What is meditation? Can it affect our body as well as our mind? What is the evidence? Are there any health risks?
What is Meditation?
‘Meditation is a mind and body practice that has a long history of use for increasing calmness and physical relaxation, improving psychological balance, coping with illness, and enhancing overall health and well-being.’
(US government’s National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health)
Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. It originated in religious or spiritual traditions in the East. In the hectic modern world it can help us go inwards and experience ourselves and the world in the present moment.
There are a range of different types of and approaches to meditation, including the use of:
- mantras (a repeated word or sound designed to aid concentration and consciousness)
- mindfulness (being mindful of living in the present moment. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath).
- transcendental meditation (using a silent mantra, to allow your body to settle into a state of profound rest and relaxation and your mind to achieve a state of inner peace).
- visualization (where you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing).
In practice, most types of meditation typically take place in a quiet location, involve a comfortable yet alert posture, find a means to focus attention and let distractions come and go naturally, without judging them.
One theory is that meditation affects the nervous system. If so this ultimately impacts on nerve influenced bodily functions such as heartbeat, breathing and digestion - for example causing heart and breathing rates to slow and the flow of digestive juices to increase.
Meditation has received an increasing amount of attention in recent years. Although an ancient practice, focusing on the present moment and acceptance of internal experiences, it has been seen as helpful in dealing with the pressures of the modern world.
What are the Benefits of Meditation?
- Reduced Stress - This is the most widely reported benefit. For example in 2011, Dr Norman Rosenthal of Georgetown University reported that Transcendental Meditation reduced symptoms of post-traumaticstress disorder in war veterans by up to 50%. According to the Mayo Clinic some research suggests meditation can help with a number of stress aggravated medical conditions including allergies, anxiety disorders, depression, fatigue, cardiovascular disease pain, sleep problems and substance abuse. A systematic review of published studies, in 2014, concluded that meditation programs can result in small to moderate reductions of multiple negative dimensions of psychological stress - although it also noted that more rigorous research was needed, less open to potential self selection bias.
- Enhanced Attention, Memory and Mood - this was the verdict of a small scale study published in 2019, which focused on people who hadn't meditated before. The study found that at least 8 weeks of brief, daily meditation was needed to produce these positive effects.
- Cardiovascular risk reduction - the American Heart Association issued a statement in 2017, acknowledging the potential benefits of meditation in reducing the cardiovascular risk, although they have also stated that more research is needed in this field.
- Increased awareness and reduced risk of falls - The American Public Health Association has reported that Spiritual Meditation, such as Centering Prayer and Contemplative Meditation, increases awareness and reduces the risk of falls in older adults.
How reliable are these findings?
Some early studies of meditation involved very small numbers - in the case of the research with war veterans just 5 individuals. However, more recent research has involved larger numbers. The 2014 systematic review mentioned above considered 47 trials with 3,515 partipants, while the report from the American Public Health Association involved data from 7,382 individuals. More of a concern is where participants are self selecting, as this may bias the findings, hence the call for more rigorous research methods in some of the analysis.
Are there any health risks?
Meditation is usually considered safe. However, we need to recognise that meditation isn’t a substitute for conventional medical treatment - and a study published in 2017 reported adverse effects of meditation on some participants’ emotions, sensory perception, social interaction and sense of self.
How to Meditate
We briefly explained about mantras, mindfulness, transcendental meditation and visualization earlier in the article.
We have also included links to some resources alongside the article if you would like to find out more. In addition a number of (free) mindfulness and meditation apps are available that can guide users through some initial stages of meditation.
- The evidence for the benefits of meditation are often based on small scale, short term studies.
- Meditation has been practised for thousands of years and is usually considered safe - although a 2017 study suggested there can be sometimes be adverse effects and meditation may not be appropriate for certain mental health conditions.
- Overall, meditation appears likely to reduce stress and reduce cardiovascular risk.
- Meditation may also help in other ways – for example improving attention, mood and memory or increasing awareness and reducing the risk of falls, although more research is needed here.
Reviewed by Sara Radenovic, March 2020. Next review date, February 2024.