People have been meditating for thousands of years. Some of the earliest evidence of mediation date all the way back to 5,000 BCE… suffice to say, it’s not a new phenomenon. However, it’s becoming increasingly popular in our demanding world, especially since COVID hit and so many people are looking for ways to engage in self-care. It’s also more available than it’s ever been thanks to phone apps, youtube videos, and tons of classes. In fact, the top ten wellness phone apps saw two million downloads in April 2020, just after the pandemic hit.
You might be thinking that meditation isn’t “for you.” But the science behind meditation proves that the positive impact it has on our brains is too big to ignore. And it’s only natural that in a time of world-wide crisis such as a global pandemic, when people are experiencing increased levels of stress and anxiety, that meditation has become more ubiquitous, and more useful for the majority of people.
But exactly what does meditation do to the brain? There are countless ways in which meditation can help us, but here are the top ways it actually affects the brain in positive ways.
Slows the aging process
You might not think meditation is good for anything other than stress, but it’s beneficial for so many things — one of which, surprisingly, is the aging process. A UCLA study showed that meditation had actually slowed the brain’s aging process, meaning that those who engaged in meditation had younger brains, more grey matter in their brains than those who didn’t, and longer telomeres (the part of the chromosome in our brain that shows aging). Basically, meditation is beneficial for our brains, and helps keep them young and sharp over time.
We’re not just looking at the long-term benefits of meditation. We’re all stressed now, and meditation can help relieve that stress immediately. One study of college students (arguably one of the most stressed out groups of people!) showed that those who participated in meditation showed reduced stress. While stress causes us to jump into fight or flight mode, meditation initiates our body’s relaxation response, helping our bodies return to a state of calm and quiet. And research has shown that those who meditate frequently develop stronger stress-coping skills, meaning that they actually end up experiencing less stress than they normally would have.
If you’ve got an exam to take, or a project to manage that requires a ton of concentration, you will definitely want to look into meditating to prepare. One study showed that meditation, specifically the practice of mindfulness, led to increased memory capacity, exam performance, and concentration.
Helps with anxiety and depression
Most people consider meditation initially to help cope with stress, which I mentioned above is a great way to utilize it. However, it also has a positive impact on more severe mental states, such as anxiety and depression. A study conducted over the course of 8 weeks that took MRI scans showed that those who meditated had significantly decreased anxiety — those who didn’t meditate showed no changes at all.
And as for depression, it’s not about the “power of positive thinking.” Meditation actually changes the way your brain works, to help combat symptoms of depression. For example, negative thoughts are a huge part of depression, and meditation can help you work through and pay attention to those thoughts without judgement, so you can work on changing them. And while it’s incredibly helpful for relieving these symptoms, it’s also useful as an ongoing course of treatment, and it can help prevent a depressive episode relapse.
It’s also been shown to help decrease social anxiety, and helps combat symptoms of PTSD.
Long story short— Meditation is incredibly beneficial in a myriad of ways, and everyone should try it! You deserve to spend the time and attention on yourself, for your well-being and happiness. If you’re not sure where to start, I highly recommend downloading a meditation app, such as Calm or Headspace, to help guide you through. You can also work on breathing exercises on your own, or look up YouTube videos to help you get started.
The resources are out there. Now it’s up to you to put the work in. Trust me — your brain will thank you!