The Benefits of Meditation for Mental Health

Meditation lowers the levels of cortisol, a hormone that can lead to heart disease, stomach upset, headaches, and weight gain. It also helps people control their emotions, which leads to fewer impulsive reactions.

Some forms of meditation help people overcome depression. One way is by breaking the connection between two brain regions that can cause depression: the “me center” and the fear center.

1. Reduces Stress

With lingering concerns about the flu pandemic, increasing prices for everything from gas to groceries to housing, and domestic and global political strife, it’s no wonder that stress and anxiety are at an all-time high. But meditation is a simple, quick and effective way to reduce stress and improve mental health.

The goal of meditation is to focus your attention on one thing – usually an image, word or mantra – and when your thoughts wander, gently bring your mind back to the focus. This helps give you distance from negative thoughts and emotions, allowing you to realize that while they may affect you, they don’t define you. In addition, meditation has been found to decrease blood pressure and improve emotional regulation. It can also decrease pain and increase sleep quality.

2. Increases Focus

People who meditate regularly have more control over how they react to situations. This includes regulating emotions and improving impulse control.

During meditation, your thoughts will come and go without judgment. However, if you notice your mind has wandered, gently guide it back to focusing on breathing. You may sit in a chair, on the floor, loosely cross-legged or even on your back, but choose a position that is stable and comfortable. Set a timer to start, for example, five minutes.

Mantra-based meditation involves repetitive recitation of a series of syllables, phrases or words either aloud or silently. A spiritual form of meditation, mantra meditation is known to reduce anxiety and depression. It also increases focus and self-awareness. In addition, it promotes compassion and love for others.

3. Reduces Anxiety

Meditation helps calm the nervous system and promotes feelings of relaxation. It can reduce symptoms of anxiety and phobias, including agoraphobia and fear of public speaking. It also can help relieve stress and lower blood pressure.

Meditation can change the structure of your brain, especially in areas that control learning and memory. Studies show that eight weeks of mindfulness meditation can increase gray matter in the hippocampus and in other parts of the brain associated with learning, mood regulation, and self-referential processing.

While it is natural for your thoughts to wander during meditation, you can use a mantra or focus on your breathing to bring your attention back to the present moment and away from worries that may be contributing to your anxiety. With practice, this can become easier.

4. Improves Sleep

Research shows meditation improves sleep quality by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and by increasing melatonin levels, which promote restful sleep. It can also help reduce stress, anxiety and depression, which often contribute to insomnia.

During meditation, the brain learns to disengage from negative thoughts and feelings, instead of fighting them. It helps people separate their selves from the fears that trigger depression. It’s also been shown to strengthen working memory.

In one study, participants who used a mindfulness meditation app (such as Headspace) for eight weeks showed improved blood pressure and heart function, and decreased anxiety and depression. They also reported less pain and better sleep. Moreover, meditation has been shown to reduce the symptoms of stress-related conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder.

5. Reduces Depression

Many cancer survivors struggle with depression, especially fear of the disease returning. That can wreak havoc on relationships, work, medical follow-ups and overall mood.

Meditation can help. Research shows it breaks the connection between two brain regions that can trigger depression: the “me” center and the amygdala. The me center gets worked up ruminating about negative feelings and the amygdala triggers a stress response (think: cortisol) to fight a danger that’s only in your head. Meditation helps reduce that connection, so you can relax and stop the rumination.

Meditation also helps strengthen the hippocampus, which is responsible for memory and learning. This is important because people who suffer from depression often have smaller hippocampuses. The Rutgers study involved 22 people with depression and 30 people without depression who meditated for eight weeks. Both groups reported fewer depressive symptoms at the end of the study.

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