The Science-Proven Benefits of Meditation

meditation benefits

The popularity of meditation is increasing as more people discover its benefits. Meditation is a habitual process of training your mind to focus and redirect your thoughts.

You can use it to increase awareness of yourself and your surroundings. Many people think of it as a way to reduce stress and develop concentration. People also use the practice to develop other beneficial habits and feelings, such as a positive mood and outlook, self-discipline, healthy sleep patterns and even increased pain tolerance.

During the past two decades, more and more scientists have studied mindfulness — a collection of practices aimed at helping us to cultivate moment-to-moment awareness of ourselves and our environment. Their early findings triggered an enormous amount of enthusiasm for meditation.

Meditation Benefits

There are thousands of studies that have shown mindfulness meditation can positively impact mental and physical health. Whether it’s by reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing focus, or improving relationships, research shows mindfulness works. While the research on mindfulness, especially digital mindfulness programs, is still growing, there is evidence to support the use of mindfulness training for many outcomes.

A more recent development in the field of meditation is light and sound meditation. This form of meditation provides various benefits to most people who try this technique, including most of the benefits listed ahead.

light and sound meditation

Light and sound meditation is based on something called the Ganzfeld effect — a way to quickly reach a hypnotic-like trance that allows a person to connect to their subconscious mind. The Ganzfeld effect relies on perceptual deprivation — introducing a uniform stimulus that blocks out existing, normal sensory stimuli.

When the human brain is deprived of normal, common sensory stimuli, it automatically attempts to “fill in the gaps” by shifting the frequency state of brain waves. This shift in brain waves fully alert state beta waves to the relaxed state alpha and theta waves puts a person in a deeply relaxed, but still awake, state.

Improved Focus and Concentration

Mindfulness meditation helps you focus on the present, which can improve your concentration on other tasks in daily life. A 2012 study from the Harvard Medical School examined the effects of mindfulness meditation on the brain and found a connection between mindfulness and processing new information.

The researchers examined the brains of 17 people before and after participating in an eight-week meditation program. Brain scans showed an increase in gray matter in the parts of the brain responsible for learning, memory, and emotional regulation.

Lessen Anxiety

Less stress translates to less anxiety. For example, an eight-week study of mindfulness meditation helped participants reduce their anxiety. It also reduced symptoms of anxiety disorders, such as phobias, social anxiety, paranoid thoughts, obsessive-compulsive behaviors and panic attacks. Another study followed up with 20 volunteers three years after they had completed an eight-week meditation program. Most volunteers had continued practicing regular meditation and maintained lower anxiety levels over the long term.

Repeating a mantra — such as a word or phrase — during meditation can also have a calming effect, and by concentrating on your mantra, you’re able to shift your focus away from distracting thoughts. Transcendental meditation has a similar effect, in which you silently repeat a word or sound to keep yourself focused, and as a result you’re able to reach a state of complete stillness and stability.

meditation sleep

Better Sleep

Meditation practice helps the body learn to relax, a benefit that continues when it’s time to hit the hay. It also trains the mind to settle the attention on an object such as the breath and allow other thoughts and emotions to float by like clouds on a pleasant day. There are also guided meditations that are designed to promote sleep. Harvard Medical School suggests that focusing on a phrase such as “breathe in calm, breathe out tension” beats counting sheep when it’s time to sleep.

Better sleep is one of the most appealing physical benefits of mindfulness practice. We all know what it’s like to toss and turn — almost half of people worldwide suffer from sleep issues of some kind and 85% of workers in the U.S. report having lost sleep because of job-related stress. Studies show that people who practice daily meditation enjoy better, longer sleep than non-meditators.

Reduces Stress

Stress reduction is one of the most common reasons people try meditation. One study including over 3,500 adults showed that it lives up to its reputation for stress reduction. Normally, mental and physical stress cause increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol. This produces many of the harmful effects of stress, such as the release of inflammation-promoting chemicals called cytokines.

meditation stress

Control Pain

Many doctors recommend mindful meditation practices as part of a comprehensive pain management plan. For example, a 2020 study of 6,500 participants across 60 trials found that meditation could reduce pain in those who suffered from post-surgical, acute, or chronic pain.

It’s not going to be a cure all for everything and it won’t necessarily make the pain go away. We can recognize that the pain is there, but we don’t get ensnared by it in the same way, and that can be enormously beneficial in helping us cope with chronic pain.

A Wake Forest University study found that even with inducing pain while subjects meditated, “there was approximately a 40 percent reduction in pain intensity ratings during meditation when compared with non-meditation”. Chronic pain can be emotionally draining, but with meditation training, pain can lessen while the tolerance for pain can also increase.

Increases Sense of Well-Being

Want to fill your life with happiness and energy? Meditation increases your psychological functioning and in the process improves your sense of well-being. Yoga and tai chi have been found to do this also — according to studies, they have significant therapeutic effects and increase quality of life when practiced regularly.

Increasing your capacity for mindfulness supports many attitudes that contribute to a satisfied life. Being mindful makes it easier to savor the pleasures in life as they occur, helps you become fully engaged in activities, and creates a greater capacity to deal with adverse events. By focusing on the here and now, many people who practice mindfulness find that they are less likely to get caught up in worries about the future or regrets over the past, are less preoccupied with concerns about success and self-esteem, and are better able to form deep connections with others.

Feeling a little disconnected from those around you? Try compassion meditation. Lovingkindess meditation (sometimes called Metta) is a compassion-based meditation that enhances brain areas associated with mental processing and empathy. It also increases your sense of social connectedness.

Increased Immunity

One study conducted at Ohio State University showed that regular mindfulness-based muscle relaxation exercises lowered the risk of breast cancer recurring. A different study at Ohio State monitoring meditation’s effects on elderly patients concluded that mindfulness and relaxation exercises practiced over the period of one month helped boost patients’ lymphocytes, those natural killer cells that improve the immune system. Consequently, the subjects demonstrated better resistance to viruses and tumors.

The immune system, a crucial component of the human body, is composed of a myriad of biological processes and structures whose job is to fight disease and protect the body from foreign organisms. According to a study carried out at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013, frequent mindfulness sessions seemed to improve meditators’ immune system functions. They also produced positive, lasting changes within the brain.

The Bottom Line

For centuries, meditation has been used as an effective technique to work with the mind, and also to provide relaxation, well-being and better health. Long before the advent of modern science and medicine, dedicated meditators from a variety of spiritual traditions had already discovered the tremendous benefits of their practice.

Meditation can have many health benefits, from physical to mental and emotional. If you’d like to improve your focus, reduce stress, or deal with addiction, depression, or chronic pain, you should give it a try and see if it’s right for you.