The Mind-Body Benefits of Meditation
You've probably heard of meditation before, and you may have even heard that regular meditation practice is supposed to be good for you. But despite the rising popularity of this ancient practice, you may find yourself fuzzy on the details, wondering, "What's the point of meditation?" or "What does meditation do?"
Research shows that regular practice of meditation has the potential to impact virtually every aspect of your life – helping to reduce stress and anxiety, promote healthy sleep patterns, increase focus, and improve relationships.
Not bad for a free practice you can do anywhere.
Science-Backed Benefits of Meditation
Although meditation has been around for centuries, it's only recently that we've gained the ability to measure how it affects the mind and the body. Over the past twenty years, there have been more than 11,000 peer-reviewed research articles on the topic of mindfulness and meditation. What they've found is fascinating.
Sleep: Studies have shown that meditation can help support healthy sleep patterns by reducing the time it takes to fall asleep and, in some cases, improving the quality and duration of sleep as much as a sleeping pill.
Interestingly, new research from Frontiers in Neurology indicates that meditation and sleep seem to trigger similar restorative processes, with regular meditators often reporting that they need less sleep. The study concludes, "…It is evident that the practice of meditation brings about global changes. Many of these alterations in physiological functions have great similarities to the changes happening during sleep…It appears that various components of sleep generating mechanisms can be altered with meditation."
Stress and Anxiety: Although many studies on the subject are small, researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that some promising results link meditation to a reduction in stress. One study through the Department of Health and Human Services discussed how mindfulness-based interventions resulted in a significant drop in anxiety ratings instead as opposed to stress management education practices.
Meditators may also recover more quickly after a stressful experience. A 2019 study in the journal of Psychoneuroendocrinology studied the stress-response of long-term meditators by measuring their cortisol level and heart rate, finding that meditation seemed to allow people to bounce back from stressful events. Interestingly, they also seemed to experience less self-blaming thoughts about the experience, explaining "[…] long-term meditation practitioners had faster cortisol recovery from stress and experienced less shame and higher self-esteem after the exposure to social-evaluative threat […] These results suggest that regular meditation practice is associated with a faster recovery from stress."
Relationships: Cultivating mindfulness through meditation may also help you become a better partner and parent by helping you keep your cool. A 2016 study through Elsevier examined mindfulness levels in 88 couples and measured cortisol levels (the stress hormone) both before and after a discussion involving conflict. While stress levels typically rose during the discussion, participants with higher mindfulness scores could return to pre-discussion stress levels quicker. More mindful partners were also better able to buffer the impact of their partner's bad behavior (being controlling, coercive, or negative.)
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a shift towards mindfulness not only affects your mental health but that of your children, too. A study of over 600 parents of children aged 3-17 found that the children of parents with higher levels of mindfulness experienced lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression.
Happiness: Although happiness can be tricky to measure, studies support meditation's ability to help improve many factors contributing to unhappiness, including poor sleep, high stress levels, and challenging relationships. Using meditation to get better sleep, reduce stress, and become a more mindful parent and partner may result in a corresponding boost in your overall happiness.
Focus: Meditation can be beneficial for people who find themselves easily distracted, as studies indicate that it seems to improve concentration, reduce rumination, and help the mind wander less. This may strike you as ironic, especially if you've ever given up on meditating after being distracted by your busy mind one too many times. However, based on the research, if you struggle to focus during meditation, you probably have a lot to gain from establishing a regular practice.
Personal Benefits — From the Experts
Some meditators found such rich benefits to their practice that they became meditation teachers themselves. Almeiri Santos, Roundglass meditation teacher and awareness coach, says meditation helps create an entirely different mindset.
"The biggest benefit of meditation for me is that it creates a deep level of awareness that stays with you throughout the day," she says. "Meditation allows you to observe yourself at a profound level. Can you imagine what would happen if everyone did that? It can alleviate so much suffering. Everyone should have access to meditation."
Mindfulness teacher Vishvapani Blomfield echoes Santos' perspective, explaining that meditation allows us to get to the root of our experiences. "To be human is to exist on several different levels," he says. "There's a surface level, there may be an emotional level, and then there are deeper levels beyond that. The words we associate with accessing those deeper levels might be feeling centered, grounded, or attuned to ourselves — really knowing who we are. I'd say the main benefit of meditation is that it allows us to start to connect with some of those deeper levels."
Science backs these personal experiences — there's a growing body of research examining the physiological and psychological effects of meditation practices.
Starting Your Meditation Practice
All of the benefits of a regular meditation practice are right at your fingertips. To help improve your sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, boost focus, and strengthen your relationships, try starting with one guided meditation each day.
Suppose you'd like to dive in a bit deeper. In that case, you can set a goal to finish a course designed to set you up for meditation success, like our 21-Day Jump Start to a Powerful, Joyous Meditation Practice with David Harshada Wagner or Introduction to Mindfulness with Curtis Smith.
Don't think long term; focus on creating a daily meditation habit or finishing that one course —small change is often the most sustainable.
Finally, use your growing capacity for mindfulness to become aware of how meditation benefits you. How does meditating make you feel? What do you notice after a day, a week, or a month? Being conscious of how a regular meditation practice supports your holistic wellbeing is a great way to motivate yourself to continue.