For the vast majority of people, the past year and a half has been filled with unexpected challenges. Pandemic-induced health concerns, career turbulence, loss of routines, and future uncertainties have left many individuals with a generalized sense of unease.
Fortunately, stepping into a space of renewal is possible. Meditation can provide the necessary escape that will allow you to hit your reset button. Consciously resting in stillness while releasing resistance to the present moment is a powerfully accessible tool, which research has shown can reduce the effects of stress and equip you to better handle whatever experiences lie around the corner.
Discover more tools for greater emotional well-being with guided meditations and personalized practices in the Chopra App, available now.
For some people, meditation may conjure images of Buddhist monks sitting in lotus posture for hours. However, modern practice looks much more like business executives pausing for five mindful minutes prior to meetings or parents coming into the present moment before responding to a child. Whether you are meditating in a forest or an office, for hours or minutes, using mantra or mindfulness, the practice of meditation has been linked to potent physical and neurological benefits. The following is a small sampling of the myriad ways that meditation can renew your body and brain.
Decreases the Risk of Chronic Disease
The first notable effect of meditation is that the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), which is sometimes called the “rest and digest” system, is activated. This system begins in the brain and sends messages to the body that tell it to lower the heart rate, decrease blood pressure, improve digestion, reduce stress hormones, bolster immunity, and relax muscles. When the PNS is turned on, the body allocates its resources to removing damaged cells, neutralizing toxins, and destroying free radicals. Unfortunately, most people live with mild-to-moderate stress that turns off the PNS, compromises immune function, and contributes to chronic diseases. By regularly entering a state of physical and mental relaxation via meditation, you can support your body’s natural health processes, and thereby mitigate the risk of disease.
Dr. Ilya Monosov, Ph.D., of the Departments of Neuroscience and Biomedical Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, discovered that anxiety is highly linked with uncertainty. When you know something unpleasant is going to occur, you are actually better able to neurologically adapt than when you do not know for certain. Meditation can help to calm the anxiety that bubbles to the surface when presented with life’s uncontrollable factors.
Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid, or GABA, is a naturally occurring amino acid that is increased through meditation. GABA attaches to receptors in the brain to produce a calming effect that tones down the effects of stress and anxiety.
In addition to increasing GABA, meditation reduces anxiety by decreasing activity in the amygdala, the part of the brain responsible for activating fear, anxiety, and stress responses. In one Harvard study, researchers found that meditation decreased activity in the amygdala, thereby pacifying anxiety response patterns.
Meditation prior to sleep naturally increases levels of melatonin, a hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle and contributes to refreshing rest. In addition to promoting sounder sleep, melatonin is credited with enhancing immune function and lowering blood pressure. Recent research even suggests that melatonin may protect against the neurodegeneration seen in Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.
Maintains a Youthful Brain
A study from UCLA found that long-term meditators maintained more youthful brains than their non-meditating counterparts. A more youthful brain equates to quicker recall, increased focus, easier learning, more enthusiasm, greater adaptability, and better problem-solving skills. By slowing age-related gray matter loss, meditators were able to halt the aging process within their brains.
Calms Activity in the Default Mode Network (DMN)
In a study from Yale University, researchers found that meditation helped to quiet down the incessant mental chatter that is typically associated with decreased happiness. By settling activity in the DMN, meditators were able to stop dwelling on past and future thoughts and be present more often. And even when their mind did wander, the new neural pathways created through meditation helped individuals to come back to the present moment more quickly.
Increases Life Span
Dehydroepiandrosterone, or DHEA, is a hormone that counteracts the damaging effects of the stress hormone cortisol, as well as provides building blocks for estrogen and testosterone production. A 12-year study found that DHEA levels were significantly correlated with mortality in men over the age of 50. The less DHEA measured in the test subject’s blood, the shorter their life span was.
Fortunately, DHEA is naturally increased through the practice of meditation. In simple terms, that means that meditation helps you live longer.
Leads to Feelings of Renewal in Two Months of Practice
You may be thinking that you would have to practice meditation for a long time in order to reap all of its benefits. But Harvard University researchers found that the structure of the brain can actually be changed with just eight weeks of meditation. Harvard professor Sara Lazar discovered that the hippocampus, the part of the brain that controls memory, learning, and self-regulation, becomes significantly thicker with just two months of mindfulness practice. That means that in just eight weeks you can create changes in your body and brain that will enliven your physical, mental, and emotional well-being.
If you are looking to renew your vitality, reset your focus, and recharge your body, meditation is the tried and true path that will lead you to the fulfillment of those goals. You can begin by simply deepening your very next breath. Then when you finish reading this article, close your eyes, and continue those full, nourishing breaths for 10 breath cycles. Notice how just a few minutes of mindful breathing can initiate the renewal process. It really is as simple as that.
Enhance your well-being with guided meditations and personalized practices, available now in the Chopra App.