Mindfulness meditation is one of many styles of meditation.
Research finds it especially helpful for anxiety, even more so than other forms of meditation. It’s widely considered the best beginner’s meditation since it’s easy, effective, and requires no special training to get started. It’s the meditation of choice among people who regularly face unusual levels of stress.
Those in high-stress occupations including Wall Street brokers and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs rely on it to avoid burnout and keep their mental edge. The U.S. Marines use mindfulness to reduce overall on-the-job stress, minimize the effects of post-traumatic stress, and improve performance. ABC news anchor Dan Harris is now an outspoken proponent of the benefits of mindfulness meditation after experiencing a horrifying on-the-air anxiety attack. His meditation practice was instrumental in overcoming anxiety and panic attacks. But he didn’t always feel that way. He was extremely skeptical and resisted meditating for a long time. He admitted in an interview with Charlie Rose that he was initially turned off by “self-help gurus making pseudoscientific claims.”
You may feel the same way.
So let’s look at what scientific research has uncovered about this technique and what it can do for anxiety. It’s been known for thousands of years that mindfulness, like all kinds of meditation, can help you relax. But mindfulness does much more than that - it actually changes the structure and function of your brain. With the latest neuroimaging techniques, these changes can now be tracked and measured.
Researchers from Johns Hopkins University sifted through over 18,000 mindfulness meditation studies and concluded that its best use was for anxiety, depression, and pain management. Its benefits extend to mental disorders of all kinds including generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety, panic disorder, agoraphobia, depression, and addictions.
Here are some of the amazing ways mindfulness meditation improves your brain and mental well-being. Repeated studies have demonstrated that meditation can rewire how the brain responds to stress. Any habit is easy to do (and hard to stop doing) because you have created a strong neural pathway for that activity. The same holds true for your patterns of self-talk and the 50,000 or so thoughts you have every day.
However, your brain has an endless capacity to change, known as neuroplasticity. Regularly practicing mindfulness meditation actually rewires your brain to be more focused. Mindfulness trains you to view your thoughts differently. You learn to recognize and stop “mental time travel” - worrying about the future and ruminating about the past.
Mindfulness also elevates mood by increasing levels of serotonin, another neurotransmitter vital to happiness. At the same time, mindfulness meditation reduces levels of the stress hormone cortisol which otherwise significantly contributes to anxiety, depression, sleep disorders, and memory loss.
Meditation can built a bigger, healthier brain. The brains of regular meditators show increases in the amount of gray matter, the volume of the hippocampus, and the thickness of the cortex. Conversely, the size of the amygdala, the area of the brain region associated with fear, anxiety, and stress, decreases and becomes less reactive.
It also improves neural connections between various areas of the brain. Cytokines are chemical messengers that regulate your immune response. Elevated cytokine levels are responsible for chronic inflammation and are associated with anxiety, depression and other mood disorders. Mindfulness meditation reduces inflammation, even down to the level of altering the expression of pro-inflammatory genes.
You’d think changing genes would take a long time, but measurable changes can be observed in as little as eight hours of meditation.
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