We once thought that changing the brain in adulthood was impossible. Now we now that to be false. The brain is more plastic (able to change) than we previously believed. In less than 15 minutes a day you can begin to change to your brain and decrease your stress.
Mindfulness based meditation has been in the in the mainstream for nearly 30 years now. Jon Kabat-Zinn began using it in western medicine starting in the the 1970’s. He started a stress reduction clinic in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts School of Medicine. The ideas he started with there didn’t gain public popularity until the early 1990’s after he wrote and published the book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Mind and Body to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. This book was embraced and from that point Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) started to spread.
Meditation as a Tool
What does this have to do with meditation and how can you benefit from it? Meditation is a portion of what MBSR teaches in an 8-week course along with different ways of thinking about obstacles.
I often suggest that people give it a try especially in managing anxiety. Because meditation is often affiliated with Buddhism there is often some hesitancy. Sometimes folks believe it will interfere with their religious practice. But meditation is not THE religious part of Buddhism it is simply a tool that Buddhists use to move closer to enlightenment. Meditation also helps with many other aspects of human life and we can benefit from those without becoming Buddhists. You can find a free MBSR course here.
How it can help
A January 2019 article entitled Brief, daily meditation enhances attention, memory, mood, and emotional regulation in non-experienced meditators caught my attention. They looked at folks who had no experience in meditation and had them listen daily to a meditation recording that was 13 minutes in length. The control group listened to a non-meditation pod cast. Study participants engaged in fairly rigorous pre, mid, and post study testing in a variety of areas including memory, attention, and mood.
After 8 weeks they found statistically significant differences in the groups. While the study group was small (n=40) they were able to pull some interesting findings.
The Kind of Help
They found improvements in:
- Emotional regulation
- Working memory
- Recognition memory
- Responses to stress
- Including improved ability to cope under stress
Importantly they found that the effects were not present at 4 weeks (the mid-point), but required more than 4 weeks to see the changes.
Interestingly sleep was not found to be improved although a number of other studies have shown improvements in sleep with use of meditation. The authors opined that the time of day that the participants engaged in the activity could have had an impact and urged that future studies control for this.
The hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis works to help us manage our stresses and bring our bodies back into homeostasis. When the HPA axis is out of whack we can feel overly anxious or overwhelmed. When stresses occur it works to help us recover.
Meditation seems to help regulate the HPA axis. Over time engaging in meditation appears to help the hippocampus grow and the amygdala reduce in size helping us to better regulate our mood. The amygdala is the part of the brain that jumps into action when emotions emerge. When it is over-activated it can get stuck in sending distress messages to the frontal cortex (the part of the brain that helps us to make a decision on how to act). When the frontal cortex is overwhelmed we can have difficulties making decisions or in extreme cases may even blank out.
Imagine having access to a system that is free, requires less than 15 minutes a day of our direct attention, and has the potential to impact all the above areas of your life. Sounds like a miracle of sorts. We are finding that meditation can change your brain and decrease your stress.
That said, while meditation can provide improvements in a number of areas, it is not a silver bullet. Meditation alone will not solve your problems. But by using meditation you can create an optimal internal environment. One in which you are more likely to best handle your stressors most effectively.
Another activity that can decrease your stress and cause positive brain changes is exercise. Check out the blog post on exercise here and here.