This month, I’ll be focusing on the scientific evidence for meditation helping our minds and bodies. A prescription of ‘meditation over medication’ is increasingly being used by GPs in dealing with stress, and there are good reasons why.
EEG tests measure brain waves which change frequency depending on whether we are active and alert, resting and alert, deeply relaxing or sleeping. Whereas non-meditators tend to display mainly actively alert (beta) waves, people who meditate show higher levels of resting and alert (alpha) waves. And the difference is lasting.
A permanent beta-wave mode amounts to ‘fight or flight’ or stress. Chronic stress raises cortisol, a powerful steroid, which has a number of toxic effects on the body as well as the mind. It affects the heart and circulation, breathing, digestion, blood sugar, detoxification, hormones, bones and muscles, sleep, and the ageing of cells.
This is also relevant for women going through menopause. Western women are thought to have a harder menopause than women in other cultures because of stress. A loop is created where stress exacerbates menopause which further exacerbates stress. Meditation helps to alleviate symptoms by creating calm and helping to break this loop.
Brain scans taken with fMRI show that people who meditate regularly actually alter the physical structures of their brains (a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity). Blood flow in areas governing personality and social behaviour is improved, while the amygdala, which stores traumatic memories, is found to be smaller. This has implications not only for stress, but also for clinical anxiety and depression.
By focusing on the breath and becoming aware of what goes on in the body and mind, we can start to switch off the mental chatter and make space for experiences that are meaningful. Over time, we reset our system to switch appropriately between focused and rest states. Physical pain is also improved as we learn to distinguish between pain that is real and pain that is elevated by emotions.