Nowadays, it feels like people praise meditation as a cure for anything that ails you. Pain? Stress? Distraction? There’s a meditation for that.
But what is actually happening in your brain when you meditate?
Kristoffer Rhoads, a psychologist at Harborview Medical Center, notes that while there are various kinds of mediation, mindfulness meditation has been studied the most.
“Mindfulness meditation is the very intentional awareness of the present moment in a nonjudgmental fashion,” he says. “It’s simple but not easy.”
Rhoads shares what mindfulness meditation is, the science behind the hype and why meditation can be so helpful.
How do you practice mindfulness meditation?
In mindfulness meditation, you focus on a specific thing, oftentimes your breath, and try to bring your attention to that anchor.
“You can do it anywhere or anytime,” Rhoads says. “There isn’t a hard and fast protocol to follow and you don’t need to spend 300 hours to be trained in how to do it.”
To practice this meditation, all you need is to find a comfortable position and start to bring your attention to your breath. If it’s helpful, you can also do a scan of your body (bring attention to each part of your body moving from your feet up to your head) to notice any sensations and release any tension you are feeling.
While the goal is to focus on your breath, Rhoads notes that your thoughts will wander, which is both OK and the natural activity of your mind. Simply notice — without judgement — the thoughts or feelings that come up, and then choose to bring your attention back to your anchor and that meditative state.
What happens to your brain when you meditate?
For an activity that narrows your focus to the present moment, there is a lot that’s happening in your brain.
Meditation develops various regions of your brain
“The brain is a wonderfully plastic organ that responds to the activities that you do. The more you practice something, the more developed that region gets,” Rhoads says.
Your brain develops through neural connections. Neurons, the information processing cells in your brain, connect to make neural pathways, which are responsible for your thoughts, sensations, feelings and actions.
When you repeatedly do an activity, you strengthen the neural connections involved, which develops the associated regions of your brain.
For example, if you are a cab driver who constantly navigates different routes, then you are strengthening the neural connections that develop the spatial reasoning parts of your brain.
This same process happens when you meditate.
While research on mindfulness meditation is still in the early stages, some small, initial studies have found that over time mindfulness meditation may lead to increases in gray matter density in the hippocampus and other frontal regions of the brain as well as increases in anterior insula and cortical thickness.
Increases in gray matter and the left hippocampus aid learning, cognition and memory, resulting in better retention of facts and more mindful behavior. And increases in the anterior insula and in cortical thickness benefit cognitive function, attention and self-awareness.
“If you look at outcomes six to 12 months after meditating usually 20 to 30 minutes a day, you can see changes in brain structure as well as changes in function,” Rhoads says.
Meditation calms down your sympathetic nervous system
Another exciting benefit of mindfulness meditation is that it can deactivate your sympathetic nervous system, or your fight or flight response.
When you encounter a threat, your sympathetic nervous system kicks in, releasing stress hormones that help you either run or fight back. Once the danger has passed, your parasympathetic nervous system activates and allows you rest and relax.
Through meditation, you are essentially deactivating your sympathetic nervous system and turning on the parasympathetic branch, Rhoads says. Initial studies have found that over time this practice can help reduce pain, depression, stress and anxiety.
Rhoads also emphasizes how calming down your sympathetic nervous system through meditation can decrease emotional reactivity.
“It’s hard to accept some aspects of the present moment when they’re not pleasant,” he says. “To me, the number one benefit of mindfulness meditation is having a practice of disengaging with something that’s stressing you out.”
By nonjudgmentally noticing what comes up for you during meditation and then letting it go, you are better able to avoid triggering your fight or flight response when something negative pops up in life.
“There is some distance that gets inserted between the stimulus and your response. There’s a chance to notice your reaction,” Rhoads says. “I start to get stressed or angry or worried, and then I think, ‘Is that how I want to respond?’”
The takeaway? Meditation is a practice, not a magic pill
While mindfulness meditation can cause incredible changes in your brain and outlook, this doesn’t happen overnight, and it isn’t a cure-all.
Learning to let go of your expectations and simply experience meditation is hard — but it’s also largely the point. The more you practice being in the moment without judgement or expectations, the better you get at it.
“You can’t go in expecting to experience enlightenment or to have a mystical experience,” Rhoads says. “But people do find that at the end of even a 10- or 15-minute practice they feel more centered, calmed or relaxed. It’s great if that happens and it’s great if it doesn’t. Trust in the process.”