A new study published in the journal Biological Psychiatry discovered that mindfulness meditation, which focuses on breathing and suspending judgment and criticism, helps people better cope with stress and can even change the way their brains work.
For the study, researchers recruited 35 unemployed men and women who were looking for work (which, obviously, is a stressful process). At the beginning of the study, each had their blood drawn and underwent brain scans. Then, the participants were split into two groups: Half were taught mindfulness meditation at a three-day retreat; the other half did a fake version of mindfulness meditation.
The mindfulness meditation group was encouraged to pay close attention to sensations that their bodies experienced (standard mindfulness meditation practice), while the other group talked and didn’t focus on their bodies at all during exercises.
When the study was over, everyone reported feeling better and less stressed. But brain scans showed that the people who did mindfulness meditation actually had changes in their brains. Specifically, they experienced more communication in the areas of the brain that process reactions to stress. The effects of meditation seemed to last, too: During a four-month follow-up, the mindfulness meditation group had lower levels of bodily inflammation than the other group, even though most weren’t still meditating.
Social scientist Frank Niles, Ph.D., who teaches mindfulness meditation, says he’s not shocked by the findings. “Mindfulness meditation is about improving your focus in a non-judgmental way,” he says. For example, if you’re focusing on your breath and your mind starts to wander, you gently recognize that and re-focus instead of getting down on yourself over it.
That, in turn, teaches you a better coping mechanism for stress and makes you less stressed out in the moment, Niles says. And that can have a big impact on your thought process in the future.
“When we’re super-stressed, our cortisol levels go up—that’s the key driver of bodily inflammation,” explains Niles. Since bodily inflammation has been linked to serious illnesses like cancer, it’s a good idea to keep it to a minimum whenever possible.
But by practicing mindfulness meditation, you learn to better cope with stress. “It doesn’t mean that we ignore reality,” says Niles. “We change our response to it.” So, while you may find yourself in the same stressful situations that you experienced in the past, the way in which you react to those moments is different.
While the study participants underwent three days of intensive mindfulness meditation, Niles says you can get similar benefits from doing the practice just four minutes a day.
Want to try it? Close your eyes and focus on your breath, as well as how you’re feeling in the moment. Accept those emotions, but don’t judge them. Continue to do this for a few minutes every day to help lower your overall stress level.
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