Meditation As Medicine
by: Ailey Jolie
If you live in the twenty-first century, you have probably heard of meditation or mindfulness. The two terms have become interwoven into all aspects of present-day culture. These terms, popularized by scientific research, have been linked to curing almost all aliments including the deadliest of them all – stress.
We owe the presentation of meditation to the invasion of yoga in the western world. Yoga opened the doors for the practice of meditation to sweep across our nation and swept it has.
Although we may know that meditation is good for us and that it keeps us ‘healthy’ we may not know what meditation is. We may not have slowed down enough, to understand this ancient practice and to know what exactly makes meditation the medicine for the modern day being.
I have been practising meditation for over a decade. For years my practice was interwoven into how I showed up on my yoga mat. But more recently my meditation practice has moved further away from my yoga mat to existing independently of stretchy poses or pants. My meditation practice has become the place where I can most deeply attend to the wisdom of my body and settle into not knowing.
The shift from slipping into a meditation after svasana and surrendering to complete silence for weeks or months on end is by receiving the medicinal benefits of daily meditation practice.
A medicinal benefit known as, curiosity.
It is through consistent practice, twenty-seven minutes daily over eight weeks to be exact, that meditation can form connections between the left and right sides of the brain. A process called whole brain synchronization. This process grows new neural pathways and alters the neurophysiology of the brain by thickening the volume of the corpus callosum. Integrating the left and right sides of our brain is essential to healing any part of our health, physical or mental, in addition to being the antithesis of stress.
Stress predominantly correlates to the left side of the brain. The left side of the brain is associated with the Sympathetic Nervous System which initiates our “Fight or Flight” response. This response helped us to avoid or deal with life-threatening situations and kept us alive throughout history. However in our modern world today they lead us to judgement, separation, comparison and categorization. We aren’t in danger when our cell phone goes off at four a.m.. however our neurobiology doesn’t quite know that – yet.
But one of the ways we can shift our neurobiology to know the difference between our WhatsApp messages and real catastrophes is through actively working to create new neural connections. Neuroscience validates that the best way to do this is via a meditation practice. This is because meditation is a predominantly right brain oriented practice. The right brain is associated with the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) or our “Rest and Digest” response. And in a culture that is over-stressed and under-slept tapping into the benefits of a Parasympathetic Nervous System state is something we can all benefit from.
When we meditate we tap into the flexible, and intuitive parts of our brain associated to the right side and move past knowing into the realm of curiosity. It is in a place of curiosity, where labels, stories, judgements and associations melt away, and we are left with the ability to attune to our body and hear our internal wisdom.
It is in these states where the medicinal benefits of meditation manifest. The following benefits of meditation practice have been scientifically researched and premises on one’s ability to shift into a place of curiosity and out of the dominant left side of the brain.
Mindfulness is just like exercise. Think of it like boot-camp for your brain but instead of booty gains you receive medicinal benefits.
1. Meditation Reduces Stress
In an eight-week study meditation reduced the inflammation response caused by stress. Inflammation is caused by an increase in the level of the stress hormone cortisol. An additional study including over a thousand adults demonstrated that meditation decreases stress; those the most stressed out received the most relaxation gain from meditation.
In Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research, he was able to clearly show that mindfulness not only reduces stress but contributes significantly towards the healing process for a wide range of diseases such as irritable bowel syndrome, post-traumatic stress disorder and fibromyalgia.
2. Meditation Enhances Depression Recovery
Meditation can lead to improved self-image and a more positive outlook on life both counteract the effects of depression. Two studies of mindfulness meditation found depression symptom decreased in over four thousand adults. Subsequent research has developed to understand this finding. What we now know is that inflammatory chemicals called cytokines, which are released in response to stress, that affect mood can have their distribution interrupted through meditation.
3. Meditation Regulates Anxiety
It truly is this simple; less stress equals less anxiety. Meditation reduces anxiety and anxiety- related mental health issues such as social anxiety, phobias and obsessive-compulsive behaviours. These findings were demonstrated in an eight-week study of meditation participants who struggled with anxiety.
4. Meditation Leads To More Restful Sleep
We are living in a world of doing, and this impacts our capacity for restful sleep. Research shows that nearly half the population will struggle with insomnia at some point in their life. A meditation practice can help with sleep as individuals who meditated fall asleep sooner and stay asleep longer, compared to those who do not meditate.
5. Meditation Decreases Blood Pressure
Placing the body into a parasympathetic nervous system state through meditation can improve physical health by reducing strain on your heart. With gained experience living under gravity, blood pressure can raise as the heart work harder to pump blood, which can lead to poor heart function. High blood pressure contributes to atherosclerosis, or narrowing of the arteries, which can lead to heart attacks and strokes. A study of almost a thousand volunteers found that when they meditated, they were able to reduce blood pressure by about five points, on average.
6. Meditation Increases Attention Capacity
In an era of high-paced and instant gratification. One of the biggest barriers to meditation practice is the thoughts of not being able to focus. If you can reframe meditation as weight lifting for the attention span than you can increase the strength and endurance of your attention through meditation. A study looked at the effects of an eight-week mindfulness meditation course and found it improved participants’ ability to reorient and maintain their attention. Additionally, one study concluded that meditation might even reverse patterns in the brain that contribute to mind- wandering, worrying and poor attention.
You don’t have to train in the brain gym of meditation each for long periods to regain your focus. Even meditating for a short period may benefit you. One study found that four days of practising meditation may be enough to increase attention span.
7. Meditation Helps Navigate Pain
Meditation increases the area of the brain called the insula. The insula controls our ability to feel or body and our perceptions of pain. When we meditate we develop the insula and increase our capacity to tolerate pain. This is validated in a study that looked at the effects of habitual meditation in three thousand participants. This study found that meditation was associated with decreased complaints of chronic or intermittent pain.
8. Meditation Positively Impacts Our Social Connections
When we meditate, we tap into the parasympathetic nervous system and the ventral vagal nerve. The ventral vagal nerve is the longest nerve in the body and connects the brain, mind and heart. When we meditate we increase the ventral vagal tone leading to a lower resting heart rate, healthier digestion, and more energy available for social engagement and attachment bonds.
Demonstrating that we have a higher capacity to connect with others when we are present in our bodies.
Meditation has medicinal effects that stem from adopting an attitude of curiosity. Therefore instead of dogmatically accepting the medicinal benefits listed in this article, be curious and try out what happens when you sit down and get sit done. Because in the end, meditation is an exercise. It can’t cure everything. Sometimes the results are modest. But it will change your mind if you allow yourself to become curious enough about how meditation can be your medicine.