Deepak Chopra Life Itself Wellness
Deepak Chopra reflects on the mysteries of existence and death
13:11 - Source: CNN

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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.”

Meditating can induce physiological changes that help reduce stress.

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.”

Influencing stress and longevity

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.

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.