Breathe, Just Breathe: Meditation

Meditation has been credited with lowering stress levels, combating depression and anxiety, increasing the size of your brain, and even raising IQ scores. Is there any truth to these claims?

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There’s a lot of talk these days about brain training—exercises you can do to keep your mind sharp and (hopefully) ward off Alzheimer’s and other memory-destroying types of dementia. But whether your exercises are physical or mental, the muscles you’re working out need time to recover. In other words, getting adequate amounts of downtime is essential. If you don’t, the workouts will become boring and you’ll stop making progress. In still other words, as Jack Nicholson’s character in The Shining put it: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.” It’s pretty easy to take breaks from physical workouts. But how do you take a break from exercising your brain? After all, most of us need that four pounds of gray and white stuff to be operating at peak capacity while we’re on the job, trying to maintain any kind of personal relationships, or even just deciding which apples to buy at the grocery store. Learning to power down your brain—also known as meditation—is one of those simple-but-not-easy things. The benefits can be substantial, however. Here are just a few reasons you should think about making meditation a part of your everyday routine (we’ll talk about exactly how to mediate after we’ve got you convinced of the benefits).

It helps you focus and may make you more productive.

A recent study by researchers at Yale University found that meditating slows down activity in a part of the brain that’s associated with mind wandering. Everyone’s mind wanders from time to time, but meditators are better at refocusing their thoughts on what’s important. Since meditation frees your mind from having to focus on anything other than your breathing, when you really do need to home in on something specific, you’ll be ready and able to do so and you’ll be less likely to be distracted.

It reduces stress, anxiety, depression, and panic.

Mind wandering is associated with anxiety, overthinking, depression, and worrying. When meditators feel anxious, they’re often able to use their practice to rein in some of those small obstacles that can become so oppressive. A 2011 study by researchers at Harvard found that people who meditated for eight weeks had a smaller amygdala (the part of the brain that regulates stress, fear, and anxiety). A number of other studies have found that meditation is just as effective as medication in combating depression.

It may change your brain (in some really good ways).

In that same Harvard study, lead researcher Sara Lazar found that 8-week meditators had a larger hippocampus (the part of the brain that regulates memory and learning). Researchers at the UCLA Laboratory of Neuro Imaging found that compared to non-meditators, long-term meditators have larger amounts of “gyrification” or folding in a part of the brain called the insula. “The insula has been suggested to function as a hub for autonomic, affective, and cognitive integration,” said Eileen Luders, an assistant professor at the laboratory, in a press release. In other words, gyrification allows the brain to process information more quickly. “Meditators are known to be masters in introspection and awareness as well as emotional control and self-regulation, so the findings make sense that the longer someone has meditated, the higher the degree of folding in the insula.”

It’s heart healthy.

Several studies have found that people who meditate are able to reduce their blood pressure, but that’s just the beginning. Robert Schneider, a professor at the Maharishi University of Management in Iowa, did a study of more than 200 men and women who had been diagnosed with heart disease (which put them at risk of having a heart attack or stroke). The subjects were randomly assigned to either a class about healthy diet and exercise or to a meditation program. The subjects all continued with their normal medical care and medication regimens. Five years into the study, Schneider found that the subjects in the meditation group had a 48 percent reduction in their risk of heart attack, stroke, and death from any other cause.

It may help you lose weight and reduce addictive behavior.

Several studies show that regular meditators are better able to manage emotional eating than non-meditators. Emotional eating (as opposed to eating only when you’re actually hungry) is associated with weight gain and obesity. Since meditation increases activity in the areas of the brain that manage self-control, meditation appears to be very successful in helping people recover from smoking and other addictions.

Okay, so now what?

I’m a pretty skeptical guy, so I instinctively roll my eyes whenever I hear about something that seems to have almost magical benefits. Then I start looking for studies to disprove those claims. There are, of course, some studies that dispute the magnitude of the benefits of meditation, but not that say that meditation is bunk. More important, I wasn’t able to find a single study that says that meditation is dangerous in any way. Given that there are plenty of upsides and zero downsides, incorporating meditation into an overall program of healthy living seems like a really good idea. Here’s how. There are dozens of types of meditation, such as Zen, Transcendental, mindfulness, and others. Most involve focusing on a word, phrase, or object. But there’s something a lot easier to focus on: your breath. Slowly inhale. Hold your breath for two seconds, then exhale for three seconds. Hold your breath for another two and inhale for three. Repeat for about 20 minutes. Chances are, you won’t get through two cycles before your mind starts heading off in 387 different directions. When that happens, don’t bother to criticize yourself for losing focus—you wouldn’t be human if you didn’t. Just slowly and gently refocus on your breathing and start over. With time, you’ll get better and better at ignoring those intrusive thoughts.

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