After having looked at factors contributing to stress and anxiety and why stress affects different individuals in different ways, we turn to one possible remedy for stress relief in this piece. 

While meditation has been being practised for thousands of years in several religious traditions, often associated with traversing the path of self-realisation and enlightenment, it is only recently that its benefits to alleviate stress and anxiety have been backed up clinical trials. 

Let’s start with the basics.

What is meditation?

Wikipedia defines meditation as ‘a practice where an individual uses a technique – such as mindfulness, or focusing the mind on a particular object, thought or activity – to train attention and awareness, and achieve a mentally clear and emotionally calm and stable state’(1).

Meditation is a process of training your mind to focus your thoughts on one thing (such as your breath or on a thought) or redirecting your thoughts from a negative spiral. It is said to yield results – namely stress management and concentration development – when practised regularly. 

In a world where you are constantly bombarded with stimuli and an information overload, it can also be used for relaxation and to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings, in addition to inducing feelings of calm and positivity. Ultimately, this results in an overall improvement in quality of life and promotes emotional health.

Is there research backing the benefits of meditation?

Researchers from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, MD went through nearly 19,000 meditation studies, and found 47 trials that met their criteria for well-designed studies. They have published their findings in JAMA Internal Medicine, which suggest that mindful meditation can help ease psychological stresses like anxiety, depression, and pain.

Dr. Elizabeth Hoge, a psychiatrist at the Center for Anxiety and Traumatic Stress Disorders at Massachusetts General Hospital, says, “People with anxiety have a problem dealing with distracting thoughts that have too much power. They can’t distinguish between a problem-solving thought and a nagging worry that has no benefit.”

This is why, in her opinion, ‘mindfulness meditation makes perfect sense for treating anxiety’.

What are some of the evidence-based benefits of meditation?

There are numerous benefits of meditation that have been observed. Here are some of them:

  • Stress Reduction

One of the most popular reasons most people turn to meditation is to reduce stress levels – and with good reason, it appears, as one study(2) including over 3,500 adults yielded results confirming that meditation programs can result in ‘small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress’.

Those suffering from stress-related conditions such including irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder(3) and fibromyalgia(4), have also found meditation to improve symptoms. 

  • Eases Anxiety & Depression

Spiked levels of cortisol caused by stress can release inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines – some of the harmful effects of stress this induces include disrupted sleep patterns, fatigue, depression, anxiety and an increase in blood pressure. 

An eight-week study(5) demonstrated that ‘mindfulness meditation’ reduced this inflammation response caused by stress and anxiety. Those suffering from anxiety disorders such as phobias, anxiety attacks and paranoia or obsessive-compulsive thoughts have also found(6) meditation to be beneficial. Research(7) has also highlighted the benefits of yoga, which combines meditative practices with physical activity, in reducing anxiety levels. 

Studies(8) involving 4, 600 adults also showed that mindfulness meditation can decrease depression.

  • Improves Sleep Patterns

Practising meditation habitually may go a long way in helping tackle insomnia – a condition that many people struggle with at some point in their life. It can also help to ease muscle tension and relax your body, making it easier to fall asleep.

One study(9) compared the results of two programs, the members of one of which practised meditation, while the other did not. Those who meditated fell asleep quickly and stayed asleep for a longer duration, compared to those who did not meditate. 

  • Can Increase Tolerance to Pain

How one perceived pain is very much related to one’s mental state, and stressful situations have been known to increase sensitivity to pain. A study(10) looking the effects of 3, 500 participants who regularly meditated concluded that meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain. Another study(11) of meditation in individuals with terminal diseases found that it may help deal with chronic pain at the end of life.   

  • Can Increase Attention Span

Meditating regularly can increase the length and strength of your attention span – it’s literally like exercise for your concentration levels. In fact, even meditating for a short period of time can leave you with benefits. 

According to one study(12), even meditating for four days can help increase your attention span. 

  • Can Change the Structure of Your Brain

Research(13) has found that long-term meditators have ‘an increased amount of gray matter in the insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex’. They also found that they had more grey matter in the frontal cortex, associated with working memory and executive decision-making.         

Another study(14) showed that the amygdala, the fight or flight part of the brain which is important for emotional regulation, became smaller in the group that went through an eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction program. This change in amygdala size was also correlated to a reduction in stress levels.

Simply put-

If you’ve feeling worked up lately or are dealing with a lot of pressure at work or issues in your personal life – there is a way to tackle those nagging concerns in a way that is simple, inexpensive and yields a ton of benefits. Find yourself a quiet corner and practise mindfulness meditation techniques that work for you. 

Other lifestyle changes such as better food habits and regular physical exercise also go a long way in contributing towards stress management.