What is meditation? Explained
Published: 4 January, 2019
We often hear that practising meditation can lead to a mentally healthier life. Here, we look at the science behind meditation and how it can help to alleviate mental health conditions.
We’re often told of the benefits - it can:
- help you reduce stress, anxiety and depression;
- improve your concentration, learning and memory;
- help you find more emotional balance;
- increase your ability to handle new situations or information; and
- allow you to be more compassionate and empathetic toward others.
But what is the science behind it?
What is meditation?
Sadhbh Joyce, Senior Psychologist and PhD Candidate at the Black Dog Institute, says at its core meditation is an acute attention skill.
“While there are many forms of meditation, all provide for an interplay with the inner world of thoughts and feelings. Commonly, meditation seeks to bring focused attention to the present moment with self-compassion and without judgement.”
Mindfulness meditation has particularly gained widespread popularity in recent years.
“This is due in large part to the growing body of research which is demonstrating its benefits in workplace, educational and sporting arenas. Mindfulness meditation often takes just a few minutes and the wide availability of apps providing guided mindfulness is making the practice far more accessible,” says Ms Joyce.
Mindfulness meditation can have a number of different focuses.
“Within our online resilience training program RAW Mind Coach, we provide a range of guide mindfulness exercises to help with various things such as relieving physical tension, managing challenging thoughts, traversing difficult decisions, reflecting on values, developing self-compassion and aiding in relaxation and sleep.”
Can meditation help alleviate mental health conditions?
Meditation is a well-established way to help manage common mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression.
“When guided by those with appropriate psychological training, meditation can help people to interact in a more helpful manner with difficult thoughts and feelings,” says Ms Joyce.
“Many people choose to incorporate meditation as part of an overall strategy for managing their mental health. While drug therapies certainly have their place, some commonly prescribed medications can have side effects, issues with long-term use and limited effectiveness when treating those with mild to moderate conditions.
“A good long-term strategy can involve a regular meditation practice, making use of psychological therapy (i.e. Medicare rebated sessions with a qualified Psychologist) and paying attention to sleep quality, diet and exercise.”
Physiological effects of meditation
There are numerous physiological benefits from practising meditation.
“Meditation can bring the brain into a restful, restorative state. During meditation, levels of the stress chemical cortisone can drop, and individuals may experience other physiological changes such as reduced blood pressure,” said Ms Joyce.
“Those who regularly practise meditation may experience a wide range of benefits, from stress reduction, to improved attention and pain relief. Meditation can also allow us to develop meta-awareness, so that we recognise when we are getting caught up in difficult thoughts and emotions. This can help us to respond in a less reactive way to stressful events.”
What happens to the brain during meditation?
Recent findings have shown that meditation can also affect how the brain functions.
“Recent studies show that practising meditation can develop neural pathways and build grey matter. Unsurprisingly, we use different parts of the brain and think in different ways when meditating, compared to when we are busily multi-tasking,” says Ms Joyce.
“When freed from the task of processing so much external stimuli, the brain has the opportunity to focus its resources differently. For this reason, meditation can often lead to us to experience greater creativity. Meditation allows us to take advantage of our brains’ neuroplasticity and effectively rewire it to enhance things such as concentration, focus and memory.”
Why should you try it?
So you may be hesitant to try meditation, but Ms Joyce advises that you remove those reservations.
“When you try meditation, you are probably going to feel a bit awkward and hear a voice in your head telling you that it’s ‘stupid’ or that you are ‘no good’ at it. It really takes some bravery to stop, to sit with this awkwardness and to just notice all those thoughts which are racing around your head. Meditation is however not something anyone should be fearful or dismissive of,” says Ms Joyce.
“While I could point to lots of research outlining the impressive benefits of meditation, I think it always works best if people do the experiment for themselves. Spend just a little time practising every day and see what a difference it makes in your life.”
If you’re interested in trying mindfulness meditation, click here for our playlist of guided meditations.
You can also find out more about RAW Mind Coach and how you can incorporate it into your work life here.
If you or someone you know is in crisis please call one of the following national helplines:
LIFELINE COUNSELLING SERVICE - 13 11 14
SUICIDE CALL BACK SERVICE 1300 659 467 (cost of a local call)