Is Meditation Medically Good for You? The Science Behind Mindfulness.

Described as "the new yoga" in many a headline and recently declared "a billion-dollar business" by Fortune magazine, the practice of meditation has come a long way from its ancient beginnings. Dozens of celebrities, from Ellen DeGeneres to Paul McCartney, have touted its powerful effects on their lives, and more and more companies are providing “mindfulness programs” for their employees. This probably isn't what the Buddha had in mind, yet the fact remains: Meditation is so hot right now.

But before you dismiss it as another overhyped trend akin to so many fad diets and workout regimens, let's take a moment to acknowledge that, unlike juice cleanses or CrossFit, meditation has been around for thousands of years. Perhaps more salient to the skeptics among us, though, is this: Recent studies have shown that practicing mindfulness can actually be enormously beneficial to your physical health. Here's the scoop...

What is meditation exactly?

Simply put, meditation is the practice of "just being." While that may sound like a fancy paraphrase of sitting on one's ass doing nothing, meditation can be more challenging than it seems. Luckily, filmmaker-slash-creator of nightmares, David Lynch, breaks it down for us.

According to the David Lynch Foundation, there are three basic approaches to meditation:

  • Focused attention: concentrating on a thought or object (besides your phone)
  • Open monitoring: observing breath, thoughts, or the environment
  • Automatic self-transcending (imagine if this is what boys got into at puberty!), also known as transcendental meditation, or TM: spontaneously experiencing quieter levels of thought -- a unique state of restful alertness

But why bother with any of these? Science says...

Meditation can boost your brainpower

According to the National Institutes of Health, research suggests that meditation can physically change the brain in positive ways. These include increasing the brain's ability to process information, and slowing, stalling, or even reversing changes in the brain that result from aging.

It could lower your chances of cardiovascular disease

When you experience stress, your body releases adrenaline, which causes your heart rate and blood pressure to rise -- a once-helpful survival tool passed down from our ancestors. These days, though we're no longer being chased by bears, just a glance at our social media feeds can get our hearts a pumpin'. Meditation counteracts this fight-or-flight response by slowing your heart rate and lowering blood pressure, which can in turn reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke.

Mindfulness meditation can assist those with anxiety and depression

Studies show that a mindfulness practice can minimize the stress response in people with generalized anxiety disorder, and meditation retreats in particular have been found to decrease depression, anxiety, and stress in participants.

Meditating can be effective in managing pain and battling addiction

With opioid dependence, abuse, and addiction rising at terrifying rates, drug-free pain management techniques are more necessary than ever. Luckily, mindfulness meditation has been shown to help patients with chronic pain, and can be beneficial when used alone or in combination with pain medication.

There are countless ways to get your mindfulness on

Meditating at home is popular for good reason: It's comfortable, convenient, and free. But if you'd prefer a group experience, or something a bit less conventional, there are plenty of options out there. You could attend a silent meditation retreat, try a sensory deprivation tank, or even explore orgasmic meditation (yup, that's a thing).

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Katie McDonough is a freelance writer and editor who knows meditation would probably fix many of her problems, but where’s the fun in that? Follow her @thewritekatie.