“The dissolution of thoughts in eternal awareness or pure consciousness without objectification, knowing without thinking, merging finitude in infinity.”
The famous French Enlightenment thinker, Voltaire, describes meditation in way that some people might think is too ethereal. Skeptics have long associated meditation with religions tradition and the “ancient East;” however, meditation has found its way into more secular “circles” since science proves the practice to be beneficial and non-spiritual.
Meditation is an act of focusing the mind on a particular object, thought, or movement to achieve mental clarity and emotional stability. And, It’s more than just a fad or buzz word. Meditation seems to be today’s panacea for an endless array of ailments as pop culture widely adopts the practice.
In fact, the number of adults who meditate increased in the U.S. from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017. The number of U.S. children who meditate also increased during the same period from 0.6% to 5.4 percent. Here we consider meditation and the associated health benefits that are contributing to its growing popularity.
5 Brain Waves
Meditation quiets the mind, improves concentration and focus, and enhances deep thought. By slowing each of the five major categories of brain waves, meditation allows time to pass between each thought, enabling better consideration and choices for the mind.
Our brain waves are synchronized electrical pulses, firing when the neurons in our brains communicate with each other. Brain waves vary according to mood and activity; some make us tired and slow while others keep us alert and active. Brain waves are a consequence of our thoughts, emotions, and behavior. Our ability to transition through brain wave frequencies correlates to our ability to manage stress, focus on tasks, and get good sleep. Each type enables us to cope with different situations.
In order of highest frequency to lowest, the brain waves are gamma, beta, alpha, theta, and delta. During our waking state, all 5 types occur with one type being dominant depending on our state of consciousness. No one of these brain waves is “better” or “worse” than the other, but overproduction and underproduction can cause problems. Let’s examine each type more closely.
Gamma waves facilitate cognitive functioning and typically are the dominant waves in higher order processing tasks. They are critical to learning, memory, and information processing. The 40 hertz (Hz) gamma wave, in particular, is important in perception and learning new material, as it serves to heighten our senses. The frequency range of gamma waves is 40 Hz – 100 Hz. Overproduction can cause anxiety, high arousal, and stress. Underproduction can cause Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), depression, and learning disabilities. At the optimal level, gamma waves allow for cognition, information processing, learning, perception, and REM sleep. Meditation increases gamma wave production.
Beta waves are high frequency, low amplitude waves detectable while we are awake. They have a stimulating affect and are involved in conscious thought and logical thinking. Their frequency range is 12 Hz – 40 Hz. Overproduction can cause adrenaline, anxiety, high arousal, inability to relax, and stress. Underproduction can cause daydreaming, depression, poor cognition and, like gamma wave overproduction, ADHD. Consequently, when you drink coffee or use another stimulant, beta activity naturally increases. At an optimal level, beta waves allow us to complete conscious tasks such as critical thinking, writing, reading, and socialization.
Alpha waves bridge the gap between conscious thinking and subconscious mind. These waves help us calm down by “promoting” feelings of deep relaxation. “Alpha blocking” can occur during times of stress where beta waves block out the production of alpha waves to prevent us from becoming too aroused. These waves occur in a frequency range of 8 Hz – 12 Hz. Overproduction leads to daydreaming, inability to focus, and being too relaxed. Too little alpha activity can lead to anxiety, high stress, insomnia and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD). At the correct level, alpha waves allow for relaxation. Alcohol, marijuana, relaxants, and some antidepressants increase the brain’s alpha wave activity.
Theta waves are involved in daydreaming, sleep, and the experience of feeling deep and raw emotions. Too much theta activity makes people prone to bouts of depression and makes them highly suggestible when they are in a deeply relaxed and semi-hypnotic state. Theta waves improve our intuition and creativity. Overproduction may result in ADHD, depression, hyperactivity, impulsivity, and inattentiveness, and underproduction, to anxiety, poor emotional awareness, and stress. The frequency range of theta waves is 4 Hz to 8 Hz. As long as these aren’t in overproduction during waking hours, theta waves are very helpful to the brain. Depressants can increase the number of these brain waves.
Associated with deep relaxation and restorative sleep, delta waves are the slowest recorded brain waves in humans at a range from 0 Hz to 4 Hz. These waves occur often in infants and young children. As we age, delta wave production falls off even during sleep. These waves also are involved in unconscious bodily functions such as regulating heart beat and digestion. Too many delta waves can lead to brain injuries, learning difficulties, inability to think, and ADHD. Inhibited delta wave activity prevents the body from rejuvenating itself and can cause poor sleep. Optimal levels support the immune system, natural healing and restorative sleep. In fact, sleep can increase delta waves, as can depressants.
So, what exactly do brain waves have to do with meditation? Everything. Meditative practice is about slowing down the senses to experience brief moments of hyper-awareness while remaining neutral about your observations. When you slow down thoughts, it’s easier to examine emotions and circumstances without getting “worked up”. Turning brain waves down a few notches can feel like pausing time—that’s what makes meditation so incredible, and so difficult. It takes practice to reign in your brain waves, lots of practice.
Mindfulness is one of the most popular types of meditation, and based on the practice of paying attention to thoughts and feelings without attaching to them. Mindfulness is observing things without judgement whether it’s your own thoughts, feelings, or another person's. Practically any subject can be approached with mindfulness.
Though its roots are in Buddhist Philosophy, secular mindfulness gained popularity, in part, through the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program at the University of Massachusetts in 1979. There are many types of meditation, but most exercises require the same ingredients:
- A quiet, distraction-free location
- Comfortable position for the body to relax
- Deep focus on a single word or phrase, object, or the act of breathing
- A judgement-free zone, where thoughts and distractions can come and go, and the practitioner does not for opinions nor “chase” the thoughts.
Health Benefits of Mindfulness
Thousands of studies document the health benefits of mindfulness. Mindfulness has been shown to improve physical health by relieving stress, treating heart disease, lowering blood pressure, reducing chronic pain, improving sleep, and alleviating gastrointestinal difficulties. Psychologists and psychiatrists also recommend mindfulness to treat depression, substance abuse, eating disorders, couples’ conflicts, anxiety disorders, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some research even suggests that meditation can change the brain and body to promote healthy behaviors. Consider these findings from recent research.
Pain. A few studies indicate that meditation activates certain areas of the brain in response to pain. For example, a 2016 study by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health demonstrated how mindful meditation does help to control pain without using the brain’s natural opiates to do so. The conclusion was that mindfulness, combined with pain medications and other approaches that rely on the brain’s natural opioid activity, may be particularly effective for reducing pain.
In another NCCIH 2016 study, adults 20 – 70 with chronic low back pain received either mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) training, Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT), or usual care. MBSR and CBT participants had greater improvement in functional limitation related to back pain at 26 weeks and 52 weeks compared with those who received usual care. The report also found that there were no significant differences in outcome between MBSR and CBT.
High Blood Pressure. Transcendental Meditation (TM) lowers blood pressure according to a 2009 NCCIH study involving 298 college students. The findings also suggest that TM can help with psychological distress, anxiety, depression, anger/hostility, and coping agility.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Ulcerative Colitis (UC). A limited number of studies found that mindfulness meditation could reduce the severity of symptoms of IBS after several weeks using the technique, but that it did not help with the depression and anxiety associated with the condition. The American College of Gastroenterology cautions that more research is necessary to determine the effects of meditation on IBS.
A pilot study in 2014 attempted to determine the effect of mindfulness meditation on UC patients in remission. Fifty-five adults were divided into two groups. One group practiced mindfulness meditation and the other a placebo procedure. After 6 and 12 months, there were no significant differences between the two groups relative to the course of the disease, level of inflammation, or the presence of psychological markers except stress during flare-ups. Mindfulness meditation did tend to reduce stress during flare-ups.
Anxiety, Depression, and Insomnia. Not surprisingly, most of the research on the benefits of mindfulness meditation have focused on its ability to reduce anxiety, depression, and insomnia. A literature review of 47 trials with over 3500 participants did show moderate improvement in anxiety and depression from meditation, but no impact on sleep.
A 2014 literature review of 47 trials involving 3,515 participants concluded that mindfulness meditation programs did show moderate evidence of improving anxiety and depression. But the researchers found no evidence that meditation changed health-related behaviors affected by stress, such as substance abuse and sleep. A separate study of 54 adults with chronic insomnia, however, did note a significant reduction in the severity of insomnia when the subjects learned a specific type of mindfulness meditation known as mindfulness-based therapy for insomnia (MBTI).
With MBTI, insomniacs use meditation practices to facilitate mindful awareness and change how they think about their symptoms though metacognitive shifting. With this approach, insomniacs see their thoughts and desires as dynamic mental events, and this helps them avoid fixating on achieving specific outcomes or goals. This is key to reducing the symptoms of chronic insomnia. The technique also involves teaching sufferers how to cope with periods of wakefulness at night.
Smoking Cessation. More than a dozen studies have shown promising results especially where mindfulness training is coupled with standard smoking cessation treatments. Researchers noted a significant reduction in cigarette use immediately after treatment and at 17 weeks. Neuropsychologists in a 2013 study noted that mindfulness meditation significantly reduced the craving to smoke, as well as activity in a craving-related region of the brain.
Additional Results. Several other studies have found that:
- People who practiced MBSR for eight weeks had better mental health and quality of life.
- A side effect of the use of MBSR to reduce stress, anxiety, pain, and depression is the enhancement of the mood and self-esteem of people with lung cancer.
- Meditation can reduce stress, anxiety, and fatigue in breast cancer patients.
- Meditation-based programs may help to reduce common menopausal symptoms like intense hot flashes, sleep and mood disturbances, stress, and muscle/joint pain.
- Mind and body practices reduce the chemical identifiers of inflammation better than physical activity, diet and music therapy, and they tend to help regulate the immune system.
Overall, studies of the effects of meditation on physical, mental, and emotional health have been positive. We can and should expect more research in the coming years to both validate current knowledge and expand inquiry into other aspects of health and wellness.
But is it practical?
All of this “good news” aside, many people probably wonder if meditation is safe. It is important to note that healthcare professionals strongly urge patients not to abandon or postpone conventional care when they begin meditation. People should regard meditation as a supplement to conventional medical and/or mental health care.
In our foregoing review of the research, several researchers have found better results when conventional care and meditation occur in tandem. Also, it is a good idea to both ask your meditation trainer about his/her training and experience, and to let your health care providers know about the complementary approaches you are using such as meditation.
Of course, be mindful of any irregular meditation practices where the trainer claims that his/her approach is better than any other treatment, or asks participants to follow his/her program blindly. Meditation can be powerful, so it is important that you tell your trainer about any injuries, conditions, or problems you have. If the trainer does not ask about these upfront, find another.
In some cases, meditation can lead to a condition known as the "dark night of the soul" This takes the form of temporary depression, sadness, or loss of the meaning of life when a person considers the greater truths of the world we live in and human nature and condition during meditation. Everyone experiences this at times, but it can seem painful and unending. If you are experiencing prolonged feelings associated with this condition, seek professional help.
Sometimes you may experience an incredible feeling or sensation during meditation. It is important not to expect this over and over. There is no “ultimate nirvana” state even after several years of meditation. Though you may have learned to control anger and emotions more effectively, those emotions will not disappear completely. Finally, when meditation uncovers painful suppressed memories, you should have someone to talk to.
In sum, meditation can have many positive influences on your physical, mental, and emotional well-being. Knowledge and self-awareness are what make meditation safe. Be open-minded as you explore this approach to better health and wellness.
Download our guide on mindfulness meditation.