The Goods on Meditation

Before winding up (for now) our discussion of stress and the stress-busting effects of meditation, I want to offer you a few more fun facts to roll around in your brainpan in the next few weeks.

As we age, we lose our ability to handle stress as well as we did when we were young, and left untreated, chronic stress speeds up cognitive decline, and all the various degenerative aspects of aging. Meditation, however, can counter-balance many of the devastating effects of stress on our bodies and protect our brains from the debilitating combination of aging and unchecked stress overload. Meditation lowers cortisol levels, and as early as 1978, findings show meditators were physiologically 12 years younger than their chronological age.

Mindful meditation practices are not the cure-all for every ailment or condition, but the great news is: improvements seen in medical patients using meditation and other mind-body interventions are virtually equal to the results seen using conventional approaches in treating pain, stress, and other illnesses. This includes the use of psychotherapy, psychoactive medications, and behavior modification education.

Today, across the country, and around the world, medical schools, medical practitioners, and everyday people are using a menu of many types of meditation. These various kinds of meditation draw on different techniques originating from a variety of spiritual and non-spiritually- based traditions including: Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and the Western belief systems of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To help the concept and practice of meditation be more understandable to us in the West, teachers of meditation have adapted many of the Eastern spiritual practices and redrafted them into a beneficial, mindfulness practice.

Strong correlations from persuasive research find changes in both the physiological condition of people actively meditating, and more importantly, the lasting effects of meditating on a variety of physiological functions. These include many benefits I will discuss in future posts, but to connect it to our discussion this month on stress, in addition to significantly lowering our cortisol levels, regular meditation can help in the following ways:

  • Heighten our level of physiological rest

  • Create a state of calmness

  • Improve our stress responsiveness

  • Reduce our heart rate

  • Improve our memory

  • Improve our processing speed of information

  • Help concentration

  • And increase our perception of self-control

Truly exciting are the studies suggesting, “that meditation may decelerate, arrest, or perhaps even reverse age-related brain degeneration.” Dr. Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Psychiatric Neuroimaging Research Program, Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School reported this finding as early as 2005. My favorite dynamic girl duo, Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn and Dr. Elissa Epel, along with recent research done at UCLA with scientists at the Centre for Research on Ageing Health and Wellbeing, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia found that meditation could drastically slow down age-related brain tissue decline, significantly decreasing brain-aging. The cross-sectional studies are few, but these new results are very encouraging.

Do I meditate every day? I wish I could say yes, but the truth is, no. I do think about it every day, and do work it in most days, unless my hair is completely on fire. On the days I do take time to sit quietly, I feel so much better, I approach life in second gear instead of fifth, and I “don’t sweat the small stuff” nearly as much. So why not make it above the fold on my to-do list every single day? I wish I knew the answer. When, like many of us, I take some time off in August to refresh and recharge, I will drop it into the hopper, see what comes to me, and definitely report back!

Until September….Be vibrant!