The Science of Meditation: Why and How it Works to Treat Anxiety and Stress
Guest writer Asha Ramakrishna is the creator of The Priestess Code. Asha simplifies the path for women to own their own power, claim their birthright of success and create happiness. Her work unlocks the inner potential for smart, successful women to achieve and be more in business and life. With a background in molecular biology and business development, she brings solid real-world skills combined with highly tuned intuitive gifts. If you want to learn more from her, join us at the WELL Summit Boston in April or explore her Soul Care Sisterhood. Until then, read her expertise on why meditation can be backed up by science.
Meditation is not for hippies anymore. Twenty years ago, when I started meditating, people would dismiss what I was doing, suggesting that my silent time was pointless. But I felt differently. I felt calmer. I felt that I had a way to process my angst and that I had a positive space to dream and intend what I wanted to experience in life.
Today, science agrees with those of us who invest in meditation. Research is showing how anxiety and depression are reduced, trauma is counteracted and nervous systems are regulated, and evidence shows that brain function is increased by having a mindfulness practice. Most of us probably agree that we should have a meditation practice, but let’s look at a few specific ways it can help our bodies and our minds—according to science.
Reduce Stress, Promote Healthy Organs and Feel Good
“You can’t see or touch stress, but you can feel its effects on your mind and body,” says Dr. Anne Fabiny, former Editor in Chief of Harvard Women’s Health Watch. “In the short term, stress quickens your heart rate and breathing and increases your blood pressure. When you’re constantly under stress, your adrenal glands overproduce the hormone cortisol. Overexposure to this hormone can affect the function of your brain, immune system and other organs. Chronic stress can contribute to headaches, anxiety, depression, heart disease and even premature death.”
Dr. Fabiny points to a research review published in JAMA Internal Medicine in January 2014, which found meditation to be helpful for relieving anxiety, pain and depression. For depression, meditation was about as effective as an antidepressant.
Meditation also is believed to regulate the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate, breathing and blood pressure during times of stress. The nervous system is also connected to each major organ, so decreasing stress signals also ensures optimal function of organs.
Says Burke Lennihan, a registered nurse who teaches meditation at the Harvard University Center for Wellness, “True, it will help you lower your blood pressure, but so much more: it can help your creativity, your intuition and your connection with your inner self.”
Reduce Inflammation and Stimulate Helpful Genes
According to the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital, relaxation can upregulate (increase a cellular response to a molecular stimulus) helpful genes and down regulate (make less responsive) genes responsible for inflammation. Although there is more research to conduct, it has been shown that meditation can reduce inflammation, therefore affecting chronic illnesses (asthma, diabetes, IBS, auto-immune conditions and more).
The takeaway? The more you meditate, the more inflammation is reduced, and potentially the more optimal cell and organ environments are in your body.
Faster and More Resilient
Sara Lazar, leader of a study linking meditation to changes in the brain and a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, says, “Our data suggest that meditation practices can promote cortical plasticity in adults in areas important for cognitive and emotional processing and wellbeing.”
The changes in gray matter observed in mindful meditators correspond to emotional and behavioral improvements, including decreased anxiety, decreased risk of depression relapse, decreased insomnia and increased compassion. Trauma patients also observe improvement after eight weeks of meditation practices.
What does this mean for us? These studies suggest that people who meditate can overcome negativity, and be more resilient and faster in pivoting to solutions to problems encountered in life.
This applies to the workplace too. In 2015, The Harvard Business Review published an article discussing a study of healthcare company Aetna employees who participated in a corporate mindfulness program. They enjoyed a 28 percent reduction in stress, 20 percent better sleep and 19 percent less pain, as well as an increase in worker productivity worth an estimated $3,000 per employee per year.
How to Apply It to Daily Life
Research has shown that 15 to 20 minutes of meditation daily can give you all the feel-good benefits. But don’t panic—you don’t have to start there! You can take your time to build up to it and find methods that work with where you are. Just as you would train for a marathon, you also need to train to sit for 20 minutes. I started with five minutes, graduated to 15, and now depending on my day, my practice ranges from five minutes to an hour. But what’s most important is that we try. Taking the time for ourselves has benefits far beyond a placebo effect—science says!