The scientific benefits of meditation on your body
Published on 23 January 2022
Over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, conversations about mental health and personal well-being have been on the rise, as stress, burn-out and fatigue become more commonplace in both the personal and professional realms.
“We naturally have thousands of thoughts entering our heads every day. Many of these thoughts lead to emotions, which then lead to behaviours," said Dr Maleena Suppiah Cavert, Chief Well-being Officer, National University Health System (NUHS). “Meditation is when we take care of that natural occurrence of having these many thoughts.”
In our increasingly hectic lives, meditation can play a strong, silent role in helping to fortify our body’s emotional, mental, and even physical well-being against excessive stress. Stress is a human survival instinct that is also our body’s natural response when we are placed under pressure. While there is ‘good' stress that can be performance enhancing, chronic or acute stress places a large strain on our emotions, physicality and behaviours.
"When we are under stress, there’s a huge release of cortisol and adrenaline,” explained Dr Cavert. “Our heart rate goes up, our muscles contract and our instinct is to fight or flee. While ‘good’ stress is necessary for performance, prolonged, daily stress creates very high levels of hormones in our blood.
“If these hormones don’t come down, it can lead to burn-out or other forms of illnesses,” she added. “Meditation can help to bring down these high levels of hormones in our blood stream and improve the way we cope with these situations.”
Research has also shown that individuals who have practiced meditation for many years possess more folds in the outer layer of their brains, which deepens their ability to process information. “If you meditate, you'll find that your physical brain will have more folds, which is a sign of a healthy brain. People with brain disorders such as Alzheimer’s or other neurodegenerative diseases have brains that appear smoother, and are not as rugged and folded as the rest,” said Dr Cavert.
Because of its natural and safe nature, meditation is accessible to most who are keen to try it. Whether it is to mitigate anxiety or depression, or even to a certain degree, physical pain symptoms, meditation offers a low-barrier to entry form of self-help, without the addictive element of some medications.
In fact, it is so safe that even children have been exposed to it. “Meditation has been used on children with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD),” she shared. She added that yoga meditation has been shown to be effective in getting children to focus, perform better at school and be less disruptive.
For children who do not cope well with medication (for instance, Ritalin, a drug often prescribed for ADHD, is quite strong and may cause side effects), meditation could be a possible solution, she noted.
However, meditation is not a silver bullet to all our modern life woes. Dr Cavert emphasised the importance of holistic health care if one wants to reap its true benefits.
“Meditation alone will not fix everything. You need to manage anything that makes your life topsy-turvy. Having proper nutrition, good sleep patterns, sufficient physical activity, as well as managing any forms of addiction are important. Meditating alone will not give you good health, it’s a multi-pronged approach,” she said.
So how would one begin to meditate? Dr Cavert described two forms of meditation: dedicated and integrated. “The practice can be ‘dedicated’, which means you set aside a good 30 minutes every day to do yoga or something that serves your meditative state. ‘Integrated’ means that you take a little bit of time – for instance, just two minutes out of an exhausting day – to have a little breather and recentre.”
While there are many different types of meditation styles, Dr Cavert explained that the practice isn’t specific to a particular technique, and it’s possible to reap the same benefits just by immersing yourself in an enjoyable hobby or activity. This is called being in a state of mind called ‘flow’ – which, as described by positive psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi, involves being completely immersed in or focused on a particular activity.
“People who are not keen on meditation and don’t like the traditional forms can just drop it, and do a hobby that you really enjoy, and find your state of flow,” she advised.
Written in consultation with Dr Maleena Suppiah Cavert, Chief Well-being Officer, National University Health System (NUHS).