“If a person’s basic state of mind is serene and calm, then it is possible for this inner peace to overwhelm a painful physical experience.” ~The Dalai Lama
When I finished graduate school I was a bright-eyed engineer with a fresh diploma in hand, ready to take on the world. I landed a great job at a multinational engineering firm and began my career working with people from all over the world.
So it was a major downer when, not long into my new job, I began to suffer from chronic migraines. Every day I would wake up feeling fine, but within a few minutes I would feel so lightheaded I was convinced my head was going to float away.
It wasn’t because of stress, though, just genetics. My mother, grandfather, and great-grandmother all had experienced similar issues with migraines.
Lights. Noise. Crowds. Computer screens. They made me feel miserable.
I was able to hide my symptoms pretty well from friends and coworkers, but I needed relief. My symptoms were not typical for migraines, so the doctors I saw couldn’t help much, and I didn’t have any luck with homeopathic remedies. My mother suggested I try meditation; it had helped her with her symptoms before.
Being an analytically inclined engineer, I was skeptical. To me, like many of us, meditation was something reserved for monks who wore funny robes and lived in the mountains, far away from the commutes and crowds and endless computer screens of the modern world that give the rest of us of headaches.
But I didn’t have anything to lose.
I started with one minute a day. And then two. And then five.
The more I meditated, the better my symptoms became. There were setbacks, but in general my condition improved. After a couple of years, going to a bar or writing an email didn’t make my head feel like it was going to explode.
I finally felt like my old self again.
I wasn’t sure if the improvement was solely due to meditation, but my analytical mind wanted to know more about it, with the more facts and hard data the better. According to the studies I have come across, meditation can:
1. Improve focus and memory
A 2013 UC Santa Barbara study published in Psychological Science found that mindfulness training, including meditation, can improve our ability to focus on tasks at hand and recall details from memory.
For those of us who have hectic jobs and find that our attention is constantly jumping from our mobile phone, to our desk phone, to our email inbox, to the person standing at our desk, or to the millions of other office distractions, a few minutes of quiet meditation in the morning can positively affect our critical thinking skills.
2. Reduce stress and anxiety
Research at Harvard Medical School found that meditation can physically change the brain’s amygdala, the portion of our brain related to stress and anxiety, and lower our levels of stress.
This one might seem like a no-brainer (pun definitely intended); if we are quiet and still, we will be calmer. But for all of the skeptics out there, like myself, it’s reassuring to know that the anecdotal evidence of meditation reducing our stress levels now has physical changes to the brain as documented evidence to support it.
3. Reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease
A 2012 study published in Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes found that daily meditation can not only reduce stress, but can actually reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease as well.
The patients in the study, all of whom had coronary heart disease, were divided into two groups: a control group, and a group that underwent a transcendental meditation program.
Over the course of the multi-year study, the group that received the meditation training saw reductions in their blood pressures and stress levels, and had lower rates of heart attacks and strokes.
Heart disease continues to be a global problem and could affect many of our lives as we age. But studies like these show that, in addition to the tools of modern medicine, we have one extra weapon in our arsenal to help improve our cardiovascular health.
4. Boost our immune systems
Another great benefit of meditation, at least according to a 2003 study published in Psychosomatic Medicine, is that it can improve our bodies’ ability to fight off disease and illness.
During the study, a control group was compared with another group of participants who received meditation training. Afterward, the meditators were found to have a significantly higher number of antibodies in their blood compared to the control group, which help ward off disease.
That means that regular meditation could help us get sick less often, giving us more time to have fun and be with our loved ones, instead of lying in bed and feeling miserable. Let’s remember that tip the next time flu season rolls around…
5. Reduce physical pain
According to a 2015 study by Wake Forest University published in the Journal of Neuroscience, meditation has the ability to reduce pain sensations in our bodies.
During the study, patients who had undergone meditation and mindfulness training experienced less pain when exposed to hot surfaces than those who did not have similar meditation experience.
This was also true for a group of “meditating” patients who had been given injections to chemically block their bodies’ natural production of opioids (i.e. our own internal painkillers), which kick in once we start to feel pain.
The authors concluded that this has the potential to help mitigate chronic symptoms and reduce dependencies on prescription medicine, and that future work could help to determine the exact mechanism of how meditation alleviates pain.
From my own experiences with daily migraines, I have full faith in the Wake Forest results. For anyone else suffering from pain, a few minutes a day could make all the difference.
Meditation is no longer a mystical practice hidden behind the walls of Tibetan monasteries. It is being studied by some of the most respected health organizations in the world, which are now able to use science to validate claims that have been around for thousands of years.
The physical and neurological benefits that meditation can provide make it a valuable accompaniment to modern medicine for curing or alleviating health problems. If you have been suffering from stress, or pain, why not try meditation? It’s natural and free.
A simple way to begin is to first find a comfortable seated position. Keep your eyes and body relaxed, and focus on your breath. Try not to fight all the thoughts and chitter chatter that run through your head. They’re normal.
Just observe them and then focus on your breath again once they have passed. Like me, you can start with one minute and then have longer sessions as you begin to feel more comfortable meditating. The positive effects you start to experience from daily meditation might surprise you.
What is there to lose?