10 Amazing Facts About Meditation

Facts about meditation include that it can change your personality, improve gut health and change the brain.

Facts about meditation include that it can change your personality, improve gut health and change the brain.

Below are some of the most popular facts about meditation studies published here on PsyBlog.

Click the link in each of the facts about meditation to learn more about the study.

1. Meditation fact: it changes your personality

Meditation is linked to higher levels of extraversion and openness to experience and lower levels of neuroticism, research finds.

Neuroticism is a personality trait that is strongly linked to anxiety, sadness, irritability and self-consciousness.

Extraversion, along with its well-known attribute of engaging with other people, is linked to higher levels of positive emotionality.

In other words, people who meditate probably experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions.

Openness to experience is the quality of being receptive and curious, as well as imaginative and sensitive to feelings.

2. Deep meditation linked to improved gut health

Regular deep meditation could lower the risk of mental and physical health problems as well as improve gut health, a study of long-term meditators suggests.

The research found that Tibetan Buddhist monks had substantially different gut microbiomes from their secular neighbours.

The gut microbiome has been strongly linked to mood and behaviour.

It affects the stress response, hormonal signalling and the vagus nerve, which are all part of the parasympathetic nervous system.

3. Mindfulness meditation has some distressing side-effects

Mindfulness-based meditation is often thought to have no problematic side-effects — but that is not one of the true facts about meditation.

When asked the right questions, some admit it makes them hypersensitive, others that it causes nightmares and that they continue to re-experience traumatic events, research reveals.

The most common side-effect from meditation is ‘dysregulated arousal’, which means either people feel too agitated or too flat.

In other words, some experience anxiety and others feel emotionally disconnected after meditating.

Emotional disconnection might be a positive for some people, although it depends on the situation.

4. Mindfulness best for anxious and depressed

While meditation is often thought of as a purely beneficial experience, a study finds otherwise.

People with negative patterns of thinking, such as anxiety or depression, are more likely to have bad experiences while meditating.

The research found, people who practised deconstructive forms of meditation were at an increased risk of unpleasant experiences compared with those using other types.

‘Deconstructive’ practices of meditation include Vipassana (insight) and Koan practice (used in Zen Buddhism).

In comparison, the risk was lower for attentional and constructive types of meditation.

In other words, if you are anxious or depressed it may be better to stick to mindfulness, breathing and loving-kindness meditation.

5. Fact: How meditation changes the brain

The uplifting emotions that many feel when practising meditation are accompanied by specific changes in the brain, research finds.

Meditation does not just lift depression and anxiety, neuroscientists now think it acts on the brain in a similar way to therapy and antidepressants.

The method of meditation used in the study was Transcendental Meditation.

Transcendental Meditation involves repeating a ‘mantra’ to oneself for around 15 to 20 minutes per day.

Transcendental Meditation is thought to be one of the most widely used types of meditation around the world.

6. Just 10 minutes meditation works

Just 10 minutes meditation by a total novice is enough to improve thinking skills, research finds.

People who listened to a 10-minute meditation tape were more accurate and performed faster on a cognitive test afterwards.

All the people in the study had never meditated before in their lives.

Longer meditation sessions, or multiple sessions meditation might provide greater improvements to people’s cognitive abilities.

7. A body scan reduces anxiety quickly

A single one-hour session of meditation using a ‘body scan’ can reduce anxiety and improve heart health, research finds.

It is well-known that repeated meditation is beneficial, but this study shows how even a relatively small amount can help.

Even one week after a single session of meditation, people still had lower anxiety levels than before.

The type of meditation used in the study was a ‘body scan’.

A body scan involves focusing intensely on one part of the body at a time over a thirty-minute period.

This was done after first spending twenty minutes doing a meditation induction and was followed by ten minutes self-guided meditation.

8. Meditation conserves the brain’s gray matter

Meditation conserves the brain’s gray matter — used for processing thoughts — against age-related degeneration, a study finds.

From around the late twenties, people’s brains start to reduce in size and weight.

With these changes come worse memory, slower processing and the other cognitive changes associated with age.

The research shows that older people who meditated had preserved more gray matter.

So, not only can meditation preserve the brain’s white matter — used for communication between different areas — it can also preserve the brain’s gray matter, which is where cognition ‘happens’.

9. Fact: Meditation helps prevent memory loss

Meditation and yoga are more effective than memory games or crosswords for fighting memory problems linked to Alzheimer’s, according to a study.

Researchers compared two groups of people aged over 55 who reported memory problems like losing things, forgetting names and appointments.

One group were given crosswords and memory training to do over 12 weeks.

The other group did both yoga and meditation for an equivalent amount of time.

People in the yoga group practiced 20 minutes of Kirtan Kriya meditation, which is a part of Kundalini yoga.

Kundalini yoga involves focusing on breathing, chanting as well as the visualisation of light.

People who did yoga and meditation had better visuo-spatial memory: the type used for navigating and recalling locations.

Yoga and meditation also had better results in reducing depression and anxiety.

It helped people develop higher levels of resilience and increased their ability to cope.

10. Fact: Meditation reduce loneliness

It one of the facts about meditation that it can reduce feelings of loneliness and the expression of genes which cause inflammation, a study suggests.

After the eight-week study, participants who had been meditating felt significantly less lonely.

But the benefits did not end there, the researchers also found that meditation altered the genes related to inflammation.

After meditating, participants showed lower levels of the inflammatory marker C-reactive protein and there were beneficial alterations in a genetic transcription factor (NK-kB) which has been found to be important in heart disease.

While inflammation is one of the body’s natural reactions to disease and other attacks, when it becomes long-lasting it can cause other diseases and depression.

→ Read on: Mindfulness Meditation: Guide And Research On Attention

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Meditation: The Amazing Ways It Changes Your Personality

The longer people had been practising meditation, the more their personalities had changed.

The longer people had been practising meditation, the more their personalities had changed.

Meditation is linked to higher levels of extraversion and openness to experience and lower levels of neuroticism, research finds.

Neuroticism is a personality trait that is strongly linked to anxiety, sadness, irritability and self-consciousness.

Extraversion, along with its well-known attribute of engaging with other people, is linked to higher levels of positive emotionality.

In other words, people who meditate probably experience more positive emotions and fewer negative emotions.

Openness to experience is the quality of being receptive and curious, as well as imaginative and sensitive to feelings.

The conclusions come from a study of 70 people, half of whom were experienced mindfulness meditators.

All completed personality questionnaires.

The study’s authors explain that mindfulness was linked with:

“…higher levels of curiosity and receptivity to new experiences and experience of positive affect and with less proneness toward negative emotions and worrying and a reduced focus on achievements.”

The results also showed that the longer people had been practising meditation, the more their personalities had changed.

They showed higher levels of openness and extraversion and lower levels of neuroticism with more meditation.

Mindfulness may be particularly effective at increasing openness to experience, because it…

“…initiates the voluntary exposure to a wide range of thoughts, emotions, and experiences suggests that increases in openness can be expected due to the practice of MM [mindfulness meditation].”

The benefits of mindfulness in lowering neuroticism likely result from…

“…the clear intention to acknowledge and accept all thoughts and feelings as they arise in a non-judgmental way is in a sense revolutionary and can be hypothesized to reduce vulnerability to be lost in repetitive cycles of negative thoughts and worry.”

→ Read on: How to change your personality

The study was published in the journal Mindfulness (van den Hurk et al., 2011).

Deep Meditation Linked To Improved Gut Health (M)

The study included 37 Buddhist monks who were compared with their non-meditating neighbours.

The study included 37 Buddhist monks who were compared with their non-meditating neighbours.


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Mindfulness Meditation: Guide And Research On Attention

The science of mindfulness meditation and attention, including a beginner’s guide.

The science of mindfulness meditation and attention, including a beginner’s guide.

Mindfulness meditation is a practice that involves being intensely aware of the present moment.

In mindfulness meditation, one focuses on the senses without interpretation or judgement.

People practising mindfulness meditation use methods like guided imagery, breathing techniques and postures to achieve a focused state.

There all sorts of benefits of meditation, including lowering stress, better sleep and improved concentration.

You can find more about the research on mindfulness meditation by scrolling down, but first here is a quick guide on the technique.

Quick guide to mindfulness meditation

Here is a quick primer on how to used mindfulness meditation.

Mindfulness meditation is like chess: the rules are relatively easy to explain, but the game itself is infinitely complex.

And, like chess, the names and techniques of mindfulness meditation are many and varied but the fundamentals are much the same:

1. Relax the body and the mind

This can be done through body posture, mental imagery, mantras, music, progressive muscle relaxation, any old trick that works.

Take your pick.

This step is relatively easy as most of us have some experience of relaxing, even if we don’t get much opportunity.

2. Be mindful

Bit cryptic this one but it means something like this: don’t pass judgement on your thoughts, let them come and go as they will (and boy will they come and go!) but try to nudge your attention back to its primary aim, whatever that is.

Turns out this is quite difficult because we’re used to mentally travelling backwards and forwards while making judgements on everything (e.g. worrying, dreading, anticipating, regretting etc.).

The key is to notice in a detached way what’s happening but not to get involved with it.

This way of thinking often doesn’t come that naturally.

3. Concentrate on something

Often meditators concentrate on their breath, the feel of it going in and out, but it could be anything: your feet, a potato, a stone.

The breath is handy because we carry it around with us.

But whatever it is try to focus all your attention onto it. When your attention wavers, and it will almost immediately, gently bring it back.

Don’t chide yourself, be good to yourself, be nice.

The act of concentrating on one thing is surprisingly difficult: you will feel the mental burn almost immediately.

Experienced practitioners say this eases with practice.

4. Concentrate on nothing

Most say this can’t be achieved without a lot of practice, so I’ll say no more about it here.

Master the basics first.

Explore

This is just a quick introduction but does give you enough to get started.

It’s important not to get too caught up in techniques but to remember the main goal: exercising attention by relaxing and focusing on something.

Try these things out first, see what happens, then explore further.

→ Here are some more mindfulness exercises to fit into daily life.

Concentrating without effort

The early psychologist, William James wrote that controlling attention is at “the very root of judgement, character and will”.

He also noted that controlling attention is much easier said than done.

This is unfortunate because almost every impressive human achievement is, at heart, a feat of attention.

Art, science, technology — you name it — someone, somewhere had to concentrate, and concentrate hard.

Wouldn’t it be fantastic to be able to concentrate without effort?

Not to feel the strain of directing attention, just to experience a relaxed, intense, deep focus?

So naturally the million dollar question is: how can attention be improved?

Psychologists are fascinated by the sometimes fantastical claims made for mindfulness meditation, particularly in its promise of improving attention.

It certainly seems intuitively right that mindfulness meditation should improve attention — after all mindfulness meditation is essentially concentration practice — but what does the scientific evidence tell us?

Research on mindfulness meditation

The problem with attention is that it naturally likes to jump around from one thing to another: attention is antsy, it won’t settle — this is not in itself a bad thing, just the way it is.

Attention’s fidgety nature can be clearly seen in the phenomenon of ‘binocular rivalry’.

If you show one picture to one eye and a different picture to the other eye, attention shuttles between them, wondering which is more interesting.

A simple lab version of this presents a set of vertical lines to one eye and a set of horizontal lines to the other.

What people see is the brain flipping between the horizontal and the vertical lines and occasionally merging them both together, seemingly at random.

People usually find it difficult to see either the horizontal or the vertical lines — or even the merged version — for an extended period because attention naturally flicks between them.

If the binocular rivalry test is a kind of index of the antsy-ness of attention, then those with more focused attention should see fewer changes.

So reasoned Carter et al. (2005) who had 76 Tibetan Buddhists in their mountain retreats meditate before taking a binocular rivalry test.

They sat, wearing display goggles and staring at the lines, pressing a button each time the dominant view changed between horizontal, vertical and merged.

The more button presses, the more times their attention switched.

In one condition their meditation was ‘compassionate’, thinking about all the suffering in the world while in the other it was ‘one-point’ meditation focusing completely on one aspect of their experience, for example their breath going in and out.

Although the ‘compassionate’ form of meditation had no effect, the ‘one-point’ meditation reduced the rate of switching in half the participants.

The results were even more dramatic when the Buddhists carried out the one-point meditation while looking through the goggles.

Some of the most experienced monks reported complete image stability: they saw just the horizontal or vertical lines for a full 5 minutes.

When compared to people who do not meditate, these results are exceptional.

8-week training in mindfulness meditation

Of course we don’t all have 20 years to pass in a mountain retreat learning how to concentrate, so is there any hope for the rest of us?

A study by Dr Amishi Jha and colleagues at Pennsylvania University suggests there is (Jha, Krompinger & Baime, 2007).

Rather than recruiting people who were already superstar concentrators, they sent people who had not practised mindfulness meditation before on an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation.

This consisted of a series of 3-hour classes, with at least 30 minutes of meditation practice per day.

These 17 participants were then compared with a further 17 from a control group on a series of attentional measures.

The results showed that those who had received training were better at focusing their attention than the control group.

This certainly suggests that mindfulness meditation was improving people’s attention.

Testing a one-month retreat

Dr Jha and colleagues were also interested in how practice beyond beginner level would affect people’s powers of attention.

To test this they sent participants who were already meditators on a mindfulness meditation retreat for one month.

Afterwards they were given the same series of attention measures and were found to have improved in their reactions to new stimuli.

In other words, they seemed to have become more receptive.

Attention improved in 5 days

Attentional improvements from mindfulness meditation, though, have recently been reported even quicker than 8 weeks.

A study carried out by Yi-Yuan Tang and colleagues gave participants just 20 minutes instruction every day for five days (Tang et al., 2007).

Participants practised a Chinese form of mindfulness meditation called ‘integrative body-mind training’, which uses similar techniques to other types of meditation.

They found that after only this relatively short introduction participants demonstrated improved attention compared to a control group, along with other benefits such as lower levels of stress and higher energy levels.

Opening the doors of perception

There is even evidence that meditation can improve a major limitation of the brain’s attentional system.

Attentional blink is the finding that our attention ‘blinks’ for about half a second right after we focus on something (follow the link for the full story).

Meditation, however, seems to be able to increase our minds’ attentional bandwidth.

Slagter et al. (2007) gave participants 3 months of intensive meditation training and found that afterwards the attentional blink was seriously curtailed.

In other words people were capable of processing information more quickly and accurately.

Perhaps, then, meditation really can open the doors of perception…

This research on meditation’s effect on attention is just the tip of the iceberg.

Other studies have also suggested that meditation can benefit motivation, cognition, emotional intelligence and may even sharpen awareness to such an extent that we can control our dreams (Walsh & Shapiro, 2006).

And these are just the psychological benefits, there also appear to be considerable physical benefits.

Mindfulness meditation and new ways of being

As William James pointed out attention is so fundamental to our daily lives that sharpening it up is bound to spill over into many different areas of everyday life.

When attention goes wrong people are frequently beset by unsettling experiences, but when it goes right we are capable of all sorts of incredible abilities, like multitasking the cocktail party effect, and even curtailing the attentional blink.

In fact, attention is so fundamental to consciousness that it’s no exaggeration to say that what we pay attention to makes us who we are.

Potentially, then, mindfulness meditation offers a way to remake ourselves, leaving behind damaging or limiting habits and discovering new ways of being.

→ Read on: Benefits of mindfulness and mindfulness exercises.

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How To Prevent Depression Relapse Without Antidepressants (M)

Four out of five people with depression will relapse at some point without treatment.

Four out of five people with depression will relapse at some point without treatment.


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A Simple Daily Habit To Boost Mental Health

Mental health can be improved on a daily basis without too much extra effort.

Mental health can be improved on a daily basis without too much extra effort.

Taking a mindful walk lowers levels of stress, anxiety and depression, research finds.

The beauty of the activity is that many people are walking around anyway as part of their normal routine.

It is not too much of a stretch to attempt a little ‘mindfulness’ while walking.

Being ‘mindful’ while walking refers to paying attention to the present moment instead of letting the mind wander off (instructions at the end of the article).

Dr Chih-Hsiang Yang, the study’s first author, said:

“It can be difficult to ask people to spend a lot of time doing moderate or vigorous activity by going to the gym or out for a run, especially if they feel stressed.

But if they don’t need to change their everyday behavior, and can instead try to change their state of mind by becoming more mindful, they can probably see this beneficial effect.

You don’t need to exert a lot of extra effort in order to improve your wellbeing by being more mindful while you’re moving around.”

The researchers carried out one study on students who were randomly prompted to report their thoughts and feelings while moving around during the day.

The results showed they were less anxious and depressed while being more mindful and when they were moving around.

A second study had adults engaged in outdoor mindfulness activities.

These were shown to make them feel better.

Dr Yang said:

“When people were both more mindful and more active than usual, they seem to have this extra decrease in negative affect.

Being more active in a given moment is already going to reduce negative affect, but by also being more mindful than usual at the same time, you can see this amplified affect.”

Mindful walking instructions

If you do any period of undisturbed walking during the day — at least ten or fifteen minutes — then you can do a little walking mindfulness meditation.

It’ll be easiest if done somewhere with fewer distractions, but try it anywhere and see what happens.

As when cultivating all forms of mindfulness, it’s about focusing the attention.

At first, people often concentrate on the sensation of their feet touching the ground.

Then you could just as easily focus on your breath or move the attention around your body, part by part.

The key, though, is to develop a sort of relaxed attention.

When your mind wanders away, bring it back gently, without judging yourself.

The study was published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Yang & Conroy, 2018).

Intrusive Thoughts: 8 Ways To Stop Thinking About Something

Intrusive thoughts can be stopped using focused distraction, paradoxical therapy, acceptance, self-affirmation and more…

Intrusive thoughts can be stopped using focused distraction, paradoxical therapy, acceptance, self-affirmation and more…

It’s one of the irritations of having a mind that sometimes it’s hard to get rid of negative, intrusive thoughts.

It could be a mistake at work, money worries or perhaps a nameless fear. Whatever the anxiety, fear or worry, it can prove very difficult to control.

The most intuitive method to get rid of intrusive thoughts is trying to suppress them by pushing them out of our minds.

Unfortunately, as some studies have shown, thought suppression doesn’t work.

However, the latest research has suggested that thought suppression may have benefits.

So, what alternatives exist to get rid of intrusive thoughts we’d rather not have going around in our heads?

In an article for American Psychologist, the expert on thought suppression, Daniel Wegner, explains some potential methods to get rid of intrusive thoughts (Wegner, 2011).

1. Focused distraction from intrusive thoughts

The natural tendency when trying to get your mind off, say, a social gaff you made, is to try and think about something else: to distract yourself.

The mind wanders around looking for new things to focus on, hopefully leaving you in peace.

Distraction does work but, oddly enough, studies suggest it is better to distract yourself with one thing, rather than letting the mind wander.

That’s because aimless mind wandering is associated with unhappiness; it’s better to concentrate on, say, a specific piece of music, a TV programme or a task.

2. Avoid stress

Another intuitive method for avoiding persistent thoughts is to put ourselves under stress.

The thinking here is that the rush will leave little mental energy for the thoughts that are troubling us.

When tested scientifically, this turns out to be a bad approach. In fact, rather than being a distraction, stress makes the unwanted thoughts come back stronger, so it certainly should not be used as a way of avoiding intrusive thoughts.

3. Postpone the thought until later

While continuously trying to suppress a thought makes it come back stronger, postponing it until later can work.

Researchers have tried asking those with persistent intrusive thoughts to postpone their worrying until a designated 30-minute ‘worry period’.

Some studies suggest that people find this works as a way of side-stepping thought suppression.

So save up all your worrying for a designated period and this may ease your mind the rest of the time.

4. Paradoxical therapy

What if, instead of trying to suppress a worrying repetitive thought about, say, death, you head straight for it and concentrate on it?

It seems paradoxical that focusing in on a thought might help it go away, but some research suggests this can work.

It’s based on the long-established principle of ‘exposure therapy’: this is where, for example, arachnophobes are slowly but surely exposed to spiders, until the fear begins to fade.

This approach is not for the faint-hearted, but research suggests it can be useful to get rid of negative thoughts when used by those tackling obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviour.

5. Acceptance of intrusive thoughts

Along similar lines, but not so direct, there’s some evidence that trying to accept unwanted thoughts rather than doing battle with them can be beneficial.

Here are the instructions from one study which found it decreased participants’ distress:

“Struggling with your target thought is like struggling in quicksand. I want you to watch your thoughts. Imagine that they are coming out of your ears on little signs held by marching soldiers. I want you to allow the soldiers to march by in front of you, like a little parade. Do not argue with the signs, or avoid them, or make them go away. Just watch them march by.” (Marcks & Woods, 2005, p. 440)

6. Meditate

Similar to acceptance, Buddhist mindfulness meditation promotes an attitude of compassion and non-judgement towards the thoughts that flit through the mind.

This may also be a helpful approach to get rid of negative thoughts.

There is a basic guide to mindfulness meditation.

7. Self-affirmation for intrusive thoughts

Self-affirmation is the latest psychological cure-all. It involves thinking about your positive traits and beliefs and has been found to increase social confidence and self-control, amongst other benefits.

It may also be helpful to get rid of negative, intrusive thoughts, although it has only been tested experimentally a few times.

8. Write about intrusive thoughts

In contrast to self-affirmation, expressive writing—writing about your deepest thoughts and feelings—has been tested extensively and it does have various health and psychological benefits (although generally only with a small effect).

Writing emotionally about yourself, then, may help to get rid of intrusive thoughts.

The disclaimer

A note on how to get rid of intrusive thoughts from Daniel Wegner:

“The techniques and therapies explored here vary from the well established to the experimental, but it should be remembered that, on balance, they lean toward the experimental…these assembled solutions for unwanted thoughts should be taken as hypotheses and possibilities rather than as trusty remedies or recommendations.”

That said, none of these techniques are likely to do any harm and all of them are probably an improvement on thought suppression.

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Benefits Of Meditation: 10 Ways It Helps Your Mind

Brain benefits of mindfulness meditation include lasting emotional control, cultivating compassion, reducing pain sensitivity and more…

Brain benefits of mindfulness meditation include lasting emotional control, cultivating compassion, reducing pain sensitivity and more…

The benefits of meditation are about way more than just relaxing.

In fact, if I listed the following meditation benefits from a new pill or potion, you’d be rightly sceptical.

But all these flow from a simple activity which is completely free, involves no expensive equipment, chemicals, apps, books or other products.

I’ve also included my own very brief meditation instructions below to get you started.

But first, what are all these remarkable meditation benefits?

1. Lasting emotional control

Mindfulness meditation may make us feel calmer while we’re doing it, but do these benefits spill over into everyday life?

Desborders et al. (2012) scanned the brains of people taking part in an 8-week meditation program, before and after the course.

While they were scanned, participants looked at pictures designed to elicit positive, negative and neutral emotional responses.

After the mindfulness meditation course, activation in the amygdala, the emotional centre of the brain, was reduced to all pictures.

This suggests that meditation benefits lasting emotional control, even when you are not meditating.

2. Benefits of meditation: cultivating compassion

One of the meditation benefits long thought central is to help people be more virtuous and compassionate. Now this has been put to scientific test.

In one study participants who had been meditating were given an undercover test of their compassion (Condon et al., 2013).

They were sat in a staged waiting area with two actors when another actor entered on crutches, pretending to be in great pain. The two actors sat next to the participants both ignored the person who was in pain, sending the unconscious signal not to intervene.

Those who had been meditating, though, were 50% more likely to help the person in pain.

One of the study’s authors, David DeSteno, said:

“The truly surprising aspect of this finding is that meditation made people willing to act virtuous–to help another who was suffering–even in the face of a norm not to do so.”

3. Change brain structures

Meditation is such a powerful technique that, after only 8 weeks, the brain’s structure changes.

To show these effects, images of 16 people’s brains were taken before and after they took a meditation course (Hölzel et al., 2011).

Compared with a control group, grey-matter density in the hippocampus–an area associated with learning and memory–was increased.

The study’s lead author, Britta Hölzel, commented on meditation benefits:

“It is fascinating to see the brain’s plasticity and that, by practicing meditation, we can play an active role in changing the brain and can increase our well-being and quality of life.”

4. Benefits of meditation: reducing pain

One of the meditation benefits is that regular meditators experience less pain.

Grant et al. (2010) applied a heated plate to the calves of meditators and non-meditators. The meditators had lower pain sensitivity.

Joshua Grant explained:

“Through training, Zen meditators appear to thicken certain areas of their cortex and this appears to be underlie their lower sensitivity to pain.”

5. Benefits of meditation: Accelerate cognition

How would you like your brain to work faster?

Zeidan et al. (2010) found significant meditation benefits for novice meditators from only 80 minutes of meditation over 4 days.

Despite their very brief period of practice—and compared with a control group who listened to an audiobook of Tolkein’s The Hobbit—meditators improved on measures of working memory, executive functioning and visuo-spatial processing.

The authors conclude:

“…that four days of meditation training can enhance the ability to sustain attention; benefits that have previously been reported with long-term meditators.”

Improvements seen on the measures ranged from 15% to over 50%.

The full article: Cognition Accelerated by Just 4 x 20 Minutes Meditation

6. Meditate to create

The right type of meditation can help solve some creative problems.

A study by Colzato et al. (2012) had participants take a classic creativity task: think up as many uses as you can for a brick.

Those using an ‘open monitoring’ method of meditation came up with the most ideas.

This method uses focusing on the breath to set the mind free.

7. Benefits of meditation: better concentration

At its heart, meditation is all about learning to concentrate, to have greater control over the spotlight of attention.

An increasing body of studies now underline the meditation benefits for attention.

For example, Jha et al. 2007 sent 17 people who had not practised meditation before on an 8-week training course in mindfulness-based stress reduction, a type of meditation.

These 17 participants were then compared with a further 17 from a control group on a series of attentional measures. The results showed that those who had received training were better at focusing their attention than the control group.

The full article: How Meditation Improves Attention

8. Multitasking

Since meditation benefits different aspects of cognition, it should also improve work performance.

That’s what Levy et al. (2012) tested by giving groups of human resource managers tests of their multitasking abilities.

Those who practised meditation performed better on standard office tasks–like answering phones, writing email and so on–than those who had not been meditating.

Meditating managers were better able to stay on task and also experienced less stress as a result.

9. Reduce anxiety

Meditation is an exercise often recommended for those experiencing anxiety.

To pick just one of many recent studies, Zeidan et al. (2013) found that four 20-minute meditation classes were enough to reduce anxiety by up to 39%.

More about anxiety: 8 Fascinating Facts About Anxiety

10 Fight depression with meditation

A central symptom of depression is rumination: when depressing thoughts roll around and around in the mind.

Unfortunately you can’t just tell a depressed person to stop thinking depressing thoughts; it’s pointless.

That’s because treating the symptoms of depression is partly about taking control of the person’s attention.

One method that can help with this is mindfulness meditation. Mindfulness is all about living in the moment, rather than focusing on past regrets or future worries.

A recent review of 39 studies on mindfulness has found that meditation benefits depression (Hofmann et al., 2010).

→ Read on: Signs of depression: 10 Common Symptoms You Should Know

How to meditate mindfully

Since mindful meditation’s benefits are so great, here is a quick primer on how to meditate.

The names and techniques of mindfulness meditation are many and varied, but the fundamentals are much the same:

1. Relax the body and the mind

This can be done through body posture, mental imagery, mantras, music, progressive muscle relaxation, any old trick that works. Take your pick.

This step is relatively easy as most of us have some experience of relaxing, even if we don’t get much opportunity.

2. Be mindful

It’s a bit cryptic this one but it means something like this: don’t pass judgement on your thoughts, let them come and go as they will (and boy will they come and go!).

When your mind wanders, try to nudge your attention back to its primary aim.

It turns out this is quite difficult because we’re used to mentally travelling backwards and forwards while making judgements on everything (e.g. worrying, dreading, anticipating, regretting etc.).

The key is to notice, in a detached way, what’s happening, but not to get involved with it. This way of thinking often doesn’t come that naturally.

3. Concentrate on something

Often meditators concentrate on their breath, the feel of it going in and out, but it could be anything: your feet, a potato, a stone.

The breath is handy because we carry it around with us. Whatever it is, though, try to focus all your attention onto it.

When your attention wavers, and it will almost immediately, gently bring it back. Don’t chide yourself, be compassionate to yourself.

The act of concentrating on one thing is surprisingly difficult: you will feel the mental burn almost immediately. Experienced practitioners say this eases with practice.

4. Concentrate on nothing

Most say this can’t be achieved without a lot of practice, so I’ll say no more about it here. Master the basics first.

Benefits of meditation

This is just a quick introduction on meditation benefits but does give you enough to get started. It’s important not to get too caught up in techniques but to remember the main goal: exercising attention by relaxing and focusing on something.

Try these things out first, see what happens, then explore further.

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5 Relaxation Techniques For Stress And Anxiety

Relaxation techniques that are scientifically proven include progressive relaxation, autogenic training, meditation and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Relaxation techniques for anxiety that are scientifically proven include progressive relaxation, autogenic training, meditation and cognitive-behavioural therapy.

Everyone gets anxious from time to time: there’s public speaking, job interviews, the dentist and all the rest.

For about one in six of us this will cross over into what psychologists term a disorder at some point in our lives.

This is when people are almost continuously anxious and find it difficult to concentrate, have trouble sleeping and become irritable and restless.

Women are roughly twice as likely as men to suffer from an anxiety disorder.

For the rest of us anxiety will come and go as part of the normal human condition.

Whether it’s a constant or occasional affliction, dealing with anxiety effectively is important.

People are often prescribed drugs for anxiety but these are less effective in the long-term and have side-effects so relaxation training is often preferred.

Relaxation techniques come in a variety of flavours, but the five methods which have much in common and the most evidence to support them are (Manzoni et al., 2005):

1. Progressive relaxation

The most commonly studied type of relaxation therapy may be familiar to you.

It involves mentally going around the muscle groups in your body, first tensing then relaxing each one.

It’s as simple as that.

And with practice it becomes easier to spot when you are becoming anxious and muscles are becoming tense as, oddly, people often don’t notice the first physical signs of anxiety.

This is based on the idea that the mind follows body. When you relax your body, the mind also clears.

2. Applied relaxation techniques

Applied relaxation builds on progressive relaxation techniques.

First you learn to relax you muscle groups one after the other.

The next stage is to cut out the tensing phase and move straight to relaxing each muscle.

Next you learn to associate a certain cue, say thinking ‘serenity now!’ (hello Seinfeld fans!) with a relaxed state. You then learn to relax really quickly.

Finally you practise your relaxation technique in real-world anxiety-provoking situations.

Once again, mostly this is about mind following the body.

3. Autogenic training

Goes back to the 1930s and is another technique for progressively relaxing the muscles.

To help you do this it has a mantra which you repeat to yourself as you go around major muscle groups: “my right arm is very heavy” and so on.

A second stage involves inducing a feeling of warmth in the muscles.

Once they feel ‘heavy’ from the first stage, you follow another mantra about warmth: “my right arm is very warm” and so on.

Further stages involve calming the heart and the abdomen and cooling the brow in much the same way.

Once again, you’ll notice that this is all about the mind following a calm body.

As before practitioners recommend daily practice so that you can relax more and more quickly.

With practice the simple intention to start the training will be enough to cause the body to become relaxed and warm.

4. Meditation

Here’s our old friend meditation which has so many different benefits.

There is certainly evidence that it can work for people who experience anxiety as well.

I describe the basics of mindfulness meditation in this article about attention and meditation.

Be aware that meditation is quite difficult and the drop-out rates are high from studies which investigate it (Krisanaprakornkit et al., 2009).

This suggests some people don’t find it particularly acceptable.

For people who can manage it, though, the results are often better than the other techniques (Manzoni et al., 2005).

Notice that this relaxation technique is much more actively related to the mind than the first three methods.

It doesn’t just target the body and wait for the mind to follow, instead it’s about the way attention is focused.

This may be partly why people find it harder. Still, it probably won’t do any harm to try.

→ Find out more about the benefits of meditation.

5. Cognitive behaviour therapy

Finally cognitive behaviour therapy, or CBT, targets both mind and body.

As it’s primarily a talking therapy you normally have to go to a psychologist who will help you target unhelpful thinking patterns.

But there are books available that explain how it works (I mention a few here: 6 Self-Help Books for Depression Recommended by Experts).

However these don’t specifically target anxiety, they’re mostly for mild depression.

Use multiple relaxation techniques

And there’s no reason why you should stick to only one approach.

When Manzoni et al. looked at studies which used multi-modal techniques, they found these were effective as well.

If you need to relax—for whatever reason and at whatever time—then try one or more of these different methods.

As you’ll have noticed the effective techniques share a lot in common.

Regular practice is the key and, if you give it a chance, the mind really will follow the body.

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The Legal High That Helps Treat Addiction (M)

The key is the production of theta waves: a particular type of electrical activity in the brain that puts the mind into a healthy altered state of consciousness.

The key is the production of theta waves: a particular type of electrical activity in the brain that puts the mind into a healthy altered state of consciousness.

Addicts can get a totally safe, legal high from mindfulness meditation that also fights their addictive behaviours, a study finds.

In fact, anyone can achieve a self-transcendent, blissful state using mindfulness.

The key is the production of theta waves: a particular type of electrical activity in the brain that puts the mind into a healthy altered state of consciousness.

Professor Eric Garland, the study’s first author, explained the significance:

“With high theta activity, your mind becomes very quiet, you focus less on yourself and become so deeply absorbed in what you are doing that the boundary between yourself and the thing you are focusing on starts to fade away.

You lose yourself in what you are doing.”

Practising mindfulness

The research, the largest ever study on treating addiction with mindfulness, included 165 people with a history of long-term opioid usage.

Half were given an 8-week course called Mindfulness-Oriented Recovery Enhancement which has been shown to reduce opioid misuse by 45 percent.

The other half were given supportive psychotherapy.

People in the mindfulness group learned various standard mindfulness practices, such as focusing attention on the breath and the body.

(Here is PsyBlog’s guide to mindfulness meditation and here are some mindfulness exercises to try.)

Over extended periods of time, participants practiced bringing their focus back from the mind’s natural wandering.

Bliss and love

The results showed that after practicing mindfulness people showed twice as much theta brainwave activity.

In comparison, those who merely had supportive therapy displayed no change in this regard.

People experiencing the largest increases in theta wave activity reported greater feelings of self-transcendence.

They felt their ego fading away to be replaced by a sense of oneness, blissful energy and love.

Professor Garland said:

“Mindfulness can create a pathway for us to transcend our limited sense of self.

Civilizations have known for thousands of years that self-transcendence, the experience of being connected to something greater than ourselves, has powerful therapeutic benefits.”

Pure awareness

The increase in theta waves helps addicts gain self-control over their addictive behaviours.

Professor Garland said:

“Rather than seeking a high from something outside of yourself like a drug, meditation can help you to find an even greater sense of pleasure, peace and fulfilment from within.”

Professor Garland likens this to the 11th step of the popular 12-step addiction treatment program, which involves ‘seeking conscious contact with a higher power through prayer or meditation’.

The study’s authors quote the Shiva Sutras, aphorisms from a 9th century yogi:

“When the yogi is established in pure awareness, his craving is destroyed… thus he savors his own inherently blissful nature which illumines itself with the rays of its consciousness… Thus [at] the very moment the yogi abandons the craving.”

The study was published in the journal Science Advances (Garland et al., 2022).