Is There Science Behind the Mental Healing of Meditation?

March 16, 2017 Brenda Manfredi, MD


The short answer is yes. Meditation has been around for thousands of years, and many studies have shown that it can help to improve focus and relieve mental states such as stress and worry.

Our brains are a complex network of connectors that send messages to different parts of our body articulating our emotions, behavior, thoughts, movement and the sensations that we feel. Over time, as we learn certain behaviors and responses to various stimuli, these connections break and change to make new ones. For example, pulling our hand away from a flame, or shivering when it’s cold. They are also responsible for our emotional responses and the way we react to emotional stimuli, such as the feeling of happiness when we see a loved one or the feeling of stress when our to-do list just keeps getting longer and longer.

"Everyone experiences stress and it is often very difficult to shake off. Meditation helps because it actively engages with our brain and asks us to analyze why something causes us to feel the way we do, and then let it go. With practice, meditation helps us to reprogram our original responses to the situations that cause us to experience things like stress,” says Brenda Manfredi, MD, a board-certified family medicine physician at St. Joseph Health Medical Group.

“Meditation can be difficult, and in the twenty-first century, any practice that involves sitting quietly and still for lengthy periods of time can be challenging. We’re surrounded by distractions that demand our immediate attention.”

At home, we might be talking to the kids while watching TV and checking work emails on our smart phone. The great outdoors is no different. Our senses are bombarded with advertising posters, people moving around us, traffic, talking, honking horns, music - a mind boggling mixture of sensations that force our minds to flit from one thing to the next, losing focus and never really giving any one thing our undivided attention. All of these distractions only add to our stress. And when we experience stress, there is a part of our brain, located at the base of the skull, that actually grows denser and causes us to feel a tightening in the neck and shoulders. The stress hormone, cortisol, is also released into our blood.

Research has shown that increased amounts of cortisol in the blood have been known to not only affect memory, but to also lower immune function, and increase blood pressure and cholesterol, thereby increasing the risk of stroke or heart disease. Studies have also shown that by just taking a moment to breathe and meditate during stressful situations, we are able to reduce the amount of cortisol in our blood and decrease the amount of activity in our brain, which in turn helps to release the tension in our neck and back.

"When we're stressed, our heart races and we tend to breathe more quickly. By taking longer, fuller breaths we are able to calm our hearts and our minds and improve our focus and memory. We are also able to bring our attention back to the present and enjoy our surroundings, instead of wandering endlessly around our minds," Dr. Manfredi adds.

“Meditation seeks to train our minds to eliminate the extra noise of modern life and to help us focus on where we are now and what we are doing. It asks us to take a moment for ourselves to clear our minds, sit still, and let go of lingering thoughts, focusing instead on the sensations our body is experiencing. It’s an inward-focused practice that delivers a much needed sense of calm and quiet,” says Dr. Manfredi. “Studies have shown that as little as ten minutes of meditation a day can make a big difference in our well-being.”

“Meditation has not been conclusively proven to have physically healing properties, but it’s a practice that, if used regularly, can have a positive impact on your emotional health and over all mental well-being. It can be a simple, at-home, user-friendly stress buster,” Dr. Manfredi concludes. 

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional's instructions.


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