“Close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Be aware of yourself from within. Stay in the present. Don’t drift in the past or in the future. Bring your attention to now.”\
Those are only some of the words that people use to lead their meditation classes, in particular, mindfulness meditation. Simple, yet powerful. Thousands have attested to the healing benefits of meditating, be it physical, mental or emotional healing. While the practice of meditation originated from the Buddhists in their quest for inner peace and balance, a large population of North Americans has been utilizing meditation for stress and pain relief. But how do these meditations work? How do mantras heal the mind, body, and soul? Let us discuss the reasons here.
The Mechanism of Meditation
Simply put, meditation is the practice of contemplating, placing yourself in deep thoughts in order to achieve focus and peace of mind. It is transforming the mind into thinking positively.
For Leslie Ellen Ray, LMFT, “Meditation provides the path inward to separate from external noise and activity; being rather than doing.” “Initially,” she wrote, “we may become aware of the constant mind chatter which can be distracting if not discouraging. But with practice and patience, the space within quiets and the awareness begins to find its way back to that quiet when it becomes distracted by the bubbling mind chatter.”
So much research and trials have been performed to determine if the effects of meditation on pain and stress relief are only a placebo or something that is not real. After much doubt and speculation, a study done by experts on Buddhist monks themselves confirmed the validity of meditation and its ability to achieve inner peace, combat stress and relieve us from various types of pain.
The clinical trial was done on Buddhist monks while they were meditating. They attached state-of-the-art tools on the brains of these monks to monitor their brain waves, particularly the gamma waves, which are associated with functions such as attention and short-term memory. The outcomes proved that Buddhist monks, who spent years meditating, had shown increased plasticity of their brains more than normal individuals who didn’t practice meditation. This means that their brains were more adaptable and more resilient to change.
According to Psychologist Grace Bullock, the usual instruction to “pay attention to your breath” is not something that is just nonsense. “It’s not merely commonsense advice,” she explains. “It also reflects what meditation, yoga, and other stress-reducing therapies teach: that focusing on the timing and pace of our breath can have positive effects on our body and mind.”
Physically, their brains also presented with an increased amount of gray matter, proving that meditation indeed improves cognitive processes, such as attention. In other studies, it was also discovered that meditation exercises increased the activity of the anterior Cingulate cortex, the part of the brain responsible for executive control. This finding has led experts to believe that this is how meditation helps reduce stress and cure anxiety. Some medical practitioners and therapists have used meditation in conjunction with their medical treatments to help their cancer patients overcome their depression.
As with chronic pain, it was discovered through various studies that regular mental training such as mindfulness meditation pacifies the pain center by interfering with the circuits that signal pain receptors to the brain. There was an overwhelming 40% decrease in pain felt by those who practiced meditation compared to those who did not. Additionally, meditation relaxes the sympathetic system, which was responsible for fight and flight responses. There was a considerable reduction of pain and stress levels when sympathetic nerves were relaxed.
Angela Wilson, LMHC, says, “To the extent that other chronic conditions share some similarities to low-back pain, such as physical limitations and the mental and emotional suffering that can come with the pain, people with other pain conditions might find similar relief through yoga and meditation.”
Through the years, meditation has proven itself worthy of being included in the rehabilitation of patients with debilitating diseases. It has helped individuals with mental disorders reduce their stress and anxiety levels. And overall, it has given us the opportunity to take control of our lives in a more natural way.