You probably know people in your life who practice meditation. There’s a sense of calmness, self-awareness, and compassion about them—as if they go through life floating on a cloud of comfort, high above the tornado of anxiety most of us feel all. the. time.

It’s easy to be annoyed by them—but only because you secretly wish you could adopt this same state of mind stat. It may seem hard for your skeptical self to believe, especially when you have enough anxiety to set a small country on edge, but meditation can change an anxious brain. It helps people with anxiety sit with negative thoughts and better tolerate them—letting them go naturally, says clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in The University of Buffalo’s Department of Psychology. This helps build mental resiliency and ultimately manage anxiety. And, with regular practice, meditation can actually re-wire your mind.

What’s Really Going On In The Brain

“Meditation has a calming effect on the brain, reducing hyperactivation in areas such as the amygdala, which is associated with fear, threat, and trauma,” says psychiatrist Grant H. Brenner M.D., FAPA, co-founder of Neighborhood Psychiatry, in Manhattan. “Kindness-based meditations change how perceptual systems make sense of reality. Reduced fear-based responses and greater mental control of cognitive processes allow people to more accurately process information,” he says.

Studies show that different kinds of meditation alter eight specific brain regions in people who regularly meditate. These include areas related to meta-awareness, body awareness, memory processing, regulation of emotions in personal and social situations, and improved communication between the right and left sides of the brain.

Research has also shown that the way in which mindfulness meditation exerts its effects is through a process of enhanced self-regulation, including attention control, emotion regulation, and self-awareness. And different kinds of meditation—focused attention, mantra recitation, open monitoring, and compassion/loving-kindness, support these findings as well.

“Regular meditation changes aspects of brain functioning,” Dr. Naragon-Gainey says . “It impacts different aspects of the brain and the way they communicate so there’s better top down control and we’re able to modulate other systems.”

When The Effects Set In

“Meditation can be thought of as a kind of brain workout, and so requires regular practice to see noticeable changes,” Dr. Brenner says. However, most people notice a difference right away, though this may be due to a relaxation response rather than enduring changes in brain activity, he says. “Some people also report that meditation stirs up unpleasant feelings, often if there is unaddressed trauma, which people cope with by distracting themselves and by never being alone with their thoughts.”

For long-term changes, studies show that it takes about eight weeks for the amygdala to calm down and produce differences in key brain areas including the prefrontal cortex, insula, cingulate cortex, and hippocampus. “Generally, ongoing practice is required to maintain and deepen benefits, just as with anything else. In some cases, meditation appears to result in permanent changes in behavior, especially compassion-based meditations, which can change a person’s fundamental outlook, as the practice becomes baked into the personality and way of life, requiring less daily practice,” Dr. Brenner says.

Making The Most Of Meditation

By setting achievable goals and stepping them up at a realistic pace, meditation can easily become a regular habit, Dr. Brenner says. Here’s how to get started.

  1. Start small. Though it might seem appealing to meditate for 30 minutes twice a day, in reality, it’s more doable to start with five-minute sessions, one-to-two times per day a few days a week. “You want to set yourself up to succeed and establish and build off of a foundation,” Dr. Brenner says.
  2. Set aside a calm, safe space. While you can meditate just about anywhere, many people find it helpful to have a specific space set up just for that purpose. “An additional benefit is that you will get conditioned to the desired frame of mind just by being in that place, strengthening the routine,” Dr. Brenner says.
  3. Focus on your breathing. One of the easiest ways to start meditating is by focusing on your breathing. Fixate on where it’s strongest–through your nose or the rise and fall of your chest. If your mind wanders, which it will, just try to re-focus back on your breathing and take some deep breaths. Paying attention to your breathing helps create space between your thoughts and distance from their intensity, Dr. Naragon-Gainey says.
  4. Go for a guided experience. For those just getting started with meditation, quieting the mind can be tough—thoughts can stream like a doomsday playlist. This is where an app like Headspace can be really beneficial. They have a slew of guided meditations to help you with everything from anxiety and stress to more specific issues like self-esteem and sadness—all to the tune of a guide talking you through every step of the way. Creating calm is the best kind of break for your brain.
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Last Updated: Aug 17, 2020