What you need to know about meditation

Key points:

  • Meditation can be defined as the ability to train and regulate attention intentionally from moment to moment for the purpose of relaxing and calming the mind and body.
  • Sometimes the weight we put on our mind is so heavy that we don’t allow it to fully function. It is especially during these times that we need meditation.
  • Meditation reduces stress and improves self-control, depression, executive functions such as inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility, problem solving, decision making and sustained attention.
  • Meditation can reverse memory loss in individuals at risk for Alzheimer disease.
  • Mindfulness meditation was associated with reduced inflammatory biomarker called Interleukin-6, which influences many diseases such as asthma, diabetes, depression , atherosclerosis, cancer,  Alzheimer’s Disease, rheumatoid arthritis and much more.

 

 

I think we all have watched movies in which people have a difficult life and just when they feel they have reached the end and cannot go any further, they discover the spiritual side of life and start to find peace. Some of them may go to India, Nepal or Tibet on a spiritual journey. After that, they become different people and their life becomes much better and the movie usually has a happy ending. 🙂

Well… my journey was pretty much the same, except I didn’t go anywhere, I just started meditating in the corner of my room, especially dedicated to my meditation sessions. I found out about meditation at some point in my life where everything seemed to be falling apart. Meditation gave me that feeling of control, I cannot say that meditation gave me that feeling of control “back” because I had never experienced such a feeling before. The feeling of being calm and having things under control. For sure there are still moments when I feel stressed out but at least now I know how to deal with those  emotions. Meditation helped me to decide how I want to react to the external events instead of letting my emotions be on auto-pilot.

 

 

What is meditation?

Although to meditate it is important to be in a relaxed state of mind and body, one must note that meditation is more than just relaxation. Meditation can be defined as the ability to train and regulate attention intentionally from moment to moment for the purpose of relaxing and calming the mind and body [1] and to reach an altered state of consciousness. Meditation allows us to become calmer and also to get in touch with our inner self. To explain this to you better I need to dedicate a whole post defining meditation and explaining the different types of meditation. You have to try several of them to find out which one works best for you. Few examples are mindfulness meditation (paying attention to the present moment), Love and kindness meditation (imagining sending and receiving love and kindness), Focused attention meditation (focusing attention on a single subject), yoga meditations, walking, dancing and laughter meditation. 

I would like to tell you more about what we know nowadays about meditation at the level of our brain and what are the different types of meditation and their history. That is why I would like to dedicate separate posts to each of these topics

 

Impact of meditation on our mind and mental health

Our brain does everything for us, from the simple act of breathing and physical movement to problem solving and decision making. Our brain controls all of these mental and physical actions in a seemingly effortless way. It is at times so effortless that we don’t even think about them. However, there are times in life that our mind becomes so tired of all the conflicts we face every day. Sometimes for some of us even a night of sleep doesn’t help us to recover well. Sometimes the weight we put on our mind is so heavy that we don’t allow it to fully function. We put a weight on our mind with unrealistic worries and fears that are only destructive. Or we keep getting mad at things that are not even real or get involved in conflicts that are not even worth it. Many times we don’t even stop to reflect about what we are doing, let alone becoming aware of how harmful or useless our thoughts sometimes are. Thoughts cause feelings and feelings can impact not only our mental health but also our physical well-being.  Sometimes it feels like our mind is a wild horse that cannot be tamed. It is exactly during these times that I highly recommend meditation. Before starting the meditation, our mind looks like a stormy sky and after the meditation it is like the grey clouds fade away and the sky becomes blue and calm again. However, it does take dedication and practice to reach this level.


–  Have you ever wondered what your life would be like if you could make yourself do anything you decided to? If you had a stronger willpower or if you could inhibit yourself from doing specific things? Well, the good news is that you may be able to improve your self-control by practicing meditation. There are studies showing the impact of mindfulness meditation on emotion regulation and self-controlMindfulness is a type of meditation adapted from the traditional Buddhist meditation during which you must focus your attention on the present moment, with acceptance and without any judgmental thoughts. Scientists suggest that people who practice mindfulness meditation on a regular basis can regulate their emotions better and show better self-control [2]. One example of increased self-control as a result of mindfulness meditation is reduced drug-abuse [3].

–  Meditation can also have a positive impact on individuals with psychiatric or psychological problems. What If you could feel better by spending few minutes each day practicing meditation? Regular meditation can reduce stress [4-7], prevent relapse in recovered recurrently depression [8,9], decrease depression in patients who did not respond to antidepressants [10], alleviate or treat anxiety disorder [11] and so much more.  

–  Meditation and self-compassion may also help you become happier by having an impact on well-being and positive emotions associated with happiness. In a recent study, researchers found that , people who meditated daily had significantly higher happiness scores [12].

–  Other benefits of meditation are improvements in executive functioning, including attentional control, inhibitory control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility, problem solving, planning, decision making [See reference 13 and 14 for studies in substance abusers and in normal population, respectively], and sustained attention [15] (which is the type of attention we use to focus on one specific task for a continuous amount of time without being distracted), and much more.

 

Impact of meditation on physical health

In a recent study, memory loss and cognitive impairment could be reversed in a group of people with Subjective Cognitive Decline (adults at risk for Alzheimer’s disease) by listening to music and meditating [16].

Meditation can improve physical health indirectly mostly due to alleviations in psychological pathways influenced by stress. For example there are studies showing improved immune system function after autogenic training (which is a type of meditation used for stress reduction) in cancer patients [17] and after compassion meditation in healthy adults [18].

Mindfulness meditation was associated with reduced inflammatory biomarker called Interleukin-6 [19], which influences many diseases such as asthma [20], diabetes [21], depression [22], atherosclerosis [23], cancer [24-26],  Alzheimer’s Disease [27], rheumatoid arthritis [28] and much more.

In a study by Barnes and colleagues (2001), adolescents with a higher risk for hypertension were studied. They divided them randomly into two groups: a control group that did not had to meditate and a meditation group who were instructed to meditate for 15 minutes, twice a day, and for a period of 2 months. Their blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output was tested in response to two laboratory stressors, a simulated car driving stressor and an interpersonal social stressor interview, once before and once after the two month experimental session. The group that did meditate during those two months showed a decrease in blood pressure, heart rate and cardiac output reactivity in response to stressors [29]. There is also a large body of research showing that meditation leads to a decrease in blood pressure in adults with hypertension [See 30 for a meta-analysis – the analysis of the results found in several studies].

 

Additional important factors

You cannot say “I will go to the gym to improve my health” and then after the gym having hamburger and fries, because your actions will contradict each other. It is the same with meditation. It is like you are trying to meditate to take away the unnecessary weight you put on your mind, and if you want it to have the long term positive effects, you need to behave accordingly, even at times that you are not meditating. At all times you need to respect other important factors like: not gossiping, no judgmental thoughts, faster and easier forgiveness, allowance, acceptance, letting go, love and kindness, being grateful, imagining only what you want and so on. It is only then that you will reach that calm state of mind that I talk about in our first post. Again I will spend a separate post on this topic.

In my two upcoming posts I will talk about:

1) The different types of meditation and how to practice each of them.

2) The neuroscience research about the brain mechanisms employed during meditation, the functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies looking into the brain of people during meditation and the structural changes in the brain of people who meditate regularly.

 

Thank you so much for reading! 🙂

Marjan

Next post: Recipe: a healthy chocolate bar 😋

 

References

1) Goleman, D. J., & Schwartz, G. E. (1976). Meditation as an intervention in stress reactivity. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 44(3), 456.

2) Perry-Parrish, C., Copeland-Linder, N., Webb, L., Shields, A. H., & Sibinga, E. M. (2016). Improving self-regulation in adolescents: current evidence for the role of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. Adolescent Health, Medicine and Therapeutics, 7, 101.

3) Tang, Y. Y., Tang, R., & Posner, M. I. (2016). Mindfulness meditation improves emotion regulation and reduces drug abuse. Drug and alcohol dependence, 163, S13-S18.

4) Williams, K. A., Kolar, M. M., Reger, B. E., & Pearson, J. C. (2001). Evaluation of a wellness-based mindfulness stress reduction intervention: A controlled trial. American Journal of Health Promotion, 15(6), 422-432.

5) Astin, J. A. (1997). Stress reduction through mindfulness meditation. Psychotherapy and psychosomatics, 66(2), 97-106.

6) Reibel, D. K., Greeson, J. M., Brainard, G. C., & Rosenzweig, S. (2001). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health-related quality of life in a heterogeneous patient population. General hospital psychiatry, 23(4), 183-192.

7) Shapiro, S. L., Astin, J. A., Bishop, S. R., & Cordova, M. (2005). Mindfulness-based stress reduction for health care professionals: results from a randomized trial. International Journal of Stress Management, 12(2), 164.

8) Ma, S. H., & Teasdale, J. D. (2004). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression: replication and exploration of differential relapse prevention effects. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 72(1), 31.

9) Velden, A. M., Piet, J., Møller, A. B., & Fjorback, L. (2017). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy is efficient in the treatment of recurrent depression. Ugeskrift for laeger, 179(4).

10) Sharma, A., Barrett, M. S., Cucchiara, A. J., Gooneratne, N. S., & Thase, M. E. (2017). A Breathing-Based Meditation Intervention for Patients With Major Depressive Disorder Following Inadequate Response to Antidepressants: A Randomized Pilot Study. The Journal of clinical psychiatry, 78(1), e59.

11) Hofmann, S. G., Sawyer, A. T., Witt, A. A., & Oh, D. (2010). The effect of mindfulness-based therapy on anxiety and depression: A meta-analytic review. Journal of consulting and clinical psychology, 78(2), 169.

12) Campos, D., Cebolla, A., Quero, S., Bretón-López, J., Botella, C., Soler, J., … & Baños, R. M. (2016). Meditation and happiness: Mindfulness and self-compassion may mediate the meditation–happiness relationship. Personality and Individual Differences, 93, 80-85.

13) Alfonso, J. P., Caracuel, A., Delgado-Pastor, L. C., & Verdejo-García, A. (2011). Combined goal management training and mindfulness meditation improve executive functions and decision-making performance in abstinent polysubstance abusers. Drug and alcohol dependence, 117(1), 78-81.

14) Chiesa, A., Calati, R., & Serretti, A. (2011). Does mindfulness training improve cognitive abilities? A systematic review of neuropsychological findings. Clinical psychology review, 31(3), 449-464.

15) MacLean, K. A., Ferrer, E., Aichele, S. R., Bridwell, D. A., Zanesco, A. P., Jacobs, T. L., … & Wallace, B. A. (2010). Intensive meditation training improves perceptual discrimination and sustained attention. Psychological science, 21(6), 829-839.

16) Innes, K. E., Selfe, T. K., Khalsa, D. S., & Kandati, S. (2017). Meditation and Music Improve Memory and Cognitive Function in Adults with Subjective Cognitive Decline: A Pilot Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease, (Preprint), 1-17.

17) Hidderley, M., & Holt, M. (2004). A pilot randomized trial assessing the effects of autogenic training in early stage cancer patients in relation to psychological status and immune system responses. European Journal of Oncology Nursing, 8(1), 61-65.

18) Pace, T. W., Negi, L. T., Adame, D. D., Cole, S. P., Sivilli, T. I., Brown, T. D., … & Raison, C. L. (2009). Effect of compassion meditation on neuroendocrine, innate immune and behavioral responses to psychosocial stress. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 34(1), 87-98.

19) Creswell, J. D., Taren, A. A., Lindsay, E. K., Greco, C. M., Gianaros, P. J., Fairgrieve, A., … & Ferris, J. L. (2016). Alterations in resting-state functional connectivity link mindfulness meditation with reduced interleukin-6: a randomized controlled trial. Biological psychiatry, 80(1), 53-61.

20) Peters, M. C., McGrath, K. W., Hawkins, G. A., Hastie, A. T., Levy, B. D., Israel, E., … & Johansson, M. W. (2016). Plasma interleukin-6 concentrations, metabolic dysfunction, and asthma severity: a cross-sectional analysis of two cohorts. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, 4(7), 574-584.

21) Kristiansen, O. P., & Mandrup-Poulsen, T. (2005). Interleukin-6 and diabetes. Diabetes, 54(suppl 2), S114-S124.

22) Dowlati, Y., Herrmann, N., Swardfager, W., Liu, H., Sham, L., Reim, E. K., & Lanctôt, K. L. (2010). A meta-analysis of cytokines in major depression. Biological psychiatry, 67(5), 446-457.

23) Dubiński, A., & Zdrojewicz, Z. (2007). The role of interleukin-6 in development and progression of atherosclerosis. Polski merkuriusz lekarski: organ Polskiego Towarzystwa Lekarskiego, 22(130), 291-294.

24) Smith, P. C., Hobisch, A., Lin, D. L., Culig, Z., & Keller, E. T. (2001). Interleukin-6 and prostate cancer progression. Cytokine & growth factor reviews, 12(1), 33-40.

25) Anestakis, D., Petanidis, S., Kalyvas, S., Nday, C. M., Tsave, O., Kioseoglou, E., & Salifoglou, A. (2015). Mechanisms and Αpplications of Ιnterleukins in Cancer Immunotherapy. International journal of molecular sciences, 16(1), 1691-1710.

26) Xie, G., Yao, Q., Liu, Y., Du, S., Liu, A., Guo, Z., … & Yuan, Y. (2012). IL-6-induced epithelial-mesenchymal transition promotes the generation of breast cancer stem-like cells analogous to mammosphere cultures. International journal of oncology, 40(4), 1171-1179.

27) Swardfager, W., Lanctôt, K., Rothenburg, L., Wong, A., Cappell, J., & Herrmann, N. (2010). A meta-analysis of cytokines in Alzheimer’s disease. Biological psychiatry, 68(10), 930-941.

28) Nishimoto, N. (2006). Interleukin-6 in rheumatoid arthritis. Current opinion in rheumatology, 18(3), 277-281.

29) Barnes, V. A., Treiber, F. A., & Davis, H. (2001). Impact of Transcendental Meditation® on cardiovascular function at rest and during acute stress in adolescents with high normal blood pressure. Journal of psychosomatic research, 51(4), 597-605.

30) Anderson, J. W., Liu, C., & Kryscio, R. J. (2008). Blood pressure response to transcendental meditation: a meta-analysis. American journal of hypertension, 21(3), 310-316.

 

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