Anxious? Angry? Meditate.

How meditation can help anyone, everyone

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Moyan Brenn via Wikimedia

Some brains can bounce back from adverse stimuli more quickly than others, often times it just depends on the luck of the draw — what kind of neurons you’re born with. Some people are predisposed to be angrier, more anxious or more stressed, and some happier or calmer.

Now, while you can’t exactly change your predispositions, you can train your brain to bounce back to neutral neural states more quickly. So even for those born with angrier brain cells there is good news. Meditation can help.

Be Mindful, a Denver-based mindfulness organization, emphasizes that mindfulness should be accessible to the masses. Instead of hosting a center where those interested in meditation can go and take classes, the nonprofit organization of qualified mindfulness instructors brings programs to the people that need it most. They have worked in various organizations like schools, the Red Cross and homeless shelters. With each organization, Be Mindful’s curriculum development team creates a custom program specifically suited to their needs.

“We don’t believe in the square peg, round hole model,” says AnneMarie Rossi, founder and executive director of Be Mindful. “Kids in low income areas around Denver are going to have vastly different needs than upper class students in another county. Everyone has different strengths and weaknesses, and we want to suit them all.”

Be Mindful conducted a study within the Denver Public Schools to examine the behavioral impacts of mindfulness instruction in schools. After a 10-week training program, they interviewed the students and found overwhelmingly positive results in several facets of their behavior, namely increased prosocial behavior, like helping other students, better decision-making, more feelings of calm and avoiding fights and arguments.

“Meditation is the foundation for all other learning. If you can’t focus, pay attention and emotionally regulate, it doesn’t matter,” Rossi says. “It’s like icing on a Styrofoam cake. It just doesn’t matter.”

Mindful breathing is one pillar of Be Mindful’s core teachings, which can be particularly effective for students confined to classrooms all day.

“Your breath goes with you wherever you are. It can’t be in the past and it can’t be in the future,” Rossi says. “No one knows you’re doing it, unlike telling your boss you need to go out for a jog to destress. If you can just breathe, then breathe.”

Teszra is one of Rossi’s students. She started meditation through Urban Peak, one of Be Mindful’s programs. She started meditating just once a week at first, she says, but quickly assimilated it into her everyday life because she found that taking a little bit of time out of her day to focus on herself really changed the way she thinks.

“Since I’ve started meditating I have noticed that I can control my reaction to uncontrollable situations. I’m able to focus more and make better decisions. I stress less and in times of silence, my brain is able to think more freely. My memory has improved. I can be in the present moment and be happy,” she says.

Teszra would recommend meditation to anyone and everyone, she says, because everyone can afford to take a few minutes out of their day to be still with themselves. For her it’s a natural way to calm the noise in her head and improve her focus.

The process toward these benefits isn’t rigorous or expensive. Meditation has been proven as one of the most low-cost and low-risk methods of reducing stress, anxiety and anger. The training isn’t anything new either. Meditation has been around and helping people for centuries.

Eileen Luders, a researcher in the Department of Neurology at the University of California Los Angeles School of Medicine commented on an MRI study comparing the brains of age-matched meditators and non-meditators that she conducted in 2009.

“Today we know that everything we do and every experience we have actually changes the brain,” Lunders says.

Anecdotal claims about the benefits of meditation percolate in waves of westernadapted mindfulness practices. Though meditation has been around for centuries, only in the past few years have neuroscientists and psychologists teamed up to seriously bolster these claims with scientific evidence.

Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, has found that long-term meditators have more gray matter in their insula and sensory regions, the auditory and sensory cortex, and in the frontal cortex, associated with working memory and executive decision-making.

Gray matter isn’t just some gooey mess used like insulation to fill in the extra brain space. It’s a type of tissue, a very special tissue, located throughout the central nervous system and which facilitates two critical brain functions: information processing from sensory organs and neuron nutrient transport.

Essentially, the more gray matter our brains can house, the more efficiently we can process signals from sensory organs, and the healthier neurons develop with more nutrients.

As we grow older our cortex shrinks, making it harder to remember things and figure stuff out. But Lazar’s study found that 50-year-old meditators had the same amount of gray matter as 25-year-olds.

Lazar, a long time meditator herself, also supports these positive reviews with her personal experience.

“I have more empathy and compassion for people,” she said.

Increased gray matter typically makes the area of the brain more efficient or powerful at processing information. Luders believes that the increased gray matter in the meditators’ brains should make them better at controlling their attention, managing their emotions and making mindful choices.

Instead of expensive therapy sessions or pharmaceuticals, all you need is a safe, comfortable space and as little as an hour a week, according to some scientists like Barbara Fredrickson of University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And some studies, like one conducted by Stanford University, have shown that even seven minutes of meditation is enough to increase positive emotions.

Meditation is so effective because it isn’t trying to silence or remove any emotions. Instead it aims to cultivate an alternative way for people to pay “openhearted attention to the external stimuli and the internal reactions as they unfold,” as Williams says. Silencing the automatic emotional reactions would be counterproductive because not only do we still need them to survive, at least to some extent, but suppression like that would produce an entirely different cadre of psychological problems. Learning how to manage the emotional reactions is what’s important.

Essentially meditation increases your mindful awareness, through which you can learn how to tell when your negative reaction emotion is in the “on” mode, and then you can cultivate the power to switch it back “off.” The more you practice meditation, the more automatic this process becomes and the easier it is to do, even subconsciously.

A Pennsylvania State University study agrees: “Mindfulness meditation shifts individuals’ ability to employ emotion regulation strategies that enable them to experience emotion selectively, and that the emotions they experience may be processed differently in the brain.”

Myriad psychological and neurological studies have shown that as little as eight weeks of consistent meditation can permanently alter a brain’s composition. This is proof that our brains can be trained to uncouple the automatic sensory self from the conscious reactive self.

Perhaps it’s hard to square away even just 20 minutes to meditate — there is always something that needs to be done right now, right? But 20 minutes is just 1.3 percent of your day. It’s less than the time it takes to run the dishwasher. It’s half of the average time American’s spend on Facebook per day, according to a Bloomberg study.

The changes that mediation enables are virtually impossible to replicate with any other singular method.

There is some debate that challenges meditation to be less than what it’s chalked up to be. Some scientists argue that simply resting in a sitting position is more than enough to garner the same effects as full-on meditation. Some propose that it is actually the community aspect of meditation that contributes the most positive outcomes. Even with these doubts and considerations, it could still be fair to say that meditation enables all of these features — the sitting and the community — and if the results are positive, as the science proves they are, then what’s the harm of giving it a try?

It’s either that, or another 20 minutes aimlessly browsing your friends’ Facebook page.

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