Studies show why meditation relieves stress

There are different ways to practice such mindfulness

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Numerous claims about the benefits of meditation have been advanced by its practitioners and advocates—from lowering blood pressure and controlling stress, to even reducing crime rates and drug addiction.

But many of these claims are based on hearsay and anecdotes, and are therefore not taken seriously by the academic and scientific communities.

Recently, there appears to be some scientific evidence that the so-called “mindfulness” meditation can really reduce and control bodily aches and pains.

Science News reported as early as January 2011 that studies done at the Massachusetts General Hospital showed that an eight-week mindfulness meditation program created “measurable changes in brain regions associated with memory, sense of self, empathy and stress.”

We are only recently beginning to understand why meditation produces such results. Previous studies found structural differences between brains of experienced meditators. Scientists found there was “a thickening of the cerebral cortex in areas associated with attention and emotional integration.”

Increased gray matter

How did they discover this? Magnetic resonance images were taken of the brain structure of 16 participants two weeks before and after they took part in the meditation program at University of Massachusetts Center for Mindfulness Meditation. A set of MR brain images was also taken of a control group of non-meditators over a similar time interval.

Results of the study? Researchers found “increased gray matter density in the hippocampus, known to be important for learning and memory, and in structures associated with self-awareness, composure and introspection.”

Participants also reported “reductions in stress which are connected with gray matter density in another area of the brain called the amygdala, which is known to play an important role in anxiety and stress.” None of these changes were seen in the control group.

But are these benefits and brain structural changes associated only with the so-called “mindfulness meditation?”

I don’t think so. Mindfulness simply means being present at the moment and focusing on what’s happening inside your mind without judgment, analysis or questioning. 

All types of meditation can be called mindfulness meditation. They are “transcendental,” meaning beyond the merely physical or material. A variation of meditation is called “centering” meditation. They are all the same, to my mind.

Meditation by any other name will still result in the same effects, as Shakespeare would have said.

Harvard cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson pointed out that all types of meditations (which he calls the relaxation response) have the following basic elements:

1) A quiet environment—to remove outside distractions

2) A mental device—which can be any word, idea, sound or object which the mind can focus on

3) A passive attitude—meaning a “letting-go feeling,” and not reacting to any internal or external distraction

4) A comfortable position— which may either be lying or sitting down

When you have attained these four basic requirements, you are in a state of meditation, by whatever name you call it.

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