Perhaps your life has become too tough to handle. You may be feeling run-down, stressed and anxious and cannot wait to find some time to wind down and relax. Your mind could be preoccupied, thinking about financial worries, deadlines, work, kids and health issues. Consequently, you have found it impossible to switch off.
One of the solutions you may have come across is meditation, the benefits of which include reduced stress levels and better sleep. However, the benefits do not just end there. Tuning inwards can actually make lasting physical changes, and not just in the way you feel. Meditation can literally change your brain. Let's take a look:
An overview: The brain on meditation
The brain is divided into various segments, each having its own role. The frontal lobe (located at the front end of the brain), helps us plan, reason, emote and be aware of ourselves. MRI scans have shown that during meditation, the frontal lobe slows down and tunes off.
Meditation can also have an impact on the thalamus. This area of the brain coordinates our senses and channels them from different parts of the body to the brain. During meditation, this processing slows down.
The reticular formation is also affected during meditation. It is responsible for keeping the brain alert, based on the stimuli it receives.
7 ways meditation affects the brain
1. Meditation promotes new connections in the brain
Meditation stimulates growth of new brain cells, promoting more gray matter (the part of the brain whereby neurons connect to one another and which is activated in the process of learning new skills). As we age, we naturally begin to lose some of the mass of the grey matter. However, meditation can help slow this process down.
2. Meditation improves your memory
Due to the effects that meditation has on gray matter, it has also been found to affect the hippocampus, the area of the brain that focuses on memory, helping us learn and internalize new skills and information. Furthermore, research conducted by Osher Research Center and Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging, illustrated that people practicing mindful meditation have the ability to adjust their brain waves, tuning out distraction. Consequently, this increases productivity and boosted memory.
3. Meditation helps control emotions
Meditation affects the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for regulating emotions, by increasing the amount of gray matter in this area. As a result, meditation enables us to deal better with our emotions and feelings.
4. Meditation diminishes stress
Meditation affects the amygdala center - most commonly associated with fear and stress. When we feel stressed, this part of the brain becomes activated, triggering the fight or flight response. Meditation can reduce the activity of the amygdala, enabling us to control our anxiety and stress levels that come about for no apparent reason. Furthermore, a study conducted to discover the benefits of meditation in 2012, analyzed three groups to test which of the three can handle stress better. The first group practiced mindful meditation; the second focused on body relaxation training and the third were given no training whatsoever. A multi-tasking, stress inducing test portrayed that those who meditated showed less stress than the group that didn't.
5. Meditation promotes a relaxed state of mind
In its aroused state, your brain releases alpha waves, keeping you alert and hyped up. However, MRI scans have shown that during meditation, your brain predominantly releases theta waves - associated with a relaxed state of mind.
6. Meditation reduces anxiety
In an upsetting situation, the prefrontal cortex causes you to feel anxious. This response can be controlled with regular meditation. Meditating enables a lesser reaction in the prefrontal cortex, reducing pangs of anxiety, enabling you to evaluate the situation in a rational way.
7. Meditation increases resilience
Researchers at Wisconsin Madison University analyzed MRI images of Tibetan monks and discovered that meditation and resilience have a deep-rooted connection.
Picking the right meditation for you
Meditation can be practiced in a variety of ways. Methods vary in the same way that people vary in their attitudes, character and nature. Therefore, picking the right method of meditation for you comes down to fitting the right method of meditation to your nature, as opposed to trying to fit your character to a certain technique. Doing so will only cause you to feel frustrated after some time. However, when you find the right meditation for you, you will feel a certain ease and comfort in your practice, and you will flourish.
4 ways beginners can meditate
1. Breathing: Following the breath is a great way to start your meditation practice, before moving on to more in-depth meditations. Focusing on the breath brings about a restful and calm nature. Here are three breathing techniques you could try.
2. Gazing: This method of meditation uses our sense of sight to silence the mind. You can practice it anywhere, focusing your mind on something specific. In the yoga tradition, trataka is often practiced. This form of meditation, focuses on gazing at a still candle flame in the dark. Practicing this method of meditation enables your mind to become focused.
3. Visualization: In this meditation, your eyes are closed. It requires the use of your inner eyes, or your mind's eye. While there are many forms of visualization meditation, it often focuses on connecting with and visualizing an object, such as your heart - serving as an object of meditation. Alternatively, you may also visualize a calm space, such as a beach, creating your surroundings in your mind's eye.
4. Chanting mantras: Mantras are believed to be a powerful sound or vibration that can be used to enter a deep state of meditation. Repeating mantras can help the mind become calm and more focused.
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