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Meditation: A Simple Way to Reduce Anxiety and More

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Highlighted region shows the anterior cingulate cortex, a region of the brain shown to be activated during meditation.

 

Meditation and its effect on brain activity and the central nervous system became a focus of collaborative research in neuroscience, psychology and neurobiology during the latter 20th century. Research on meditation sought to define and characterize various practices. Meditation’s effect on the 1) ___can be broken up into two categories: state changes and trait changes, respectively, alterations in brain activities during the act of meditating and changes that are the outcome of long-term practice. Mindfulness meditation, which is frequently studied, is a Buddhist meditation approach found in Zen and Vipassana. Mindfulness meditation can be defined, in simple terms, as a complete, unbiased attention to the current moment.

 

Electroencephalography (EEG) has been used in many studies as a primary method for evaluating the meditating brain. Electroencephalography uses electrical leads placed all over the 2) ___ to measure the collective electrical activity of the cerebral cortex. Specifically, EEG measures the electric fields of large groups of neurons. EEG has the benefit of excellent temporal resolution and is able to measure aggregate activity of portions or the entire cortex down to the millisecond scale. Unlike other imaging based methods, EEG does not have good spatial resolution and is more appropriately used to evaluate the running spontaneous activity of the cortex. This spontaneous activity is classified into four main classifications based on the frequency of the activity, ranging from low frequency delta waves (<4 Hz) commonly found during sleep to beta waves (13-30 Hz) associated with an awake and alert brain. In between these two extremes are theta waves (4-8 Hz) and alpha waves (8-12 Hz).

 

Many studies on mindfulness meditation, have linked lower frequency alpha and theta waves to meditation. Other studies report more specific findings, such as decreased alpha blocking and increased frontal lobe specific theta activity. Alpha blocking is a phenomenon where the active brain, normally presenting beta wave activity, cannot as easily switch to alpha wave activity often involved in memory recall. These findings would suggest that in a meditative state a person is more relaxed but maintains a sharp awareness. Two large, recent comprehensive review works, however, point to poor control and statistical analyses in these early studies and comment that it can only be said with confidence that increased alpha and theta 3) ___ activity exists. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) is another highly utilized methodology for studying state changes in meditating brains. fMRI detects subtle increases in 4) ___ flow to areas of the brain with higher metabolic activity. Thus these areas of increased metabolic activity indicate which regions of the brain are currently being used to process whatever stimuli is presented. Counter to EEG, the advantage of fMRI is its spatial resolution, with the ability to produce detailed spatial maps of brain activity. It suffers, however, in temporal resolution and cannot measure progressive activity, like the EEG, with much detail. fMRI has only recently been used to assess brain state changes during meditation. Recent studies have shown heightened activity in the anterior cingulate cortex, frontal cortex, and prefrontal cortex, specifically in the dorsal medial prefrontal area during Vipassana meditation. Similarly, the cingulate cortex and frontal cortex areas were shown to have increased activity during Zen meditation. Both studies comment on the possibility that these findings could indicate some state of heightened voluntary control over attention during mindfulness meditation. These results indicate consistency in meditation’s effect on these regions of the brain. A multitude of other studies spanning other meditative disciplines, come to the same conclusions, but mention the need for further investigation with better controls.

 

Studies also describe a heightened emotional state of meditators. A more complex study, conducted in 2008 by Lutz et al., focused on emotional response during meditation. This investigation involved the creation of a “compassion meditation“ state by novice and experienced meditators and testing the meditators response to emotionally charged sounds. fMRI results indicated heightened activity in the cingulate cortex but also in the amygdala, temporo-parietal junction, and right posterior superior temporal sulcus in response to the emotional sounds. The authors of this study believe this indicates greater sensitivity to emotional expression and positive emotion due to the neural circuitry activated. Some studies make more specific claims about trait changes in meditators versus non-meditators. Changes to the alpha wave were indicated to be a trait, as well as state, phenomena. Studies have reported an increase in the specific frequencies expressed in the alpha range, increased alpha band power, and an overall slowing (reduction in frequency) in EEG activity in experienced meditators versus less experienced meditators while meditating. The alpha blocking phenomena, observed as a state change in brain function, was investigated as a possible trait change as well. One study that examined a variety of meditation techniques tried to show that alpha blocking was affected by the long term practice of meditation by testing response to auditory stimuli. Review works, however, comment on inconsistent findings as well as a lack of repeated results in this, and other studies. They further remark that, similar to observations in brain state changes, only general assertions can be made about brain trait changes: some change in the electroencephalographic profile exists but with some inconsistency. It is also important to note that these trait changes were observed during meditation, and although it does indicate that a practitioner’s electroencephalographic profile is modified by the practice of meditation, these EEG studies have not yet shown changes in non-meditating brains, even of experienced 5) ___.

 

 

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Red region of the brain shows the hippocampus which had been shown to have heightened activity during meditation by experienced meditators.

 

Brain trait changes have also been observed in neuroimaging studies, most often employing fMRI. In a meta-analysis of 21 neuroimaging studies, eight brain regions were found to be consistently altered, including areas key to meta-awareness (frontopolar cortex/Brodmann area), exteroceptive and interoceptive body awareness (sensory cortex and insular cortex), memory consolidation and reconsolidation (hippocampus), self and emotion regulation (anterior cingulate cortex and orbitofrontal cortex), and intra- and interhemispheric communication (superior longitudinal fasciculus; corpus callosum. These changes were distinguished by density increases in grey matter regions and white matter pathways in the brains of individuals who meditate in comparison to individuals who do not. Of all areas with reported findings, a greater number of structural changes were found in the left hemisphere.

 

There is also evidence to suggest meditation plays a protective role against the natural reduction in grey matter volume associated with 6) ___. One study found evidence that Zen meditators experienced a slower age related decline rate for cerebral gray matter volume in the putamen which plays a role in learning, cognitive flexibility and attentional processing. This could suggest a better attentiveness in aging meditators versus non-meditators. Long-term meditation practitioners have also shown to have a higher tolerance for pain. This effect has been correlated to altered function and structure in somatosensory cortices and an increased ability to decouple regions in the brain associated with the cognitive appraisal of pain (anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex). The brain state changes found in meditators are almost exclusively found in higher-order executive and association cortices. This supports the notion that meditation increases self-regulation and attentiveness. Recent studies have also investigated how these changes may alter the functionality and connectivity of the default mode network, which is a hypothesized network of brain regions that are active when an individual is engaged in internal tasks such as daydreaming.

 

Validity of Findings

In the meta-analysis performed by Fox et al., several sources of bias were indicated which bring into question the validity of meditation studies which use neuroimaging. Fox suggests a publication bias may be leading to the over-reporting of significant results. Fox also acknowledged that the significant brain differences found in many meditation studies could be explained by preexisting brain differences in those who meditate. More research will be needed before any firm conclusions can be made. Besides scientific literature, some authors have written of the promising research on meditation in books targeted for general audiences. Once such book, Buddha’s Brain by Rick Hanson, PhD shares the current scientific research and investigations into meditation. Hanson, a neuroscientist and researcher, explains to readers the scientific studies in plain language and discuss the impact of the results. Hanson’s main argument is that positive emotions, like love can be strengthened through meditation in a neuroplastic manner, citing dozens of scientific studies to support this claim. Hanson’s viewpoint is representative of a larger popular movement to study and embrace Eastern phenomena including meditation in the Western world.

 

Critics, like Owen Flanagan, PhD, believe that Hanson, and those like him, are overextending the results of current scientific studies. In his book, Bodhisattva’s Brain: Buddhism Naturalized, Flanagan presents a more conservative viewpoint of current scientific research and cautions readers against the seemingly exciting results of recent studies. Flanagan does not believe current science supports the idea that positive emotion can be strengthened in the same way that stroke victims can recover use of limbs with use. Flanagan does acknowledge that meditation may be beneficial in some way, but the mechanism of how meditation affects the brain is still clouded. Flanagan and Hanson use many of the same scientific studies to attempt to support their differing viewpoint, but both authors identify the need and importance of future studies investigating meditation.

 

Each person should be the judge, of what works for them. For some, meditation can wipe away the day’s stress, bringing with it inner peace. You can easily learn to practice meditation. Spending even a few minutes a day, in meditation can restore your calm and inner peace. Anyone can practice meditation. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it doesn’t require any special equipment. Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Meditation originally was meant to help deepen understanding of the sacred and mystical forces of life. These days, meditation is commonly used for relaxation and 7) ___ reduction. Meditation is considered a type of mind-body complementary medicine. Meditation can produce a deep state of relaxation and a tranquil mind. During meditation, you focus your attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding your mind and causing stress. This process may result in enhanced physical and emotional well-being.

 

The emotional benefits of meditation can include:

 

  1. Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
  2. Building skills to manage your stress
  3. Increasing self-awareness
  4. Focusing on the present
  5. Reducing negative emotions

 

Meditation might also be useful if you have a medical condition, especially one that may be worsened by stress. With that in mind, some research suggests that meditation may help people manage symptoms of conditions such as:

 

  1. Anxiety disorders
  2. Asthma
  3. Cancer
  4. Depression
  5. Heart disease
  6. High blood 8) ___
  7. Pain
  8. Sleep problems

 

Be sure to talk to your health care provider about the pros and cons of using meditation if you have any of these conditions or other health problems. Meditation isn’t a replacement for traditional medical treatment. But it may be a useful addition to your other treatment.

Ways to meditate can include:

 

Guided meditation. Sometimes called guided imagery or visualization, with this method of meditation you form mental images of places or situations you find relaxing.

 

You try to use as many senses as possible, such as smells, sights, sounds and textures. You may be led through this process by a guide or teacher.

 

Mantra meditation. In this type of meditation, you silently repeat a calming word, thought or phrase to prevent distracting thoughts. For example, if I can’t fall asleep I repeat mentally (silently): “relaxation leads to harmony.“

 

Mindfulness meditation. This type of meditation is based on being mindful, or having an increased awareness and acceptance of living in the present moment.

 

In mindfulness meditation, you broaden your conscious awareness. You focus on what you experience during meditation, such as the flow of your breath. You can observe your thoughts and emotions, but let them pass without judgment.

 

Qi gong. This practice generally combines meditation, relaxation, physical movement and breathing exercises to restore and maintain balance. Qi gong (CHEE-gung) is part of traditional Chinese medicine.

 

Tai chi. This is a form of gentle Chinese martial arts. In tai chi (TIE-CHEE), you perform a self-paced series of postures or movements in a slow, graceful manner while practicing deep breathing.

 

Transcendental meditation. Transcendental meditation is a simple, natural technique. In transcendental meditation, you silently repeat a personally assigned mantra, such as a word, sound or phrase, in a specific way. This form of meditation allows your body to settle into a state of profound rest and relaxation and your mind to achieve a state of inner peace, without needing to use concentration or effort.

 

Yoga. You perform a series of postures and controlled breathing exercises to promote a more flexible body and a calm mind. As you move through poses that require balance and concentration, you’re encouraged to focus less on your busy day and more on the moment.

 

Elements of meditation

 

Different types of meditation may include different features to help you meditate. These may vary depending on whose guidance you follow or who’s teaching a class. Some of the most common features in meditation include:

 

Focused attention. Focusing your attention is generally one of the most important elements of meditation.

 

Focusing your attention is what helps free your mind from the many distractions that cause stress and worry. You can focus your attention on such things as a specific object, an image, a mantra, or even your breathing.

 

Relaxed breathing. This technique involves deep, even-paced breathing using the diaphragm muscle to expand your lungs. The purpose is to slow your breathing, take in more oxygen, and reduce the use of shoulder, neck and upper chest muscles while breathing so that you breathe more efficiently.

 

A quiet setting. If you’re a beginner, practicing meditation may be easier if you’re in a quiet spot with few distractions, including no television, radios or cellphones.

 

As you get more skilled at meditation, you may be able to do it anywhere, especially in high-stress situations where you benefit the most from meditation, such as a traffic jam, a stressful work meeting or a long line at the grocery store.

 

A comfortable position. You can practice meditation whether you’re sitting, lying down, walking, or in other positions or activities. Just try to be comfortable so that you can get the most out of your meditation.

 

Don’t let the thought of meditating the “right“ way add to your stress. If you choose to, you can attend special meditation centers or group classes led by trained instructors. But you can also practice meditation easily on your own.

 

Here are some ways you can practice meditation on your own, whenever you choose:

 

Breathe deeply. This technique is good for beginners because breathing is a natural function.

 

Focus all attention on your breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening as you inhale and exhale through your nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When your attention wanders, gently return your focus to your breathing.

 

Scan your body. When using this technique, focus attention on different parts of your body. Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether that’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation.

 

Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different parts of your body.

 

Repeat a mantra. You can create your own mantra, whether it’s religious or secular. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus Prayer in the Christian tradition, the holy name of God in Judaism, or the Om mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions.

 

Engage in prayer. Prayer is the best known and most widely practiced example of meditation. Spoken and written prayers are found in most faith traditions.

 

You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help section of your local bookstore for examples. Talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or other spiritual leader about possible resources.

 

Read and reflect. Many people report that they benefit from reading poems or sacred texts, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect on their meaning.

 

You can also listen to sacred music, spoken words or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.

 

Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention on a sacred object or being, weaving feelings of love, compassion and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination or gaze at representations of the object.

 

Building Your Meditation Skills

Don’t judge your meditation skills, which may only increase your stress. Meditation takes practice. Keep in mind, for instance, that it’s common for your mind to 9) ___ during meditation, no matter how long you’ve been practicing meditation. If you’re meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you’re focusing on.

Experiment, and you’ll likely find out what types of meditation work best for you and what you enjoy doing. Adapt meditation to your needs at the moment. Remember, there’s no right way or 10) ___ way to meditate. What matters is that meditation helps you reduce your stress and feel better overall.

 

Meditation is a mind-body practice in complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). People practice meditation for a number of health-related purposes. A national Government survey that asked about CAM use in a sample of 23,393 U.S. adults Meditation was found to aid physical or emotional symptoms that may be associated with chronic illnesses (such as heart disease, HIV/AIDS, and cancer) and their treatment. Meditation was also found to be used for overall wellness.

 

Sources: Wikipedia;

http://nccam.nih.gov/health/meditation/overview.htm;

http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/meditation/in-depth/meditation/art-20045858

 

ANSWERS: 1) brain; 2) scalp; 3) wave; 4) blood; 5) meditators; 6) aging; 7) stress; 8) pressure; 9) wander; 10) wrong

 

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