Meditation is a great way to improve health and wellbeing and the perfect technique to use at stressful moments in life. Meditation refers to a number of different techniques that allow us to focus attention without judgement. Meditation has demonstrated physiological and cognitive impacts for healthy individuals and can be helpful for the management of many chronic health conditions. Types of meditation vary from focusing on the breath, movement i.e. walking or focusing on thoughts or mantras that bring intention to the practice. So what are the benefits of meditation?
What does science tell us about the benefits of meditation?
The majority of published studies on meditation have evaluated popular techniques of meditation; transcendental meditation, Mindfulness-based meditation or meditation with yoga. Science continues to evolve and studies are being conducted to evaluate the impact on different populations and of different formats. There are a number of scientific studies demonstrating the positive impact of meditation, and the lack of negative effects on both healthy individuals and those with chronic illness. As more robust studies are conducted we will gain greater confidence that the amazing feeling we achieve from meditation is also impacting health and wellbeing in a measurable way.
Five reasons to meditate:
1. To reduce stress levels
Meditation can reduce your perceived stress levels by lowering your heart rate and breathing frequency, inducing your parasympathetic nervous system response and decreasing cortisol levels in your body. Wanting to reduce stress levels is often a trigger for trying meditation.
A review conducted in 2018 of 21 randomized studies measuring the neurophysiological and cognitive impacts of transcendental meditation (TM) confirmed the positive impact on stress reduction (1) despite the small number of studies measuring this as an outcome. This potential benefit is mirrored when delivered as part of occupational wellbeing programmes for healthcare workers (2) but only when the intervention was continued for a period of more than six months. A similar review conducted in 2016 looked specifically at meditative interventions (including mindfulness-based stress reduction, mindfulness meditation, yogic meditation and chanting practices) for people who care for others, including informal carers and healthcare professionals. The results suggest a small to moderate benefit on stress reduction for both groups of caring individuals (3).
2. To reduce feelings of anxiety
Meditation can reduce feelings of anxiety when compared to not trying any intervention to induce calm and manage anxiety and overwhelm. By practicing meditation feelings of control and coping can be improved.
A review conducted in 2021 identified from 47 trials with 3515 participants that Mindfulness-based meditation programs had moderate evidence of improving anxiety at 8 weeks (4). A similar review looking at forms of spiritual and religious interventions in mental healthcare found that the meditation group achieved a significant reduction in anxiety levels (5). This finding has also been echoed in a review specifically looking at the impacts of meditative therapies on anxiety. In this review, 25 studies reported statistically better outcomes in the meditation group compared to the control group(6).
3. Increase mindfulness and self-compassion
Meditation techniques that focus on improving loving-kindness and compassion can reduce low mood, increase the ability to practice mindfulness and express elements of self-compassion. This impact can also improve your ability to interact socially and practice compassion and empathy towards other people.
A review looking at kindness-based meditation techniques (loving-kindness, compassion) identified 22 studies showing a reduction in self-reported depression, increasing mindfulness, compassion and self-compassion when compared to passive controls. Positive emotions were also increased (7) when compared to progressive relaxation techniques in the included studies.
4. Prevent the risk of cardiovascular disease
Meditation has the potential to reduce the risk of developing cardiovascular disease by reducing individual health-related risk factors. The use of meditation can reduce blood pressure, help you to stop smoking, reduce stress levels and in combination reduce the occurrence of disease.
The use of meditation as a technique to reduce cardiovascular risk factors has been endorsed by the American Heart Association (8). This statement concludes that the existing evidence suggests a benefit on cardiovascular risk and given the low cost and risk of meditation that it should be considered as a lifestyle modification to reduce individual risk. A further review is being conducted to identify all the current science that can help us to understand how to include meditation as an intervention in primary and secondary prevention (9).
5. Improving sleep quality
Meditation techniques can improve sleep quality and help to manage stress and anxiety that can often be root causes for poor sleep. Regular meditation appears to have the greatest impact on how we sleep.
A review looking at mind-body interventions on sleep quality and insomnia identified the most significant effect when meditation was evaluated. Meditation reduced both self-reported sleep quality and objective measures in healthy people and people with insomnia and sleep issues related to underlying medical conditions.
And there are more....
There are many more benefits to meditation that can be expressed by meditators and measured by science. These include happiness levels, levels of self-efficacy, slow age-related cognitive changes, increase concentration and improving levels of immunity. As science evolves this list is likely to get longer. One thing that is sure is that people have been practicing meditation in its various forms for centuries...feeling the benefit on their health and wellbeing each day...no matter how you measure it.
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Neurophysiological, cognitive-behavioural and neurochemical effects in practitioners of transcendental meditation - a literature review. Mosini AC et al 2019 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/31166449/
Preventing occupational stress in healthcare workers Ruotsalainen JH et al 2015 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25847433/
A systematic review and meta-analysis of meditative interventions for informal caregivers and health professionals Dharmawardene M et al 2016 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25812579/
Meditation programs for psychological stress and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Goyal M et al https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24395196/
Religious and spiritual interventions in mental health care: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomised controlled clinical trials. Goncalves JPB et al 2015 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/26200715/
Meditative therapies for reducing anxiety: a systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Chen KW et al 2012 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22700446/
Effect of kindness-based meditation on health and well-being: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Galante J et al 2014 https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/24979314/
Meditation and cardiovascular risk reduction A scientific statement from the American Heart Association 2017 https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/JAHA.117.002218
Meditation for the primary and secondary prevention of cardiovascular disease https://www.cochrane.org/CD013358/VASC_meditation-primary-and-secondary-prevention-cardiovascular-disease
The effect of mind-body therapies on insomnia: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Wang X et al 2019 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6393899/