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Thursday, 5 May 2022

The benefits of meditation (and how to incorporate it into your daily life)

Meditation changes your brain and body – for the better! Even small amounts practiced regularly can have positive effects on your brain, nervous system and hormones. And this is only the beginning – there is so much to explore when it comes to the benefits of meditation.

Research into meditation has increased massively in recently years and the results are compelling. As mental health issues, anxiety, stress, and depression continue to increase globally, both researchers and the public are looking for ways to better cope with the stressors of living in today’s world.

What is meditation?

Meditation is a tool to focus the mind, enabling you to live a more fully present life. There are so many distractions pulling our minds in all directions, from emails, to texts, to social media, to study, to work, to family, to global pandemics, war, and environmental disasters. The list could go on. There is a lot in our world that can leave us feeling mentally scattered, fatigued, and unmotivated. It is no wonder that more and more people are turning to meditation to help them live a more fulfilling life.

‘Neuroplasticity’ is a term that’s been around for a few years now and refers to the brain’s ability to change. Researchers have found that meditation can help to alter the nerve pathways in our brain. Our frontal lobes that perform our higher executive functioning, enabling us to choose our responses and make decisions, are strengthened through meditation. This allows us think clearly and make more conscious decisions. Another area of our brain is called the ‘Amygdala’ – which is a cluster of almond shaped nerve cells which help us to define emotions and are linked to our ‘fight/flight/faint’ response. The Amygdala signal the brain to release hormones in response to fear and stress. This is helpful when you’re being chased by a predator in the jungle, but now the Amygdala responds the same way to stressful emotional situations.

Research has shown that the size of the Amygdala can decrease, lessen its effect on the brain, which means we are less triggered by situations. With our frontal lobes strengthening and Amygdala shrinking, this means positive outcomes for us. Our once habitual emotional responses can have less impact on us due to the neural changes in our brain from meditation.

Essentially, we become what we practice. If we regularly react with anger or agitation, then this is the neural pathway we’re strengthening. If we take time to practice compassion, staying present with kindness and calmness, these also become strengthened responses.

So many of us are living with ongoing stress and living like this means our sympathetic nervous system – which gives us our ‘flight/flight/faint’ response is turned up high. Chronic stress can lead to increased release of insulin, cortisol, and adrenalin. Cortisol increases the sugar in your bloodstream leading to insulin resistance. Adrenalin will increase your heart rate. Meditation has been shown to decrease heart rate, allowing us to switch over into our parasympathetic nervous system, which is our ‘rest & digest’ response, returning our system to a state of calm.

How to start meditating

There are many different types of meditation to practice, and my advice is to try a few different types to find what best suits you. You don’t need to have any specific religious beliefs, plus meditation can fit into any religious practice you may already have.

You don’t need to do anything extreme like go sit in a cave for months on end. Start small but be regular. It’s like learning any new skill, it might feel weird at first, but over time you’ll settle into the practice more and more. It might even feel like “nothing’s happening!”. Just remember, you’re supported by 1000’s of years of experience behind meditation practices and the growing body of research.

There are plenty of free apps available if you want to try guided meditations, like Calm, Headspace and Insight Timer. If you would like to experience my free guided meditations, download the Insight Timer app and search for my profile using my name – Paul McCann. There are literally 1000’s to choose from across a variety of topics from sleep, anxiety, breathing and mindfulness.

So give it a go, you’ve got nothing to lose and plenty to gain!

Interested in Mental Health and Wellness?

Enrich the lives of those around you. Find out more about mindfulness with Wellness Practices: tools for balanced living, one of our Mental Health and Wellness Short Courses.

"The nutrition course was all about circling back to the science. It wasn’t fluffy. It was full of excellent case studies and amazing resources."

- Nikki Auckland