How meditation could change the brain

“You’re not just 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 mindfulness practice, has no single universal definition. But as interest in mindfulness and meditation has grown, it has been summarized as “a mind and body practice that focuses on the interactions between brain, mind, body and behavior, containing four key elements: a quiet place with few distractions, a comfortable posture, a center of attention, and an open attitude,” according to a 2021 study.

“It helps you with memory and concentration, increases resilience, helps you handle stress better (and) helps you have a positive impact on relationships,” Vermani said. “In relationships, if you are busy in your mind, you are reactive. And when you are aware and grounded, you tend to respond rather than react, i.e. pause and to think before you let things out of your mouth that are sometimes hurtful, or negative, or judgmental.”

Influencing stress and longevity

According to the American Psychological Association, 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 a 2015 review, people who practiced mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy — which includes meditation — were less likely to have negative thoughts or unnecessary emotional reactions to to stressful situations.
In addition to any structural changes in the brain, these benefits could also be the result of physical processes. Meditation can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for regulating involuntary physiological functions such as heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.

“Whenever we’re anxious or running in this frantic race of a world, we rush so much that we take short, shallow breaths,” Vermani said. “When you do that, your muscles tighten up, your brain tends to fog up, get overwhelmed; you might ruminate.”

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Breathing meditations can reduce muscle tension and heart rate, Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of healthcare innovation at the American Psychological Association, told CNN in 2020. The calm felt during or after meditations Deep breathing could be due to more oxygen delivery to the brain and body, Vermani said.
“We did a week-long meditation retreat,” 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. “During this week, all genes that cause self-regulation, homeostasis – in short, healing – increased 17-fold. All genes that cause or complicate cancer, heart disease, auto- immune (and) accelerate aging decreased The level of the enzyme telomerase increased by 30% This regulates the genetic lock or the way we age.

Remaining research dilemmas

Although there are some known mental and physical health benefits of meditation, researchers are still investigating the best methods to objectively measure how the practice affects the brain.

Some researchers have increasingly used cognitive neuroscience methods — such as MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) — to determine what is happening in participants’ neural networks during or after meditation, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

But images from MRIs and other imaging methods may not accurately represent the complex factors thought to be involved in some of the conclusions other researchers have drawn about how meditation might change brain structure and function. , the review authors said – potentially leading to “oversimplification”. interpretations.”

Additionally, there have been studies whose results have challenged the idea that meditation can help anyone, regardless of their personal differences. “Meditation-related experiences that were severe 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 journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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These rare reports have documented events such as psychosis, mania, anxiety, panic, reliving traumatic memories, and depersonalization – a state of mind in which the self seems unreal, and the person feels estranged from themselves and the outside world, and thoughts and experiences have a distant, dreamlike character, according to the American Psychological Association.

The differences between who does or doesn’t benefit from meditation could simply come down to 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 might be worse,” Vermani said. Indeed, one of the meditations Vermani and his colleagues used was bellows breathing, an invigorating yogic breathing technique involving rapid inhalations and exhalations for energy and mental clarity.

“If you’re bipolar, (bellows breath) can actually induce mania, so that’s a big deal. You don’t teach a pregnant woman bellows breath because she’s so vigorous that you can induce labor. So meditation has consequences.”

Additionally, some people who turn to meditation have spent years avoiding or distracting themselves from distressing memories.

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“When you’re alone, your thoughts go to the things you haven’t dealt with,” Vermani said. “Military, 9/11 responders or cops that I work with – often they’ve seen so many horrible things that they just go through life and run and put things aside. But when they sit down in silence and meditate or breathe, all those things come to the surface because they haven’t touched on it.”

Practicing meditation in supervised environments with professionals who can educate about potential effects has been helpful for people with complicated emotional states, she added.


Meditation is “very accessible”, says clinician Dr. Robert Waldinger 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 how to meditate. Often what is really helpful is to use one of the apps… where someone guides you through meditation.

You can also try an introductory class at a local meditation center, read a book, watch an online video, or practice on your own. Whichever path you choose, see what resonates with you — find someone whose voice you love and whose words have meaning, Waldinger said.

For beginners, starting out in a professionally-led setting can be helpful in re-orienting yourself after any obstacles that might lead to giving up quickly or feeling discouraged, Waldinger said.

“There are a lot of misconceptions about meditation,” he added. “A misconception is ‘If I do 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 aspects of meditation that aren’t intuitive or obvious, like having thoughts or a distracted mind is OK, Waldinger said. “If you just set the intention to be present, then no matter what, that’s what you do, including being distracted.”

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Since meditation is about being present, it can be practiced anywhere, he added, but a quiet, uninterrupted space may be optimal for beginners who are still learning to focus on the present. You can start with just five minutes a day and then gradually increase.

“Try it every day for a week and see if you notice anything,” Waldinger said. “But even after once, a lot of people say, ‘Oh, that was helpful. I want to do it again. “”

If you notice that meditation makes you feel worse, talk to an experienced meditator about your experience or wait until you’re in a better emotional or mental state, Waldinger said.

“People understand that meditation is more than stress management,” said Chopra, author of “Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life.” “When people talk about meditation these days they are referring to mindfulness, which is fine. But meditation includes self-inquiries of awareness. say) knowing how to navigate consciously in control of your autonomic nervous system. That includes that whole mindfulness aspect of relationship, ecosystem, emotions, social emotional intelligence.”

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