A great deal of research has been done to study meditation in the last 50 years or more. This expansive body of research has also revealed numerous psychological benefits of meditation to which most committed meditators can testify. While it may be a new field of exploration for western science, the connections between the body and the mind are not new to the spiritual sciences.
Much attention has been given to the physiological benefits of meditation and they are numerous. All the physiological benefits of meditation quite naturally have a corresponding benefit at the psychological level.
The reduction of stress at the physiological level that meditation brings, produces a reduction in the feelings of anxiety at the psychological level. A methodical review of nearly 150 studies showed that practicing meditation was distinctly more effective at diminishing anxiety than other techniques. Sometimes anxiety becomes paralyzing and overwhelming in the form of panic attacks. Panic attacks are often treated with drugs, but studies by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester and director of the medical centers Stress Reduction Clinic, show that if people who are suceptable to panic attacks start focused, meditative breathing as soon as they feel the first signs of an attack, they are significantly less likely to have a full-blown episode.
Meditation has also consistently proven to reduce depression, aggression, and unstable emotions. Psychologists read this as indicating growth of a more stable, balanced, and resilient personality. Another review analyzing the statistics from over forty independent research studies, found meditation to effectively increase self-actualization (a broad evaluation of positive mental health and self development). More study revealed meditation to be remarkably effective in progressing three separate characteristics of self-actualization, those being, emotional maturity, a strong and resilient sense of self, and a positive, cohesive view of oneself and the world.
Feelings of helplessness, hopelessness and isolation are hallmarks of depression which is America’s most common mental health problem. Meditation has been found to increase both self-confidence and feelings of connection to others. Numerous studies have demonstarted that people experiencing depression feel much better after experiencing the ‘relaxation response’ of meditation. Practicing meditation has also proven to reduce relapse rates by 50%. Brain scans studies show that meditation shifts activity in the prefrontal cortex (behind the forehead) from the right hemisphere to the left. People who have a negative disposition tend to be right-prefrontal dominant while those who are left-prefrontal dominant have more enthusiasm, interests, relax more, and tend to just be happier.
The research on meditation has shown significant improvements in mental health, memory, concentration, and productivity. Studies testing beginer meditators using a button-pressing task that required speed and concentration showed performance was better for 40 minutes of meditation than after a 40-minute nap.
Meditators notice more, but react more calmly than non-meditators to emotionally arousing stimuli. Those with smoking, alcohol, and eating addictions who have been taught meditation break their addictions with significantly lower relapse rates than those receiving standard therapies.
Middle school children who practice meditation show improved work habits, attendance, and GPA (grade point average).
Brain scans of meditators show increased thickness in regions of the cortex associated with higher functions like memory and decision making.
Meditation appears to slow aging. Those meditating five years or more were 12 years younger than their chronological age. Obviously this has both physical and mental benefits.
Overall meditation can help most people feel less anxious and more in control. The awareness that meditation brings can also be a source of personal insight and self-understanding.
The research results will continue highlighting specific points of benefit from meditating, and this will only help to broaden the acceptance of meditation in the culture at large. This type of research can analyse in minute detail the subtle chemical changes in the brain and body that practising meditation produces. It can also measure the psychological improvements, all of this data from reductionist science however, doesn’t really help us to understand meditation.
The first thing that leads to these benefits is not the practice of meditation itself but the desire and commitment to do it. Wanting to meditate and being willing to do it indicates the desire for greater self-awareness and well-being. It is a willingness to take time to be with oneself, no matter what. This in itself is an enormous step for many people. Modern culture is completely oriented towards self distraction through an endless barrage of images and information. The focus is completely external and stimulates the perpetuation of desire.
Each of us regardless of a life circumstances carries within us pains and fears from the past. For the vast majority of us, for the vast majority of the time, these feelings, emotions, and their responding beliefs, influence us subconsciously. Meditation creates the opportunity for our attention to turn inwards and for these things to be made conscious. Without this conscious awareness of our inner fears, pains, and limiting beliefs, the habitual tendency is to project them outwards onto other people and the world at large. Through the practice of meditation, as these things reveal themselves within us, we can expand the depth of our self-awareness, self-responsibility, and develop an increasing empathy for others.
For those of you who like lists, the psychological benefits of meditation are…
– Increased brain wave coherence.
– Greater creativity.
– Decreased anxiety.
– Decreased depression
– Decreased irritability and moodiness
– Improved learning ability and memory.
– Increased self-actualization.
– Increased feelings of vitality and rejuvenation.
– Increased happiness.
– Increased emotional stability.
– Increased capacity to learn and better learning achievements
– Increased ability to solve problems
– Increase in productivity.
– Increased concentration.
– Stronger feelings of happiness and contentment
– Greater self-acceptance and empathy
– Increased self confidence
– Increased spontaneity.
– Increased emotional stability.
– Increased self-awareness
– Greater Equanimity