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Why You Should Consider Meditating

woman sitting meditating
Highlights
  • With Americans feeling increasingly stressed, more and more are turning to meditation for relief
  • Research shows that meditation can help with stress reduction, mood, anxiety, immune activity, cardiovascular health and more
  • There are many ways to meditate. Start with simple techniques that can be done at home or on the go

Meditation practices have become increasingly popular within the last decade. What used to be taboo is now becoming engrained into mainstream media and pop culture. From actors and musicians, to health experts and CEOs, to Oprah herself—it seems like everyone is talking about it. Scientific literature also reflects meditation’s growing popularity with an increase in studies investigating the effects of meditation, from 70 published studies in 2000, to 307 in 2010, to 736 in 2019! 

So, what’s all the buzz about? What people are experiencing (and research is confirming) is that meditation can help manage stress levels, promote a positive mood, boost our immune system, regulate our cardiovascular systems, promote better sleep, and much, much more. Thus, if you are seeking something that can benefit your body, brain, and overall well-being, we suggest you keep reading. 

What are the benefits of meditation?

Meditation reduces stress and anxiety 

According to a 2017 National Institutes of Health Survey, stress management is the most common reason people meditate.1 This isn’t surprising, given that Americans today are reportedly feeling more and more stressed and worried, which can be paralyzing for many.2 Even more, according to a 2018 American Psychiatric Association poll,3 Americans are feeling increasingly anxious every year. In fact, roughly 40 million adults in the US (18.1% of the population) are affected by anxiety disorders, which are the most prevalent form of mental illness.4

Fortunately, research shows that meditation reduces stress and anxiety and promotes a sense of well-being.58 One study showed that just 8 weeks of meditation reduced anxiety.9 Even better, meditation’s stress-reducing effects go beyond inducing calmness. For example, decreasing stress can improve behaviors and health conditions that are often compromised by stress, like mood and emotional control, attention, cardiovascular regulation, neurological health, cognitive health, and immune function.58,1013

Meditation regulates emotions

Another common reason people meditate is to regulate emotions.1 Emotional regulation allows us to respond to life experiences in socially acceptable and healthy ways, like taking a deep breath when we’re frustrated by unexpected traffic instead of holding down our horn to express our rage. While a horn-honking session may sound like fun to some (just a little), emotional dysregulation can have serious consequences to our relationships, work performance, and even our safety.14,15

Fortunately, meditation can help. Researchers find that people who meditate are less emotionally reactive (e.g., less likely to honk in rage) and have more emotional control.7,10 Meditators seem to be more emotionally resilient too. Studies show that people who meditate recover more quickly from negative experiences, have less negative emotions associated with challenging experiences, and respond less negatively to social rejection.7,1618

Meditation improves attention and focus 

Many of us are easily distracted by our phones, computers, iPads, and any other device that manages to catch our eye and attention. If you want more “focus time”, researchers report that merely 6 weeks of meditation can help improve attention and focus.19,20 And importantly, these positive results can be seen in a relatively short amount of time with people of all ages. For instance, one study showed that meditating for just 13 minutes a day for 8 weeks enhanced memory and focus in adolescents, adults and even children.21 As the research continues to unfold, meditation is also being linked to an increasing list of health benefits, including reducing blood pressure, insomnia and pain, and promoting smoking cessation, gut health, and more.12,13 These potential benefits can be experienced through various meditation practices like the ones described below. 

How do I meditate?

Meditation is a practice of training the mind, similar to how physical exercise trains the body. We often think of meditation as sitting cross-legged on the floor, palms up, chanting ‘om’. That is one style of meditation, but just like there are endless ways to exercise, there are infinite ways to meditate. Here are a few widely used meditation practices.22,23

  • Guided meditation – A practice that involves creating mental images of places or situations that you find relaxing. Incorporating as many senses as possible is encouraged. This practice is also referred to as guided imagery meditation or visualization.
  • Mindfulness meditation – A practice that focuses on the awareness and acceptance of the present moment. During this practice, it’s encouraged to allow thoughts and emotions to pass without judgment.
  • Mantra meditation – A practice that involves silently repeating a mantra (word or phrase) to focus the mind and prevent distracting thoughts from dominating.
  • Other meditation practices – Meditation can be done through movement or body-mind meditation, such as yoga, tai chi, qi gong, dance therapy, etc. 

Meditation on-the-go

It may sound counter-intuitive, but meditation can be practiced anywhere you go – while cooking in the kitchen, brushing your teeth in the bathroom, celebrating at a birthday party, or dancing at a concert. Using simple meditation practices can help you tap into inner calmness amidst the outer chaos. And no one has to know.22,23

  • Deep breaths – Breathing deep is one of the simplest ways to add calmness to any moment. You can do this while at a party, in a meeting, or alone. When focusing on your breath, your mind is able to quiet, even if only for a few seconds.
  • Repeating a mantra – Repeating a positive word or phrase allows your mind to focus on inspiring thoughts instead of getting bombarded by discouraging ones.
  • Focus on gratitude – Drawing your attention towards things that you are grateful for (as opposed to things that you find annoying) allows your mind to redirect to something more uplifting than heavy and negative.

How does meditation work?

Simply put, it rewires the brain. A growing body of research shows that meditation can change the brain by changing the size of brain regions, modifying the activation (or deactivation) of brain regions, and altering the frequency of brain waves. People who meditate experience the results of these brain modifications through some of the benefits discussed above.23

For instance, specific brain regions, like the amygdala (a part of the brain linked to emotions and emotional behavior) are altered by meditation. Typically, the amygdala becomes activated during stress and anxiety, but research shows that meditation acts to reduce stress and anxiety by decreasing the activation and size of this brain structure.7,23,24

Similar correlative results are seen with the hippocampus, a brain region that is key for learning and memory and consequently shrinks in size with memory loss. Researchers suggest that meditation improves memory by activating and increasing the size of this vital memory area of the brain.21,23,25 Meditation also has more wide-reaching brain effects, as it increases the volume and density of gray matter, as well as cortical thickness—which are all important for mental processing and cognition.23

Research is continuing to discover additional ways in which meditation is working in the brain. Other examples of brain regions that are activated during meditation include: 5,23,25

  • Sensory cortices and insula – areas of the brain associated with body awareness, empathy, and awareness of one’s thoughts
  • Pre/supplementary motor cortices – areas of the brain linked with memory processing, attention, and complex mental tasks
  • Anterior cingulate cortex, mid-cingulate cortex, orbitofrontal cortex – areas of the brain involved in self- and emotional regulation
  • Frontopolar cortex – areas of the brain associated with conscious focus and awareness of one’s thoughts
  • Superior longitudinal fasciculus and corpus callous – areas of the brain involved in brain connectivity

Meditating also improves brain connectivity by stimulating high-frequency gamma brain waves, which allow information to pass more quickly throughout the brain. This rapid transmission promotes higher connectivity, increased concentration, improved cognitive function, heightened senses, increased focus, and more joy and peace – we’ll take all of those, please and thank you.23,26,27

Conclusion

It’s clear why meditation is getting a lot of attention lately—more research is showing its benefits, and more people are experiencing them firsthand. So, if you are someone who could benefit from less stress and anxiety, a better mood, more focus, better health, and greater well-being, then maybe you should consider one of the many meditation practices available. Breathe deep and chant away! 

Denise John, PhD is a Science Researcher and Writer for Nordic Naturals. A published author, Denise holds a Doctorate in Neuroscience from Florida State University, and is passionate about sharing science to help others make informed choices and live better lives.

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