Meditation practice gives measurable results. What are the experiences like of those who practice mindfulness?
Despite the intense mental health support available and organisations that say meditation is the key to wellbeing, its popularity remains in question. Could there be a more fundamental reason for its struggles?
What does it really feel like to meditate?
Research into the effects of meditation findings strong and robust support. The UK meditation charity Mind found that people who meditate for less than an hour a week report “significant improvements in mood and wellbeing”. Studies have also demonstrated that meditation can help treat an assortment of conditions including depression, insomnia, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
UK mindfulness charity Mind has a group dedicated to investigating the benefits of ‘undeniably effective methods of stress management’.
In a study published in 2015, researchers found that meditation had the potential to reduce the severity of post-traumatic stress disorder. The volunteers meditating consisted of 160 people with PTSD, and the study found that mindfulness-based stress reduction helped most to reduce symptoms in their participants. A review of 66 studies published in 2016 found that the average size of improvement compared with control or no intervention group was around 90%.
Meditation generates measurable benefits for some, but the information is often anecdotal, and it’s sometimes unclear why some people report a lower rate of mental illness or welfare dependability than others.
What happens when we meditate?
It can be difficult to pin down the precise reason why meditation has these effects but some scientists believe that the most likely cause lies in the relaxation of brain regions and the release of chemicals. One theory that states the reason for the benefits of mindfulness meditation lies in the process by which the brain develops. In individuals who practise meditation, the growth of certain brain cells may be slowed down, allowing the brain to become more efficient and less stressed.
In 2016, researchers at King’s College London also demonstrated that “meditative practice appears to raise the quantities of serotonin and norepinephrine, the two chemicals believed to promote the calming and mood-enhancing effects of meditation”.
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience compared the brain activity of participants meditating and those who had limited to no mindfulness practice. More frequently, they found, the former had a higher “somatic state”, in which the body is emotionally relaxed and parts of the brain, such as the hypothalamus, are relaxed.
Another study published in 2017 found that a group of monks spent six years practicing mindfulness meditation and experienced a noticeable reduction in illness rates. This benefit resulted from the monks having a higher awareness of the body’s messages in their minds and body, leading to improved mindfulness.
What is the context for meditation?
Sit down: it sounds so simple, but meditating in private or a group in a loud environment can often make the feeling of being on your own more intense. Try tackling this by using meditation aids.
In the group setting, the environment may still be awkward, particularly if you aren’t speaking in English or don’t know how to join in. It is best to practise a process that includes role-playing, where you gain experience of finding the right moment to meditate, organising a space where you can practise and your expectations for the session. Make sure that you have both the freedom and time to meditate as if you were a public speaker or an expert if you don’t feel ready. Practice having someone there who understands you and your needs.
Group meditations are better if you choose a quiet place with a view, a supportive environment or a quiet voice. If you are planning a trip to a meditation place, make sure that it isn’t too crowded so that your mind feels relaxed.