Breathe in through the nose, gently, slowly. One, two, three … Pause. Exhale. One, two, three …
Meditation might look simple, but it takes practice. And it’s a worthwhile investment of your time. Finding calm in your busy mind can pay incredible dividends.
Whether practicing on your own, in a group, or as part of mindfulness-based therapy, meditation trains your attention, helping you to be more present, find peace, and savor positive emotions.
While meditation has been around for thousands of years, more recently, it has come under the scrutiny of science.
Here we assess the research-backed benefits of meditation and examine the reasons to include it as a daily practice.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free. These science-based, comprehensive exercises will help you cultivate a sense of inner peace throughout your daily life and give you the tools to enhance the mindfulness of your clients, students, or employees.
This Article Contains:
A Look at the Benefits of Meditation
Meditation and mindfulness are closely linked, and the terms are often used interchangeably. Their meanings are subtly different, though.
Meditation is a “tool” for individuals to live mindfully — a means to become more present, pay extra attention, be less judgmental, and boost compassion (Shapiro, 2020).
Therapy using “mindfulness-based interventions are generally based on meditation practices taken from the Buddhist tradition and adapted into contemporary, psychologically oriented programs” (Matiz et al., 2020, p. 2).
What do we mean by meditation?
Meditation connects the mind and the body, bringing mental and physical peace. It typically requires more of a pause than mindfulness and requires concentration, not just attention (Shapiro, 2020).
Some types of meditation involve maintaining a mental focus on a particular sensation, such as breathing, a sound, a visual image, or a mantra — a repeated word or phrase. Others include mindfulness, nonjudgmental attention, or awareness of the present moment (Meditation and mindfulness, n.d.).
At times, we may use meditation to find a place of calm, while at others, we may seek to connect with how the body and mind feel.
What does science tell us?
Research into the benefits of meditation, often as part of mindfulness-based interventions (at home and instructor led), has shown positive psychological and physiological effects, many of which are self-reported. Such benefits are found in various groups, from trauma survivors to school children to those seeking help in therapy (Lee et al., 2017; Matiz et al., 2020; Shapiro, 2020).
The effects of meditation are far reaching, positively impacting our physical health and our mental wellness, including cognitive functioning and emotional control.
Studies show reductions in (Matiz et al., 2020; Galante et al., 2021):
- Stress levels
- Job burnout
We also see psychological benefits, such as (Matiz et al., 2020; Campanella et al., 2014; Shapiro, 2020; Galante et al., 2021):
- Heightened empathy
- Improved interoceptive awareness (stimuli and sensations within the body)
- Better psychological wellbeing
- Increased self-directedness (awareness that our actions and behaviors reflect our choices)
- Improved cooperativeness (degree of agreeableness in relationships with others)
- More self-transcendence (rising above the self and relating to something bigger)
Benefits of meditation on the brain
Benefits of meditation includes physical changes to the brain and improved cognitive functioning, such as (Shapiro, 2020):
- Slowing of brain aging (particularly thinning of the prefrontal cortex)
- Improved attention
- Increased innovation
- Better problem-solving
- Mental health conditions following trauma
Other physical benefits
Other physical benefits offered by meditative and mindfulness practices — also backed up by research — include (Shapiro, 2020; Levine et al., 2017; Galante et al., 2021):
- Strengthened immune function
- Reduced stress
- Improved sleep
- Reduced panic attacks
- Increased work satisfaction
- Reduction in chronic pain
- Reduced hypertension
- Lowered risk of cardiovascular disease
And the list goes on. As Shapiro (2020, p. 42) says, “thousands of studies have shown significant benefits of mindfulness practices across an array of domains in psychological, cognitive, and physical health.” The benefits of meditation vary between individuals and contexts (Tang, 2018).
The Power of Meditation: 3 Meditation Studies
Meditation has received much attention over the last few decades from researchers interested in its power to help various groups.
Benefits of meditation for students
In recent years, the potential for mindfulness to benefit students’ wellbeing and academic potential has received increasing levels of interest (Tang, 2018).
Ramsburg and Youmans (2013) explored the potential of meditation training to improve knowledge retention in students.
In one experiment, higher education students either received a brief meditation or rested after a lecture. On a subsequent class test based on the lecture content, those who meditated retained more information than those who didn’t. These findings suggest that practicing meditation helped students learn more from the lecture or improved their recall (Ramsburg & Youmans, 2013).
In a review of four decades of research into the benefits of meditation in education, Shapiro et al. (2011) found strong evidence for the use of meditation to help students achieve academic goals and manage their wellbeing and stress.
Researchers consistently identified improvements in cognitive skills, such as attention and information processing, along with interpersonal benefits, including empathy and compassion (Shapiro et al., 2011).
Meditation, yoga, and the brain
Meditation and yoga techniques have consistently been shown to manage stress, burnout, and anxiety (Shapiro, 2020).
Krishnakumar et al. (2015) reviewed existing findings on the brain’s electrical activity and changes in blood flow to understand the impact of meditation and yoga on the brain’s functioning.
Their analysis of findings from electroencephalograms and functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), used to record brain activity, suggests that the “practice of meditation triggers neurotransmitters that modulate psychological disorders such as anxiety” (Krishnakumar et al., 2015, p. 1).
Other research also confirms the impact of meditation and mindfulness on the brain.
Regular practice calms the amygdala — part of the brain associated with emotional regulation and impulsive reactions to stressful events (Mindfulness, n.d.).
Meditation and pain
Meditation and mindfulness can also have powerful effects on those experiencing chronic pain (Mindfulness, n.d.).
When researchers induced temporary pain in willing volunteers, they tracked brain activity.
Following 60- to 80-minute mindfulness training sessions, participants reported (confirmed by observation by the fMRI scanner) 45% less pain (Marchant, 2021).
The scores show a significant drop in subjective and objective pain scores. Equally fascinating, improvements were double that of a clinical dose of morphine (Marchant, 2021).
Some of the positive benefits of meditation and mindfulness may result from minor improvements in executive function within the brain that controls and monitors behavior and improvements to attention (Tang, 2018; Mindfulness, n.d.).
Advantages of Daily Meditation
The effects of regular meditation can be far reaching, both physically and mentally. In as little as eight weeks, meditation programs can profoundly affect aspects of brain functioning that influence self-awareness, empathy, and stress (McGreevey, 2011).
According to mindfulness meditation researcher Sara Lazar, along with such practices boosting peacefulness and calm, “practitioners have long claimed that meditation also provides cognitive and psychological benefits that persist throughout the day” (McGreevey, 2011, para. 2).
And that’s important because our lives are busy and stressful. So let’s look at a few areas of our day to understand the impact that practicing daily meditation can have.
In an analysis of 10 empirical studies across North America, Asia, and Europe, meditation was shown to benefit the individual and their workplace significantly (Cheng, 2016). The data showed that practicing meditation substantially improves mental health and social relationships, reduces conflict, and improves organizational development and innovation.
But there is more. Hilton et al. (2019, p. 205) analyzed 175 systematic studies that tested the ability of mindfulness meditation interventions to “foster greater attention and awareness of present moment experiences.”
Their findings showed that workplace wellness showed, directly or indirectly, positive effects of meditation on (Hilton et al., 2019):
- Health conditions, including irritable bowel syndrome
Many of the effects were still present months later.
High-quality relationships are known to be an essential factor in wellbeing (Seligman, 2011).
When interviewing long-term meditators (many of whom were instructors), Pruitt and McCollum (2010) found they:
- Were more aware of bodily sensations
- Were more emotionally intelligent
- Better accepted situations
- Showed increased compassion for themselves and others
All of these are vital for relationship building and maintaining, resulting in (Pruitt & McCollum, 2010):
- Being less reactive in relationships
- Experiencing greater safety in the connections they formed
- Having a better understanding of intimacy
While relationships are vital in our personal lives, they are also essential to performing well as mental health professionals.
Therapists report that regular meditation has made them more effective and helped them improve therapeutic alliances, unconditional positive regard, empathy, nonjudgmental engagement, and the ability to handle stress (Zamir, 2009).
Schools and higher education institutions are valuable environments for studying the benefits of daily meditation on human development and growth. According to Professor Yi-Yuan Tang (2018), a leading neuroscientist and psychologist with over 290 publications, frequent meditation can improve executive functioning (planning, focus, and multitasking) and relaxation control in the brain.
When integrated into the school curriculum, ongoing meditation can help students control their thoughts while promoting restful alertness and attention, all of which are conducive to improved performance in learning and problem-solving in literacy and numeracy (Tang, 2018).
The benefits of meditation: Maitrayee Bhaid
Proven Benefits of Long-Term Meditation
One of the best places to look at long-term effects is in teachers and trainers of meditation, as they are most likely to have practiced the techniques regularly for prolonged periods.
Research has shown that meditation performed over several years can have profound and positive effects, including:
- Reduced brain aging
“Normal aging is known to be accompanied by loss of brain substance.” It appears this doesn’t have to be the case. “Meditation has been shown to induce increases in brain tissue, even after relatively short periods of time, such as weeks or months” (Luders et al., 2016, p. 508).
In this fascinating 2016 study, Luders et al. imaged the brains of 50 long-term meditators, comparing them with 50 control subjects of similar ages. Estimates showed that meditators’ brains appeared to be 7.5 years younger. While researchers don’t know quite how, meditation may slow down the deterioration of the brain associated with aging, resulting in meditators having “younger” brains.
- Improved psychological functioning
Lykins and Baer (2009) found that long-term meditators have improved adaptive functioning — the skills we need to manage the demands of our environment.
When meditation practitioners were compared with non-meditators, they were found to ruminate less, have less fear of emotions, and display more effective behavioral regulation (Lykins & Baer, 2009). In real terms, those regularly meditating over long periods were better able to manage their lives — the positive and the negative.
- Body mass index (BMI)
Balaji et al. (2012) found that yoga meditation teachers, compared with non-practitioners, had reduced BMI (a measurement commonly used to determine if an individual’s weight is healthy). When yoga was subsequently used as a short-term intervention for non-practitioners, weight, insulin, and blood pressure improvements were seen within weeks.
Clearly, long-term meditation and related practices such as mindfulness and yoga positively affect the mind and body.
Research shows that “mindfulness meditation can effectively improve self-control abilities, including attention control, emotion regulation, and stress response,” all of which are likely to impact physical and mental wellness over time (Tang, 2018, p. 13). Even used as a short-term intervention, such practices can have significant cognitive, emotional, and health benefits.
Helpful Resources From PositivePsychology.com
We have many resources available for those wishing to practice or share meditation practices with their clients.
Why not download our free mindfulness pack and try out the powerful tools contained within? Here are some examples:
- The Wheel of Awareness
The wheel provides a visual representation of how the mind works. This tool helps clients increase mindful awareness of themselves and the outside world.
- Eye of the Hurricane Meditation
In this meditation, a hurricane is used as a metaphor for finding a calm, quiet, and centered place.
Other free resources include:
- Meditation Grounding Scripts for Kids
These scripts help guide younger and older children through meditation practices.
- The Raisin Meditation
Use the simple act of eating and tasting a raisin to perform a grounding, meditative exercise.
More extensive versions of the following tools are available with a subscription to the Positive Psychology Toolkit©, but they are described briefly below:
- From Inner Critic to Inner Coach Meditation
The threat defense system is triggered when we perceive danger. We have a choice, though; we can let go of the habitual response.
Try out the following four steps:
- Step one – Get comfortable and bring your attention to your breathing.
- Step two – Reflect on a recent time when you were critical or judgmental.
- Step three – Remember where you were and who you were with as vividly as possible.
- Step four – What was your inner critic saying?
- Step five – Now try replacing that inner critic with an inner coach.
- Step six – What would that inner coach say?
Think about how you feel once your inner critic becomes your internal coach.
- Loving-kindness Meditation
Loving-kindness meditation teaches us to be a better friend to ourselves and can increase compassion.
Try out the following:
- Step one – Get comfortable and bring attention to your breathing.
- Step two – When ready, repeat the following to yourself:
- May I be peaceful.
- May I be healthy.
- May I be happy.
- Step three – Pause and reflect on what each phrase truly means.
- Step four – When ready, repeat the following to yourself:
- May I and all other beings be peaceful.
- May I and all other beings be healthy.
- May I and all other beings be happy.
Just as the breath can be used to focus attention, so too can compassionate phrases.
If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others enjoy the benefits of meditation, check out this collection of 17 validated tools for practitioners. Use them to help others reduce stress and create positive shifts in their mental, physical, and emotional health.
A Take-Home Message
The goal of meditation is to bring peace to our busy minds. It’s a tool to help people be more present, connecting the mind and body.
And it works.
Research has confirmed that practicing meditation benefits our ability to cope, helping us manage stress and anxiety and reduce our sense of being overwhelmed.
Over time, meditation can change the brain’s functioning, impacting its neurotransmitters and electrical activity and potentially benefiting psychological disorders such as anxiety and depression. It can also improve cognitive functioning and even slow the brain’s aging.
We can see the positive impact of meditation in various settings and groups, not least in the workplace, relationships, and education.
While meditation is found in texts dating back thousands of years, modern research findings continue to shed new light on its potential to help us maintain good mental and physical health throughout our lives.
As mental health practitioners, meditation offers a valuable tool to manage our wellbeing and a helpful intervention in the lives of our clients.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Mindfulness Exercises for free.
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