By Your Headspace Mindfulness & Meditation Experts
When we sit to meditate, we are looking after ourselves in ways that might not at first seem obvious. The benefits of meditation are numerous and varied, and supported by science. Many people start meditating to manage stress, reduce anxiety, and to cultivate peace of mind. But there are thousands of studies documenting other less-known mindfulness meditation benefits, which can have a positive impact on mental, physical, and emotional health. Read on to find out more about the many health benefits of meditation you may experience when you establish a practice and repeat it consistently.
Most people are likely familiar with the positive side effects of meditation associated with mental health: increased awareness, clarity, compassion, and a sense of calm. Improved focus is another benefit commonly associated with meditation. In fact, one study showed that 4 weeks of using the Headspace app can increase focus by 14%, while another showed that just a single session cuts mind-wandering by 22%.
But there are even more ways meditation can benefit the mind. In a study that did not use the Headspace app, researchers from John Hopkins University found general meditation programs helped ease psychological symptoms of depression, anxiety, and pain related to stress. A published study conducted at Google and Roche, in which employees used Headspace for 8 weeks, had similar results: participants reported a 46% reduction in depression and a 31% reduction in anxiety.
That’s not all: Another study showed that 30 days of Headspace resulted in an 11% increase in mental resilience. What’s more, people who used the Headspace app for just 10 days experienced a 7.5% increase in satisfaction with life. It’s clear that regularly setting aside a few minutes — even one minute — to let go, breathe, and recharge, can go a long way to improve health.
To appreciate the profound physical benefits of meditation, it’s important to understand how chronic stress can wreak havoc on the body.
Stress stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, causing a surge of natural stress hormones (think: epinephrine and cortisol) in the bloodstream, which can negatively affect the body. For example, too much epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) can increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes; too much cortisol can increase blood sugar levels, suppress the immune system, and constrict blood vessels. Eventually, chronic spikes in stress hormones can lead to an increase in blood pressure, heart rate, and cholesterol levels, disrupting immunity, energy levels, and sleep.
When the body and mind are relaxed, however — whether through meditation practice or other techniques — the parasympathetic nervous system is stimulated, causing the body to stop releasing stress hormones. Many people who meditate regularly have learned to condition their body to relax on demand, and, according to research, can more effectively manage stress. According to research from the University of California, Davis, people who used generalized meditations programs (not specifically Headspace) have lower levels of cortisol. A 2018 study found that medical students who used Headspace for just 10 days had a 12% decrease in stress; and a separate study found that people who used Headspace for 30 days reduced stress by a third.
Why is stress reduction so important? It lowers blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen consumption, which results in higher energy levels and better immunity and sleep. Plus, stress reduction is key for diminishing the physical symptoms of many health conditions.
Take inflammation, for example, which is linked to stroke, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other serious diseases. According to a Harvard study, meditation not only can dampen the genes involved in the inflammatory response, but also promotes the genes associated with DNA stability.
The brain is the part of the body where meditation can really work its magic. It’s certainly true that we become more capable of coping with negative emotions when we meditate and practice viewing heightened emotions as passing states. But one of the most profound advantages of meditation is that it can not only change our mindset and perspective, it can also physically alter our brains, rewiring them toward more positive thoughts and emotions. Here’s how it works.
Meditation can decrease negative neurological connections to the medial prefrontal cortex — or the “me center” of the brain — dampening traits such as fear, stress, and anxiety. Alternatively, it also builds new positive neurological connections to the parts of the brain responsible for promoting traits like focus and decision-making.
Moreover, research shows that gray matter — the area of the brain responsible for emotional regulation, planning, and problem-solving — as well as the cortical thickness, responsible for learning and memory, both increase with regular meditation practice. Alternatively, the amygdala, which regulates how we feel stress, fear, and anxiety, responds to meditation by shrinking.
Research confirms that this rewiring of the brain through meditation can change it for the better. In one study, participants who meditated with the Headspace app for 3 weeks experienced a 57% reduction in aggression and reactivity to negative feedback. In another, 10 days of Headspace reduced participants’ irritability by 27%.
It works the other way, too: research showed that using Headspace increased positive emotions by 16% and compassion by 21%. Of course, it makes sense that meditation can affect our emotions so deeply — when we train to be less in our head and more aware of the present moment, we’re better able to distance ourselves from negative thoughts and emotions, and feel better in the moment.
If you’re looking for an introduction to different types of meditation, check out the 10-day beginner’s course on the essentials of meditation — available with your membership or free trial.
And if you’re looking for other types of meditation, explore all that Headspace has to offer, including meditations and courses covering everything from anxiety and compassion to sleep, focus, and more. Find some headspace today.
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