The science behind meditation

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From brainwaves to brain-heart coherence, Jennifer Wallis explores the theory behind the physical and mental benefits of daily meditation

Meditation is a tried and tested tool used by many across the world to help improve their overall mental health and wellbeing. According to research from Bupa, 26% of UK adults say they have meditated as a way to improve their mental wellbeing in the past five years[1].

Figures from the Labour Force Survey (LFS) revealed that 828,000 workers were suffering from work-related stress, depression and anxiety in 2019/2020[2]. And that’s before the pandemic hit. Even by 2020, the ONS had revealed that instances of reported depression had doubled from pre-Covid rates – from one in 10 to one in five[3].

On a personal level, my life is infinitely better now that I have developed a daily meditation practice. I am able to notice when anxiety taps on my window and attempts to scare the living daylights out of me. I am able to acknowledge it and sit with it. I am better equipped at dealing with most of the stresses of day-to-day life. When someone says something that I might perceive as ‘out of turn’, I don’t find myself bubbling up with red hot anger and nor do I find myself sulking – or ruminating for hours – if someone doesn’t do something in the way that I expected them to (I’m by no means perfect, but I’m certainly calmer and for longer periods these days). I also am able to react to people with more empathy and more compassion. And I can say with conviction that meditation has been key to all of this.

Improved quality of breath leads to improved physiological functions… and helps to improve symptoms of chronic pain and mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression.

Why? Because over time we learn to bring awareness to our breathing; taking slower, fuller and deeper inhales and exhales. Not only does this improve our quality of breath, but in turn this improved quality of breath leads to improved physiological functions, such as cognitive function – our ability to learn and concentrate on tasks – and it helps to improve symptoms of chronic pain and mental health conditions such as anxiety, stress and depression.

According to a study by Harvard University, the physiologic benefits of meditation – in this instance the relaxing form of transcendental meditation – relate to quieting the sympathetic nervous system and the activation of the parasympathetic – otherwise known as ‘rest and digest’. Medical studies have shown that individuals who practice transcendental meditation daily had lower blood levels of epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol.[4]

Brainwaves

When we meditate, we experience particular brainwave states. Brainwaves, which happen when we experience thoughts, emotions or behaviours, are the result of the neurons in our brains communicating with each other. Each type of brainwave will lead us to a certain state of being, such as being alert or being asleep, and these can enhance our mental state or increase our productivity. There are five main types of brainwaves – beta, alpha, theta, delta and gamma – and they are measured using a device called an electroencephalogram, or EEG, and are measured in hertz (Hz). They range from low frequency (delta) to high frequency (gamma).

Beta waves range from 12-38Hz and are the brainwaves that we experience in our normal waking state when we are active, alert and focused. High-beta waves measure at around 20.5Hz and these are experienced during high levels of stress. Perhaps many of us are experiencing this state right now. Alpha waves range from 8-12Hz and this is the frequency that occurs when we are in a wakeful, resting state, when we are daydreaming or in light meditation. Theta waves – 4-8Hz – happen during cycles of sleep or when we reach deeper, meditative states. When we are in the theta state our focus is inward and we are better able to tune into our inner voice. Vivid imagery may occur. We may have great flashes of inspiration. Theta waves are also used during healing and hypnosis. Delta waves come in at 0.5-4Hz and these happen during deep, dreamless sleep. During this state healing and regeneration occurs within the body. A good reason to make sure you’re getting enough quality sleep.

Gamma waves are the highest frequency of brainwave ranging from 38-100Hz, the highest of these is known as hyper-gamma. Gamma waves are produced by the brain when we are intently and deeply focused on a task or project, or engaged in problem solving. During gamma activity our brain is simultaneously processing information from different areas of the brain. People with higher gamma activity are said to be able to learn other languages more easily. Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle used EEG technology to measure participants’ language learning ability at different intervals throughout the study. It found that those who were more easily able to pick up a language had higher gamma (and beta) activity in the right temporoparietal regions, the areas of the brain involved in language processing.

These particular waves are also found in individuals who frequently experience feelings of happiness and joy for no specific reason. Gamma is associated with the state or feeling of compassion and unconditional love. Practicing the Buddhist meditation metta bhavana, or ‘loving-kindness’ meditation, can help increase gamma and cultivate this loving state. The practice involves feeling metta in our heartspace and then bringing people to mind and feeling this metta, or love, for them. Including people we may class as ‘enemies’.

Brain-heart coherence

Practicing this type of meditation can also lead us to having greater brain-heart coherence, which is when the communication between the brain and the heart is synchronised. You might be aware that our brain sends signals to other organs in our bodies, but did you know that our heart has 40,000 neurons that communicate directly with the brain? More communication actually happens from the heart to the brain than it does the other way around. Incredible. The heart also has a measurable electromagnetic field, just as the brain does, and it is 5,000 times stronger than that of the brain and influences our environment and reality.

The Heart Math Institute has been studying coherence for many years and has found that ‘these heart signals have a significant effect on brain function – influencing emotional processing as well as higher cognitive faculties such as attention, perception, memory, and problem-solving’[5]. Other benefits include improved immune, nervous and digestive systems, the release of the anti-aging hormone DHEA, reduced cortisol – the stress hormone – and improved sleep and overall energy levels. Non-coherent states exhibit emotions such as anger and frustration. A simple technique to bring coherence to our hearts is by breathing in for a count of five and out for a count of five, deeply and slowly. As we do this, we can focus on feelings of love, joy and gratitude.

How to do it

If you’re new to meditation you may be wondering where to start. It’s really important to establish a routine. Make sure that you set aside the same time each day and, ideally, meditate in the same place. After a few weeks (it’s said that it takes 21 days to create a habit) you’ll find that taking the time to sit in meditation will be something that happens naturally. Some people like to create an ‘alter’. This could simply be having a plant and/or candle set on a table or even on the windowsill next to you.

What’s important is committing yourself to a regular practice. But it’s equally important that we don’t berate ourselves for missing a day! Have a look at the different types of meditation and see which one resonates with you. There are some great apps out there that can get you started such as Calm, Insight Timer and Headspace. Once we create a routine and incorporate meditation into our lives, we will soon reap the rewards as will others around us.

Jennifer Wallis is a reiki practitioner, meditation teacher and writer

 

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