Meditation: The Mind-Body Connector
I believe meditation practice can be an important part of health and well-being. Because, not only is a powerful means of relaxing, but also useful for relieving stress, anxiety, managing pain, and preventing disease.
There is growing scientific evidence that demonstrates the human mind and body are intricately connected, and wide acceptance that whatever is going on in your mind has some bearing on our physical health.
Brain imaging has shown meditation alters the human brain in beneficial ways, and scientists have identified thousands of genes that appear to be directly influenced by your subjective mental state.
The mind-body connection is Real, and what we think does affect our health.
The research suggests a persistent negative state of mind is a risk factor for heart disease.
Conversely, happiness, optimism, life satisfaction and other positive psychological states are associated with a lower risk of heart disease.
The study authors said: “[The] findings suggest that positive psychological well-being protects consistently against cardiovascular disease, independently of traditional risk factors and ill-being. Specifically, optimism is most robustly associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular events.”
While some people appear to be born with a Sunnier disposition than others, meditation has been shown to boost optimism and help regulate mood.
Meditative practices have also been shown to help optimize your LDL cholesterol and lower ones;
- Blood pressure
- Heart rate.
Such findings are consistent with a downregulation of your hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis and sympathetic nervous system, both of which are overactivated by stress.
Stress is a well-known risk factor for heart disease, making meditation all the more important.
In addition to promoting heart health, meditation:
|Boosts emotional health and well-being||Encourages self-awareness|
|Helps fight addictions||Improves sleep|
|Increases feelings of compassion and kindness||Lengthens attention span|
|Lessens anxiety and depression||Manages pain|
|Promotes concentration and memory||Reduces stress|
Meditation is exercise for the brain.
The goal is to continually draw attention to breathing to the exclusion of everything else. Whenever your mind wanders into the Monkey Thoughts zone, during meditation we seek to gently bring it back to breathing.
According to Forbes.com, meditation helps us connect with and leverage our minds: “Through meditation, we get better acquainted with the behavior of our minds, and we enhance our ability to regulate our experience of our environment, rather than letting our environment dictate how we experience life.
With recent neuroscientific findings, meditation as a practice has been shown to literally rewire brain circuits that boost both mind and body health. These benefits of meditation have surfaced alongside the revelation that the brain can be deeply transformed through experience — a quality known as ‘neuroplasticity.’”
Neuroplasticity allows the nerve cells in the human brain to adjust to new situations and changes in their environment. The short-term effects of meditation include enhancing attention, inhibiting inflammation, lowering blood pressure and reducing stress.
Long-term meditation benefits include enhanced empathy and kindness, greater emotional resilience and increased gray matter in brain regions related to memory and emotional processing.
As noted in one of the largest studies to date on meditation and the human brain, different types of meditation produce different changes to your brain.
Neuroscience researchers at Germany’s Max Planck Institute of Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences conducted a meditation program through which 300 participants were examined with respect to 3 different types of meditation, for 3 months each.
Brain scans performed after each 3-month program showed more gray matter in regions of the brain involved in each type of meditation, as compared to scans from the control group.
The focal point for each type of meditation and the brain changes elicited were as follows:
|Type of Meditation||Meditation Focused On||Brain Region Showing Increased Gray Matter|
|ATTENTION (MINDFULNESS)||Mindful attention to breath and body||Prefrontal cortex and parietal lobes, both of which are linked to attention control|
|COMPASSION||Emotional connections established through loving-kindness meditations and partner-based problem-sharing sessions||Limbic system, which processes emotions, and anterior insula, which assists in bringing emotions into conscious awareness|
|COGNITIVE SKILLS||Thinking about issues from different perspectives through both partner activities and individual meditation||Regions involved in theory of mind, which helps attribute thoughts, desires and intentions to others as a means of predicting or explaining their actions|
The study authors suggested additional research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of meditation training for individuals suffering from social-cognition deficits, such as those related to autism or psychopathy.
Other areas of potential future work include meditation-related training to increase cooperation and well-being in corporate settings and social intelligence in children.
About the current outcomes, the study authors stated this: “[O]ur findings of structural plasticity in healthy adults in faculties relevant to social intelligence and social interactions suggest that the type of mental training matters.
Depending on whether participants’ daily [meditation] practice focused on cultivating socio-emotional capacities (compassion and prosocial motivation) or socio-cognitive skills (putting oneself into the shoes of another person), gray matter increased selectively in areas supporting these functions. Our findings suggest a potential biological basis for how mindfulness and different aspects of social intelligence could be nurtured.”
Stress is the biggest challenge facing US adults
Many people reporting the negative impact stress has on their mental and physical health.
The American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America survey revealed a sizable portion of adults do not feel they are doing enough to manage their stress.
Nearly 50% of Americans said they engage in stress-management activities just a few times a month or less, while 18% said they never do.
Nearly 40% reported overeating or eating unhealthy foods as a result of stress, while 46% said they lie awake at night due to high stress levels.
Given the extent of stress and its far-reaching effects, meditation is a simple technique you can practice anytime, anywhere to alleviate stress.
The big Q: Not sure where to begin?
The Big A: Start with gratitude, as it can be a great focal point for lower stress.
Simply reflecting on things for which you can be thankful, this can do wonders to energize your mood and tick down stress levels.
One type of meditation easily applied to virtually any activity is called “Mindfulness,” which involves paying attention to the moment one it in at the Now.
Rather than letting your mind wander, actively choose to live in The Eternal Moment, while letting distracting thoughts pass through your mind without getting caught up in them.
Then incorporate mindfulness into virtually any aspect of the day; eating, doing chores, driving or working, simply by reining in your mind and paying attention to the sensations you are experiencing in the moment, aka Now.
In a Y 2017 study, 70 adults with generalized anxiety disorder who completed a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) class fared better when facing stressful situations than those who were trained in stress-management techniques alone.
In the MBSR class, participants learned elements of mindfulness meditation, including paying attention to The Eternal Moment, as well as gentle yoga and body scan meditation.
The MBSR group reported meditation helps reduce stress.
Notably, their physical measures of stress were also lower, including the stress hormone ACTH (adrenocorticotropic hormone) and proinflammatory cytokines, which are markers of inflammation.
Try it, it really works, I learned about it 17 years ago, and practice it and write about it often here in our LTN health section.
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