If there were a magic pill that reduced your stress, helped you cope with physical and emotional pain and made you a creative dynamo, you’d take it, right? Of course, no such remedy exists (get on it, big pharma), but the good news is that your brain is more than capable of achieving all that and more on its own. It just takes a little training.
Meditation is not, as is the common misconception, a strange ritual of mind control that takes place on the top of a mountain. Nor is it pseudoscience. The medical community worldwide has scrutinized the effects of regular mindfulness practice and found time and again that it fundamentally alters our brain chemistry in a matter of weeks.
You’ve no doubt experienced moments in your life when you felt like you were “in the zone” – perhaps while running in the park, or letting music carry you away. Those are meditative moments. If you think, well I can’t possibly stay that locked in all day with all of life’s distractions, don’t stress; just like a push-up progression, mindfulness gains happen at your own pace.
And while you’re probably very familiar with the tangible health benefits of a regular physical exercise regimen, you may be surprised to learn the power of mental fitness on your well-being. Here are four ways meditation can change your life:
It throws your cares away.
Not only does the act of meditating – calming the mind and body to focus on breathing – greatly reduce symptoms of anxiety and depression in the moment, but it helps maintain those reductions over time. That’s because meditation actively disassociates the “Me Center” of your brain from the “Fear Center.” When stressful thoughts or feelings arise, the mindful brain observes them but does not obsess over them or make self-referential connections. This frees you from anxious, all-consuming thoughts like, it must be my fault or I’m in trouble.
It turns big ouchies into little boo-boos.
Meditating won’t stop your back from acting up, but it will change your relationship with physical pain and how you perceive it. Mindfulness practice stimulates areas of the brain linked to emotional regulation and focus, which can overpower parts of the brain that transmit feelings of pain. This mind over matter approach has been shown to be nearly twice as effective as standard, painkiller-heavy treatment. By checking in with your body and listening to how it’s feeling, you can actually decrease pain severity.
It helps you connect with others.
A specific form of mindfulness training, called metta or loving-kindness meditation, feeds the brain with regular intervals of positivity that gives you a benevolence boost. With increased empathy towards others comes a decrease in social anxiety, as you’re better able to read the facial expressions of others and “get in the same boat” emotionally, as it were. As your brain’s Fear Centers are broken down, you’re more clearly able to spot the inherent good in others.
It leads to more “a-ha!” moments.
Practiced concentration allows you to filter out noise and fire up the creative side of your brain. Research indicates that regular meditators are better at divergent thinking, or coming up with many solutions to one problem. Meditation does not attempt to quiet the brain and render it free of all thought; instead, it trains the brain to filter out what’s not important so that it can achieve a next level of creativity.