Science and spiritualism are often thought of as mutually exclusive. However, when it comes to the likes of meditation, they may well go hand in hand. After all, whether you believe in the soul and spiritual enlightenment or not, there is no denying that meditation can help individuals to relax and unlock a whole other level of their consciousness. In fact, with so much that science cannot explain and so many spiritual and emotional benefits being offered by meditation, it is unlikely that individuals on either side of the science/spiritual divide are going to disagree about the benefits of meditation or why it works so well.
More and more studies are looking into the effects of meditation on the body and mind and are coming to the same conclusions that spiritualist advocates of meditation came to centuries ago: it’s effects are far from a placebo and not only can meditation help individuals to relax and clear their minds, it can also enable people to live longer.
The importance of beating stress
Meditation may help us to feel better and more relaxed in the short-term, being either a great way of unlocking our higher selves or a means of opening oneself up to spiritual experiences (depending on your viewpoint), but it can also help to improve physical health in the long run.
Many people who practice meditation find it offers an effective way to reduce their stress levels. This is crucial since prolonged activation of the stress response system and overexposure to cortisol and other stress hormones is known to contribute to a range of health problems, including depression, anxiety, heart disease, digestive difficulties, weight gain and memory impairment. As well as reducing the quality of your life, this means that excessive levels of stress could affect your wellbeing and even shorten your life, which is a sobering thought.
Evidence that meditation really does reduce stress
While many people have long felt that meditation offers an effective way to curb stress, it is only relatively recently that medical science has been able to back this idea up. A good example of the work being done in this field is a study that was conducted by a team from The Johns Hopkins University and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. The experts published a systematic review and meta-analysis of previous studies that looked at the link between meditation and stress reduction.
They found 47 trials with a total of 3,515 participants that indicated meditation programmes reduced anxiety, depression and pain. In their concluding comments, the researchers stated: “Clinicians should be aware that meditation programmes can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress. Thus, clinicians should be prepared to talk with their patients about the role that a meditation programme could have in addressing psychological stress.”
Another study, this one conducted by scientists from the University of California and Nobel Prize winner Elizabeth Blackburn, revealed that 12 minutes of daily yoga meditation over a period of eight weeks reduced stress-induced ageing. The research looked at the effects of meditation on cognitive functioning and stress-induced cellular aging in family dementia caregivers with mild depressive symptoms.
When compared with a control group, the participants who meditated showed lower levels of depressive symptoms and greater improvements in mental health and cognitive functioning. They also exhibited reductions in stress-induced cellular aging.
The effect of meditation on heart disease
Many people who meditate report that the activity helps them to feel happier and more content. This obviously has its own benefits, and new evidence suggests it could also reduce the risk of heart disease, which remains a major killer in Western societies. A study led by Dr Karina Davidson and published in the European Heart Journal revealed that people who are usually happy and content are less likely to develop heart disease.
Over a period of a decade, Dr Davidson and her colleagues followed 1,739 healthy adults who were taking part in the Nova Scotia Health Survey. Through both self-reporting and clinical assessment, the team measured symptoms of hostility, depression and anxiety and the degree of expression of positive emotions, known as ‘positive affect’. The team discovered that higher levels of positive affect were associated with lower risks of heart disease.
Discussing the mechanisms by which positive emotions may help to protect heart health, the scientists suggested that the influence these emotions have on sleeping patterns, heart rates and smoking cessation may be relevant.
Dr Davidson noted that more research was needed on the topic before firm conclusions could be drawn. However, offering advice she remarked: “Spending [a] few minutes each day truly relaxed and enjoying yourself is certainly good for your mental health, and may improve your physical health as well.”
Meditation offers a reliable and accessible form of relaxation that people can engage in on a daily basis.
The role of meditation
It is becoming increasingly clear that, regardless of people’s views on spirituality, meditation can have a beneficial impact on their health and wellbeing. By enabling individuals to relax, this activity can help to reduce stress levels and this in turn offers a host of advantages, ranging from cutting the risk of heart disease to boosting cognitive function.
The good news is, there are many different ways to meditate. Whether you want to sit cross-legged in an almost catatonic state of bliss or indulge in more active mind-clearing pastimes, such as surfing or running, you can rest assured that you’re doing your mind and body a big favour.
Meditation may be especially important now. Let’s face it, life these days can be stressful. From financial pressures to long working hours, many people have to deal with a high level of anxiety. If you are feeling the strain, you might benefit from setting aside some time to focus purely on relaxation. There is lots of information on meditation techniques available over the web and you also have the option of attending meditation classes and groups here at Heart Centre.