques such as relaxation, body scan, breath work and visualisation.
Research into the area of meditation is expanding, suggesting a number of interesting ways in which meditation may exert its effects in the brain and body. Some popular and researched types of meditation include mindfulness meditation and Vipassana – a type of meditation that emphasises mindfulness and attention to present-moment sensations in the body.
Of course, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t open ourselves to the more intuitive aspects of meditation (something we will surely be writing about in the future!) – however, by offering a more scientific perspective I’m hoping some of you may feel more willing to give meditation a try!
Your Brain on Meditation
Meditation is thought to recruit different areas of the brain that work to enhance attention control, emotional regulation and self-awareness. One such brain structure that is thought to play a key role is the amygdala – a group of neurons within the limbic system involved in processing emotions, appraising and responding to emotional events (1). Another important function of the amygdala is in mediating our fear response. Here, its stimulation activates the HPA axis, causing the adrenals to synthesise and release stress hormones, namely cortisol (2). To illustrate the importance of the amygdala, consider that its function is found to be impaired in those suffering from conditions such as anxiety, depression and PTSD (3).
Several studies suggest that meditation may reduce amygdala activation, producing positive effects on emotional regulation and reactivity:
- In an 8 week study, two different forms of meditation were found to reduce amygdala activation in patients, even while not actively meditating. This suggests that meditation may produce long-term changes in how we process emotion (4).
- In another study, mindfulness based techniques and breath focused attention where shown to decrease amygdala activity and reduce negative emotion experience in patients with social anxiety disorder. This suggests that meditation may improve emotional regulation and reactivity (5).
- In another study, participants who practiced mindfulness meditation were found to be less reactive emotionally to unpleasant images, and reported higher levels of wellbeing (6).
Though the underlying neural mechanisms employed during meditation are currently not fully understood, these studies suggest that meditation influences specific regions of the brain that allow us to process and regulate our emotions more effectively. This aligns with the common notion that meditation helps us to respond to situations rather than react.
Calming Your Nerves Naturally
Meditation also brings us into a state of calm by promoting a shift from the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to the parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS) (7).
You’ve probably heard that the sympathetic nervous system is responsible for our ‘fight or flight’ response – that is, when we are faced with a threat (either real or perceived!) this branch of the autonomic nervous system prepares the body to run or fight back. When activated, the SNS stimulates the release of adrenaline and noradrenaline by the adrenals, increases heart rate, raises blood pressure, promotes glycogen breakdown (providing a burst of energy), dilating the airways and increasing circulation to the skeletal muscles (effectively diverting activity away from the gastrointestinal tract and stalling digestion). Once upon a time, this response was critical to our survival, allowing us to escape from predators; however, in our modern world we are faced with less life-threatening stressors (overdue bills, traffic, doing a speech) yet the sympathetic response elicited is the same. As a result, many of us live in a state of sympathetic nervous system dominance.
On the other side of the coin, we have the parasympathetic nervous system responsible for our ‘rest and digest’ and restorative functions. When the parasympathetic nervous system becomes active it slows our heart rate, lowers blood pressure and promotes digestive activity, allowing us to effectively digest and absorb nutrients.
Creating a healthy balance between our SNS and PSNS is essential for our health and wellbeing. During meditative practices, particularly mindfulness meditation, studies have shown that parasympathetic activity is heightened while sympathetic activity is reduced (8, 9). In this way, meditation moves us into a state of calm and allows the body to engage in restorative processes.
Whether you believe in chakras or not, meditation has profound effects on our brain and nervous system and offers a number of benefits in relation to how we process emotions and tolerate stress. To be honest, this topic could span a series of articles – however, I hope this brief look at some of the research currently available inspires some of you to open your mind towards meditation!
If you’re new to meditation and not quite sure where to start you may be interested to learn that we have recently released a 10 minute meditation for grounding available for purchase here. This meditation was designed with beginners in mind, and includes a guided body scan and visualisation exercise to calm an over-active mind and create more presence and awareness in the body.
We’d love to know – have you tried meditation? What has been your experience?