Imagine you are in a quiet room. You are breathing gently – inhaling and exhaling slowly and deeply. You can feel your lungs expand as you inhale and on your exhale, your breath whirs at the back of your throat. The room is mostly dark. Your body is comfortable in stillness and you feel relaxed with your eyes closed. The tension in your shoulders begins to melt away, your eyelids are heavy, your jaw relaxes, and you feel the weight of your hands in your lap.
You are meditating. As thoughts pop into your mind, you try to focus back on your breath – maybe counting each inhale and exhale. After a few minutes, you hear the soft sound of an alarm and you slowly open your eyes to find that you are still seated at your office desk.
We often feel relaxed when we finish meditating, returning our awareness to our surroundings with just a tad more serenity than a few minutes prior. We might feel less stressed or more focused or even a little energized. We might simply notice that we feel different, maybe somehow better, but we aren’t sure why. Over the years, scientists have been studying the physiological effects of meditation and mindfulness to discover what that “difference” is and what it means. They have since found numerous physical and emotional benefits to meditation, all stemming from the impact of meditation on the functionality and structure of the brain itself.
In 2011, it was discovered that a mere 8 weeks of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction increased areas of the brain dedicated to learning and memory as well as emotion regulation. Meditation training also influenced the areas associated with arousal and was shown to positively impact regions of the brain related to self-control, leading to the finding that meditation can be an effective tool for recovery from addictions.
Since breathing calms our nervous system, research suggests that meditation may help manage physical conditions such as asthma, cancer, heart disease, and high blood pressure.
If this sounds exciting, know that these physical effects are only the start! Check out our article Meditation and the Emotional Body for more information on the health benefits of mindfulness.
Brewer JA, et al. (2011) Mindfulness training for smoking cessation: results from a randomized controlled trial.
Holzel B, et al. (2012) Mindfulness practice leads to increases in regional brain gray matter density.
Mayo Clinic – Meditation: A simple, fast way to reduce stress.
Singleton O, et al. (2014) Change in brainstem gray matter concentration following a mindfulness-based intervention is correlated with improvement in psychological well-being.