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In a time when traumatic events such as pandemics, shootings and loss seem never-ending, mindfulness can be a tool for feeling capable during periods of uncertainty.
“Mindfulness is a collection of practices nowadays, aimed to help most of us cultivate moment-to-moment awareness,” said Monica Vermani, a clinical psychologist based in Toronto and author of “A Deeper Wellness: Conquering Stress, Mood, Anxiety and Traumas.”
“You’re not only aware of your body; you’re aware of your surroundings and your world,” she added. “It forces you to pay attention to life (rather) than get caught up in your head with anxious thoughts, worries and ruminating about the future.”
Meditation, a practice of mindfulness, doesn’t have a single universal definition. But as interest in mindfulness and meditation has grown, it has been summed up as “a mind and body practice focused on interactions between the brain, mind, body and behavior, containing four key elements: a quiet location with little distractions, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention and an open attitude,” according to a 2021 study.
Scientists are still learning about exactly how meditation could induce positive impacts on other aspects of health, too – such as helping our immune systems function optimally, enhancing sleep, lowering cholesterol and alleviating pain.
“It helps you with memory and concentration, increases resiliency, helps you manage stress better (and) helps you have a positive impact on relationships,” Vermani said. “In relationships, if you’re busy in your mind, you’re reactive. And when you’re mindful and you’re grounded, you have a tendency to respond versus react, meaning to pause and reflect before letting things go out of your mouth that are sometimes hurtful, or negative or judgmental.”
Practicing mindfulness has been found to influence two stress pathways in the brain, altering brain structure and activity in regions that regulate attention and emotion, according to the American Psychological Association.
Influencing stress and longevity
People who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy – which include meditation – have been less likely to have negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional reactions when facing stressful situations, according to a 2015 review.
In addition to any structural changes in the brain, these benefits could be the result of physical processes, too. Meditation can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system that’s responsible for regulating involuntary physiological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing and digestion.
“Whenever we’re anxious or we’re racing in that rat race of a world, we’re rushing so much that we do short and shallow breaths,” Vermani said. “When you do that, your muscles tighten up, your brain tends to get foggy, overwhelmed; you might ruminate.”
Breathing meditations can reduce muscle tension and heart rate, Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, told CNN in 2020. The calmness felt during or after deep breathing meditations could be due to the delivery of more oxygen to the brain and body, Vermani said.
“We did a one-week retreat on meditation,” said Dr. Deepak Chopra, founder of the Chopra Foundation and clinical professor of family medicine and public health at the University of California, San Diego. “In that one week, all the genes that cause self-regulation, homeostasis – in short, healing – they went up some 17-fold. All the genes that cause or complicated cancer, heart disease, autoimmune illness (and) accelerated aging went down. The level of the enzyme telomerase went up by 30%. This regulates the genetic lock or how we age.”
Remaining research quandaries
Although there are some known benefits of meditation for mental and physical health, researchers are still looking into the best methods for objectively measuring how the practice affects the brain.
Some researchers have increasingly used cognitive neuroscience methods – such as MRIs (magnetic-resonance imaging) – to determine what’s going on in participants neural networks during or after meditation, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.
But pictures from MRIs and other imaging methods might not exactly depict the complex factors that would be involved in some of the conclusions other researchers have made about how meditation could change brain structure and function, the review authors said – potentially leading to “overly simplistic interpretations.”
Also, there have been some studies whose findings challenged the idea of meditation being able to help anyone regardless of their personal differences. “Meditation-related experiences that were serious or distressing enough to warrant additional treatment or medical attention have been reported in more than 20 published case reports or observational studies,” according to the Perspectives on Psychological Science review.
Those rare reports documented events including psychosis, mania, anxiety, panic, re-experiencing traumatic memories and depersonalization – a state of mind wherein one’s self appears unreal, and the person feels estranged from herself and the external world, and thoughts and experiences have a distant, dreamlike character, according to the American Psychological Association.
The differences between people who do or don’t benefit from meditation could just boil down to figuring out what type of meditation is best for one’s body and mental state, Vermani said.
“Even when we did our study (on meditative breathing for anxiety), we had to screen that generalized anxiety disorder was not complicated by other disorders that could be worse,” Vermani said. This was because one of the meditations Vermani and colleagues were using was bellows breath, an invigorative yogic breathing technique involving rapid inhalations and exhalations for energy and mental clarity.
“If you have bipolar, (bellows breath) can actually induce mania, so it’s a big deal. You don’t teach a pregnant woman bellows breath because it’s so vigorous, you can induce labor. So meditation does have consequences.”
Additionally, some people who turn to meditation have spent years avoiding or distracting themselves from distressing memories.
“When you’re alone, your thoughts go to the things that you have not dealt with,” Vermani said. “Military, 9/11 responders or cops that I work with – many times, they have so many horrible things that they have seen, they just kind of push through life and function and push things aside. But when they sit in silence and meditate or breathe, all those things come back to the surface because they haven’t addressed it.”
Practicing meditation in supervised settings with professionals who can educate about potential effects has been helpful for people with complicated emotional states, she added.
Meditation is “very accessible,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “There are now so many apps that if you have a smartphone, you can learn to meditate. Often what’s really helpful is to use one of the apps … where someone guides you through a meditation.”
You can also try an introductory class at a local meditation center, read a book, watch an online video, or practice alone. Whichever path you choose, see what resonates with you – find someone whose voice you like and whose words make sense, Waldinger said.
For beginners, starting out in a professionally led setting can be helpful for reorienting yourself after any hurdles that could lead to quickly giving up or feeling discouraged, Waldinger said.
“There are a lot of misconceptions about meditation,” he added. “One misconception is ‘If I’m doing it right, I’m not supposed to have thoughts.’ And that’s absolutely not the truth. The mind produces thoughts; that’s what it does. So, you won’t get rid of thoughts until you die.”
Instructors can teach you about the aspects of meditation that aren’t intuitive or obvious, such as that having thoughts or a distracted mind is OK, Waldinger said. “If you just set the intention to be present, then whatever happens is what you’re doing, including being distracted.”
Since meditation is about being present, it can be done anywhere, he added – but a quiet, uninterrupted area can be optimal for beginners still learning to focus on the present. You can start with just five minutes per day, then gradually increase.
“Try it every day for a week and see if you notice anything,” Waldinger said. “But even after one time, many people say, ‘Oh, that was helpful. I want to do that again.’”
If you notice that meditating makes you feel worse, talk with an experienced meditator about your experience or wait until you’re in a better emotional or mental state, Waldinger said.
“People are catching on that meditation is more than stress management,” said Chopra, author of “Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life.” “When people say meditation, these days, they refer to mindfulness, which is good. But meditation includes self-inquiries of awareness. It includes interoception, (which is) knowing how to navigate control of your autonomic nervous system consciously. It includes that whole aspect of mindful awareness of relationship, of the ecosystem, of emotions, of social emotional intelligence.”