These days, meditation is a mainstream psychological tool that is widely used for stress relief, even the corporate sector has embraced it – corporate meditation workshops are now a must-have element of any workplace wellbeing program. The style of meditation that has gained a lot of popularity in the corporate sector is mindfulness meditation, but there are many more forms of meditation on offer, including loving kindness meditation, transcendental meditation, mantra meditation, breath awareness meditation, Vipassana, walking meditation and body relaxation meditation to name a few.
How does meditation work?
The various meditative techniques differ in how they achieve a state of meditation, but the various styles fall into two main categories: concentration meditation and insight meditation.
The different types of concentration meditation all involve focusing on a single point. This may involve following a breathing pattern, or focusing on your breath, repeating a single word or mantra, or staring at one particular object for a long period.
The point of concentration meditation is to focus your awareness on one thing (a word, breathe, sensation, or object) and prevent the mind from wandering from it, (or at least notice when it does wander and immediately return your attention to the point of focus). Proponents of these types of meditation say that they produce cognitive benefits: that a brain that can be focused and unified will perform at a higher level than usual.
With insight meditation techniques, instead of focusing on a single object or thought, the meditator focusses on seeing things as they really are, which results in reduced stress and feeling at peace in the moment.
Both mindfulness meditation and loving/kindness meditation are excellent examples of insight meditation. Mindfulness meditation, on the one hand, trains the brain to be more aware of what it is doing, and not judging it. Loving/kindness meditation, on the other, cultivates unconditional kind attitude, or love, towards the self and others.
There has been a growing amount of scientific research into both mindfulness and loving kindness meditation to see what they can do to reduce stress and anxiety levels as well as to treat other areas of health.
What meditation research has found
Talk therapy and medication are traditional treatments for conditions such as stress, anxiety, depression, and pain management, but they don’t always work for everyone. So, recently people have started showing a greater interest in options like mindfulness meditation and loving kindness meditation. According to the Harvard Gazette, the number of randomized control trials (RCTs) has increased tremendously in the last decade.
Mindfulness meditation, in particular, has received the bulk of the attention, with research studies exploring its effect on physical and mental conditions. These include, but are not limited to stress, anxiety, depression, pain relief, cancer, high blood pressure, insomnia, and fibromyalgia. The best-documented results come from studies on depression, chronic pain, and anxiety. While some findings are very promising, others remain in doubt due to small study sizes or the absence of comparison groups.
Some meditation research has used brain scan imaging to compare the brain activity of meditators and non-meditators and has found that the brain’s “fight or flight” centre, the amygdala, appears to shrink in meditators, while the pre-frontal cortex, a part of the brain linked with concentration, awareness, and decision-making, tends to become thicker.
What this indicates is that with meditation, the more primal ‘fight or flight’ responses to stress are weakened while the more thoughtful responses are enhanced.
Brain scans were also able to show that individuals who meditate were able to change their perception of pain and thus feel less pain than those who non-meditators.
Effect of meditation on clinical illnesses
Most people experience stress in their daily lives and have a hard time relaxing and calming their mind. Existing in a constant state of stress increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, chronic insomnia, and high blood pressure. Using mindfulness meditation to reduce stress can help lower the risk factor for such diseases.
Scientific studies into meditation show that it is the psychological and physical benefits associated with meditation that make the difference. Research has shown that meditation reduces inflammatory markers in the body.
Chronic pain is another area that is linked with stress. It can both be a cause and consequence of anxiety. While other cognitive therapies try to resolve the issue of pain by not thinking about it, mindfulness meditation does the exact opposite. It encourages people to become more aware and more attentive to the sensation of pain. Brain studies show that when people who meditate pay attention to painful sensations, the parts of the brain that sense the pain are activated, while the parts of the brain that are associated with suffering become less active. So meditation teaches the brain to respond differently to pain: instead of dreading the pain, meditators learn to change their extreme response to a somewhat milder one which lets them accept their condition with less resistance.
Some types of chronic pains for which meditation appears to be beneficial include fibromyalgia, arthritis, low back pain, and headaches and migraines.
Many meditation research studies have looked into how mindfulness may help cancer patients.
Being diagnosed with cancer will, of course, skyrocket stress levels to the maximum. There is a lot of fear, sadness, and anxiety about what will happen, and it is these distressing symptoms that meditation can help with. This is a time when the body needs the immune system in top condition to fight the cancer, and certainly doesn’t need the added burden of stress depleting the immune system.
Mindfulness meditation for cancer patients helps give clarity, insight, and peace of mind. It may help with improving mood and concentration, reducing depression and anxiety, and with pain management. Together, these can help achieve acceptance and improve wellbeing.
Because meditation can improve mood and overall quality of life, it can also help cancer patients cope with their often arduous cancer treatments, and thus reduce treatment-fatigue.
Overall, meditation has not been found to cure diseases, but it has been found to be helpful with managing symptoms and coping with the illness for a better quality of life.
Does loving/kindness meditation have health benefits?
Loving kindness meditation is another type of insight meditation technique that helps you to bring forth feelings of compassion, kindness, and acceptance (for yourself and others). With this approach, a person can then overcome their stress and anxiety issues.
Research has shown that it helps increase positive emotions, quietens the inner critic, and strengthens empathy. Brain imaging has detected structural changes in the areas of the brain that are responsible for empathy. As with mindfulness meditation, loving kindness meditation has also been shown to increase telomere length.
To treat health conditions like cancer, loving kindness meditation can be helpful in boosting positive emotions, which can then improve other facets such as reduce depressive symptoms, increase life satisfaction and set a purpose in life.
Loving kindness meditation has also been used for pain management. It targets the negative feelings associated with pain and puts a positive spin on things by encouraging acceptance. Once it becomes easy to accept something painful, the severity of the pain seems to diminish.
So, while loving kindness meditation is by no means a cure-all it does offer improved symptoms management and quality of life.
There is still a lot more meditation research to be done, but it is already clear that meditation has physical and mental health benefits and that it will increasingly become a standard ingredient in the treatment of a wide range of mental and physical illnesses.