4 Main Mental Health Benefits of Meditation
There are many, many benefits of meditation. Who knew that the simple act of sitting down and focusing on your breath could be so good for you? When I first heard of meditation I though it was ridiculous, I couldn’t see why anyone would want to do that to themselves. I thought maybe it could possibly be a method of suicide – death by boredom.
Anyway, once I delved into it a little and started practicing it, I began to see the appeal and now it is a very strong habit in my life that I love doing. Firstly, it feels absolutely amazing once you get the hang of it, and really helps to calm and center your mind. Secondly, there are many scientific benefits, including the potential for increasing focus, intelligence, aiding your relationships and maybe even lengthening your life. On top of all of that are the many mental health benefits of meditation. Let’s delve into some of them in this post. Enjoy.
MEDITATION HELPS TO REDUCE STRESS
Meditation is inherently relaxing, due to the emphasis on focusing on a particular object such as your breathing and blocking everything else out. Any kind of bodily relaxation like this induces a physiological relaxation response, which has markedly positive effects on disorders caused by stress or made worse by it, including high blood pressure, abnormal heart rhythms, and many digestive disorders.1
In one particular research study, a group of 30 people went on a 3-month meditation retreat. Afterwards, the retreat group reported increases in perceived control, mindfulness and purpose in life, and a decrease in neuroticism compared to the control group. These are the psychological markers of stress.2
Now, you don’t necessarily have to take things to the extreme and go on an intensive 3-month meditation retreat, however what you can do is meditate consistently. You will notice an immediate decrease in stress, and this will only further decrease as you practice meditation more.
DECREASED WORK-RELATED BURNOUT
A 2012 study published in a journal of psychiatry3 found that meditation decreased levels of burnout, emotional exhaustion, depersonalization and increased personal accomplishment and mental well-being scores ‘significantly’.
Meditation decreases all types of stress, and work-related stress is no different. In fact, there is a multitude of evidence out there that suggests meditation can increase productivity, focus and intelligence.
MEDITATION HELPS REDUCE DEPRESSION AND ANXIETY SYMPTOMS
A large component of what is believed to cause depression and make depressive episodes more likely is rumination. Rumination, according to Wikipedia: ‘is the compulsively focused attention on the symptoms of one’s distress, and on its possible causes and consequences, as opposed to its solutions.’ Knowing that definition, it’s quite clear why that leads to depression. Rumination fosters hopelessness, a victim mentality and negative self-view. Those things sound like the perfect recipe for a rotten mood.
Luckily, the practices of meditation and mindfulness can greatly counteract rumination, based on the fact that meditation is about training your mind to observe your thoughts and emotions ‘at a distance’, to not get caught up in your ruminative moods. That coupled with the relaxation of slowing down your breathing, is a perfect recipe for reducing depression greatly, and becoming much happier.
A study was done in which a group of Korean nursing students4 practiced mindfulness meditation for 2 hours a week for 8 weeks (under 20 minutes a day). They practiced in various forms of mindfulness such as traditional sitting meditation, mindfulness while eating, while walking, while doing yoga, and body scan meditations. Compared to the control group they reported a reduction in depression, anxiety and stress, and an increase in their general mindful awareness.
Anxiety can be a debilitating condition, and there are many therapies that have emerged in the last few decades that incorporate mindfulness in order to reduce symptoms of anxiety.
An experiment was done5 in which 56 adult patients with social anxiety disorder were either assigned to a meditation program (mindfulness based stress reduction) or an aerobic exercise program. Their brain activity was measured with fMRI, and also their behavioral changes were monitored after the experiment was over.
It was found that mindfulness based stress reduction training caused greater decreases in negative self-views and an equivalent increase in positive self-views compared to those that did just aerobic exercise (distorted and negative self-views are seen as a benchmark for social anxiety). More analysis showed that changes in these self-views were associated with a decrease in social anxiety symptom severity for the meditation group, but not the aerobic exercise group.
My interpretation of that study is that the real issue is overly focusing on one’s self. If you are overly concerned with your self in relation to the world, then you will feel anxious. This may be negative self-view or positive self-view. In my opinion, too much of either self-view is not good, because you identify more and more with your self and the random thoughts that your mind conjures up. Meditation reminds you that you are the watcher of your thoughts and emotions, and that you do not have to get riled up or tangled in them. As a result of realizing this, you can relax, and anxiety decreases. Meditation is remarkably good at teaching healthy detachment from your mind.
MEDITATION BENEFITS ADDICTION RECOVERY
There have been a small but growing number of well-designed clinical trials and experimental laboratory studies6 on smoking, alcohol dependence, and illicit substance use support the clinical effectiveness of mindfulness-based interventions for treating addiction.
Researchers are finding meditation is more and more relevant to addiction because the skills, insights, and self-awareness learned through mindfulness practice can target multiple psychological, neural, physiological, and behavioral processes implicated in addiction and relapse.
In regards to addictions like smoking, a variety of mindfulness therapies have been introduced. One that comes to mind is ‘surfing the urge’. Where smokers were encouraged to take note of the thoughts and feelings that came to them during cigarette cravings. They encouraged participants to hold a cigarette, feel the urge to smoke and be aware of it but not judge it, to be mindful and note all the characteristics of the cigarette they may have been holding. These people found that the urge would rise, fall and eventually subside, like a wave, and that with practice they could manage their urges very well and it helped many participants to stop smoking.
This kind of mindfulness can be applied to any addiction and people can begin to see improvements in recovery over time.
Meditation can greatly benefit mental health in the ways that I have described above. These are only some of the vast benefits that simply sitting down and focusing for a few minutes everyday can bring you.