Meditation: How it can help with stress, longevity, relationships and more


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“Not only are you aware of your body, you are also aware of your surroundings and your world,” she added. “It forces you to pay attention (instead of) to life instead of getting caught up in your head with anxious thoughts, worries and brooding over the future.”

Meditation, a practice of mindfulness, has no single universal definition. But as interest in mindfulness and meditation has grown, it has been summarized as “a mind-body exercise that focuses on the interactions between the brain, mind, body, and behavior and includes four key elements: a quiet place with few distractions, a comfortable posture, a focus of attention, and an open attitude,” according to a 2021 study.

“It helps you with memory and focus, increases resilience, helps you cope better with stress (and) helps you have a positive impact on relationships,” Vermani said. “In relationships, you are reactive when your mind is busy. And when you’re mindful and grounded, you tend to react instead of reacting, which means stopping and thinking before you let things out of your mouth that are sometimes hurtful or negative or judgmental.”

Influencing stress and longevity

According to the American Psychological Association, practicing mindfulness has been found to affect two stress pathways in the brain, altering brain structure and activity in regions that regulate attention and emotions.
People who practice mindfulness-based stress reduction and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy — which include meditation — are less likely to have negative thoughts or unhelpful emotional responses when faced with stressful situations, according to a 2015 review.
In addition to any structural changes in the brain, these benefits could also be the result of physical processes. Meditation can help regulate the autonomic nervous system, the part of our nervous system responsible for regulating involuntary physiological functions like heart rate, blood pressure, breathing, and digestion.

“Whenever we’re scared or racing in this rat race of a world, we rush so hard we breathe short and shallow,” Vermani said. “When you do this, your muscles tense up, your brain tends to become foggy and overwhelmed; you might brood.”

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Breathing meditations can reduce muscle tension and heart rate, Vaile Wright, a psychologist and senior director of health care innovation at the American Psychological Association, told CNN in 2020. The calmness felt during or after deep breathing meditations could be due to the delivery of more oxygen to the body Brain and body, Vermani said.
“We did a week-long meditation retreat,” said Dr. Deepak Chopra, Founder of the Chopra Foundation and Clinical Professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California, San Diego. “In that one week, all the genes that cause self-regulation, homeostasis — healing for short — increased 17-fold. All genes that cause or complicate (and) accelerated aging cancer, heart disease, autoimmune diseases declined. The level of the enzyme telomerase increased by 30%. This regulates genetic lock or how we age.”

Remaining research difficulties

While there are some well-known benefits of meditation for mental and physical health, researchers are still looking for the best ways to objectively measure how the practice affects the brain.

Some researchers have increasingly used cognitive neuroscience methods — such as MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging) — to determine what’s going on in participants’ neural networks during or after meditation, according to a 2019 review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science was published.

But images from MRIs and other imaging tests may not accurately show the complex factors involved in some of the conclusions other researchers have made about how meditation might alter brain structure and function, the review authors said — which might do “oversimplification” would lead to interpretations.”

Also, there were some studies whose results challenged the idea that meditation can help everyone, regardless of their personal differences. “Meditation-related experiences severe or distressing enough to warrant additional treatment or medical care have been reported in more than 20 published case reports or observational studies,” says the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science.

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These rare reports documented events such as psychosis, mania, anxiety, panic, reliving traumatic memories, and depersonalization – a state of mind in which one’s self appears unreal and the person feels alienated from themselves and the outside world, and has thoughts and experiences a distant one , dreamlike character, according to the American Psychological Association.

The differences between people who benefit from meditation and those who don’t might boil down to figuring out what type of meditation is best for one’s body and mental state, Vermani said.

“Even when we were conducting our study (on meditative breathing for anxiety), we had to verify that generalized anxiety disorder wasn’t being complicated by other disorders that could be worse,” Vermani said. This was because one of the meditations Vermani and his colleagues used was bellows breathing, an invigorating yogic breathing technique that involves rapid inhalations and exhalations for energy and mental clarity.

“If you’re bipolar,[bellows breathing]can actually trigger mania, so it’s a big deal. You don’t teach a pregnant woman how to breathe bellows because it’s so vigorous that you can induce labor. So meditation has consequences.”

Additionally, some people who turn to meditation have spent years avoiding or distracting themselves from distressing memories.

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“When you’re alone, your thoughts go to the things you haven’t dealt with,” Vermani said. “Military, 9/11 responders, or cops that I work with – often they’ve seen so many horrible things that just push them through life and work and push things aside. But when they’re silent and meditate or breathe, all those things come back to the surface because they haven’t dealt with them.”

Practicing meditation in supervised settings with professionals who can educate about possible effects is helpful for people with complicated emotional states, she added.


Meditation is “very accessible,” said Dr. Robert Waldinger, a clinician Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. “There are now so many apps that you can learn to meditate with a smartphone. It’s often really helpful to use one of the apps…where someone is guiding you through a meditation.”

You can also take an introductory class at a local meditation center, read a book, watch an online video, or practice on your own. Whichever path you choose, see what speaks to you — find someone whose voice you like and whose words make sense, Waldinger said.

According to Waldinger, getting started in a professionally managed setting can be helpful for beginners in order to reorient themselves after hurdles that could lead to them giving up quickly or becoming discouraged.

“There are many misconceptions about meditation,” he added. “One misconception is, ‘If I do it right, I shouldn’t have any thoughts.’ And that is absolutely not the truth. The mind produces thoughts, it does. So you don’t get rid of the thoughts until you die.”

Teachers can teach you about the aspects of meditation that aren’t intuitive or obvious, like that it’s okay to have thoughts or a distracted mind, Waldinger said. “If you just set the intention to be present, then everything that happens is what you do, including the distraction.”

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Because meditation is about being present, he added, it can be done anywhere — but a quiet, uninterrupted space can be optimal for beginners who are still learning to focus on the present. You can start with just five minutes a day and gradually increase it.

“Try it every day for a week and see if you notice anything,” Waldinger said. “But even after one time, a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, that was helpful. I want to do that again.’”

If you find that meditating makes you feel worse, talk to an experienced meditator about your experience, or wait until you’re in a better emotional or mental state, Waldinger said.

“People have understood that there is more to meditation than stress management,” said Chopra, author of Total Meditation: Practices in Living the Awakened Life. “When people say meditation these days, they’re referring to mindfulness, which is good. But meditation involves self-inquiry of consciousness whole aspect of mindful awareness of relationships, of the ecosystem, of emotions, of social emotional intelligence.”

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