Research Paper By Minpreet Jongkees
(Health Coach, AUSTRALIA)
Meditation is seen by many rationalists as something that the hippies brought back from Asia with them many moons ago. However, over the last few decades, many psychological and neuroscientific studies have been conducted into the effect of meditation. These Scientists argue that meditation can help people find peace of mind and contentment as well as boost physical health, memory, and motivation, to reducing daily stress and even the relapse of depression, to finally early evidence to suggest being able to switch on and off genes. (1)(3)(7)(8)
There is often confused with what is the difference between meditation and mindfulness. I recently had the honor of being in a web seminar with Daniel Goleman – a renowned psychologist who popularized the term “Emotional Intelligence”. His way of defining the two was, think of Meditation as the big umbrella, and underneath there are many different forms of meditation. One of those areas is Mindfulness. Upon further investigation of MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) and MBCT (Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy) 8-week courses (founded by Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn and Drs. Segal, Williams, and Teasdale respectively), there appear to be several different types of Mindfulness meditation exercises one can do to gain the benefits of Mindfulness meditation. The two main types being 1. Focusing on a singular thing and 2. Not reacting to thoughts. (3). For those who with time master these mindfulness meditation exercises, the many professors and philosophers ancient and modern appear to all agree – You’ll experience a Mentally and Physiologically Healthier, Happier You.
1. Meditation and stress triggers
A psychological stress test conducted to calculate people’s reactions to social stress triggers is called the Trier Social Stress Test. A study was conducted in 2012, where researchers Paul Ekman and Alan Wallace experimented on Teachers to observe if Meditation would lower the Teacher’s social stress levels. The results? After being exposed to the Trier Social Stress Test, the blood pressure of the Teachers that had practiced meditation recovered and stabilized more quickly compared to the Teachers that didn’t do meditation. Furthermore, the Teachers that practiced meditation for longer periods recovered from the stress more quickly. They also found that these results remained true five months after the initial experiments were conducted. (3) This same experiment was replicated by Richard J. Davidson in 2016, but done with experienced Meditators instead of teachers. The results were similar to Ekman and Wallace’s’ findings, however, Davidson also discovered that the experienced Meditators produced a low amount of Cortisol (stress hormone) when putting through the Trier Social Stress Test, and in general the test group’s feedback to the Stress Test was that they didn’t find it all that stressful. (3)
2. Meditation and Emotional Reactions
Meditation can also reduce your emotional reactions. In basic terms we have the “emotional” part of the brain called the Amygdala, and the “thinking” part of the brain called the Prefrontal Cortex. In 2017 Davidson used the same experienced group of Meditators to measure the connection levels between our Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex. He used a scan to observe brain activity when the group was exposed to photos of injured and suffering people. He found that in the group of Meditators their Amygdala was less reactive compared to the group of non-meditators. He also deduced that the experienced meditators had a stronger link between their Amygdala and Prefrontal Cortex, thus allowing them to react more rationally instead of emotionally to the photos in comparison to the non-meditators. (3)
3. Mindfulness Meditation and Depression
In 2006 a study concluded that regular mindfulness meditation reduced irritability, anxiety, and depression. (1) According to Dr. Patricia Rockman from the Centre of Mindfulness Studies, Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) was born out of a desire to approach depression in an alternative way to medication. Oxford University professors Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Segal combined their research results and along with using Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program as a structure. They created an 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy program used to reduce the onset and relapse of depression in place of medication. (4)(5)(3)
According to Zindel Segal, the key was to use mindfulness – “Purposely attending to the present moment, without judgment” to get patients to look at the emotion “sadness” in a different light. Sadness had been pinpointed as an emotional trigger that often resulted in a relapse in previously depressed patients. Stable patients will Inevitably be exposed to sadness in their daily lives, however, this starts a downward spiral of negative self-talk and ultimately leads them back into depression. So instead of dwelling on the sadness and let it consume them negatively, the change they wanted to see was an acknowledgment and welcoming of the sadness to the point it ceased to exist in the bearer’s mind. (5)
The results were phenomenal, MBCT showed a huge reduction in relapse for patients who had overcome their depression. In two case studies carried out by Mark Williams, one reduction went from 66% relapse to 37%, and the other from 78% relapse to 36%, MBCT effectively halved the rate of depression relapse. (6)
In 2016 Mark Williams went on to do further research into this area, and studied two groups with depression, one group was treated with medication, the other followed the MBCT program, the results showed that if the depression was caused from childhood then using MBCT was more effective than medication, however with other causes of depression, he saw MBCT had the same effect as medication, with the bonus of no side effects. (3)
4. Mindfulness Meditation and Mental ability
In 2009, Communication Scientist, Eyal Ophir researched our ability to multitask. His results showed that we are far less effective when multitasking compared to single-tasking, because every time we have pulled away from a task it takes more time to re-focus our attention back to it, and therefore we are less efficient in comparison to starting and completing the task in one session. His results also showed that people who multitask regularly get distracted far more quickly and struggle to concentrate. (3)
In 2016 a concentration and meditation study was carried out by Psychologists Thomas E. Gorman and C. Shawn Green. They ran a study between two groups of students to compare their concentration abilities. Before the final test, they put one group through 10 minutes of counting breath meditation, and the other group through 10 minutes of browsing the internet. The Meditators showed greater improvement in their ability to concentrate compared to the browsing online group, in particular, the greatest improvement was amongst the meditators who traditionally multitasked a lot. (3)
Another study in 2012 carried out by Michael D. Mrazek, found longer meditation reduced distraction amongst students at the University of California, and improved their graduate scores by up to 30%. (1)
In 2007 another study conducted by a group of scientists, headed by Psychologist Amishi Jha found that meditation had more mental benefits. They found mindfulness increased their test subjects’ memory, reaction times, and their physical endurance. (1)
5. Mindfulness Meditation and physiological ability
A peer-reviewed article published in 2003 in the Journal Psychosomatic Medicine found that Mindfulness strengthened the immune system to the point of reducing and fighting a cold, flu, and other viruses. (1)
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s research in 2008 found that mindfulness could help alleviate chronic pain, and so the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – 8-week course was born. Which as we discussed earlier was the pioneering stage set for the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy program. (1)(3)(4)(5)
Fast forward to now, and the research has gone ahead in leaps and bounds. As Kristi Lee Schatz neatly describes it
….the latest research in neuroscience and epigenetics depicts a fascinating tale of how our experiences and environments create our reality and alter our biology….Our emotional connection and perception of experience create a concoction of neurochemicals that flood our cells with information about how to respond to a situation physiologically. (7)
Dr. Keith Holden describes this into three categories:
- Mind-Body Genomics – “Mind-body genomics is the study of how your mind influences your genes to turn on and off…By practicing mindfulness and meditation, you learn to regulate your thoughts. By regulating your thoughts, you can trigger your relaxation response. The relaxation response causes genes to turn on and off that optimize your health.” (7)(8) In 2013 Dr. Herbert Benson’s research showed that through mindfulness and meditation the genes that we’re able to be turned on and off (the relaxation response) had the following physiological effects: – turn on the genes responsible for producing energy in cells (mitochondria), turns on the genes that reduce oxidative stress, turn genes on and off to reduce inflammation, turns genes on that produce insulin and therefore better regulating blood sugar levels, and finally an anti-aging effect in which it (the relaxation response) preserves the ends (telomeres) of chromosomes. All of these results were expressed more clearly in individuals who were more experienced meditators. (7)(8)
- Meditation is anti-inflammatory – as mentioned above the “relaxation response” can turn genes on and off to reduce inflammation. The disease is often caused by excessive inflammation, therefore being able to reduce excessive inflammation results in health benefits. In 2014, a study concluded that mindfulness meditation had a rapid effect on reducing inflammation. Experienced meditators meditated for 8 hours for one day and the control group did quiet non-meditative activities. This intense 8 hours of meditation activated the same genetic pathway to reduce inflammation as Celebrex (a common strong anti-inflammatory prescribed medication) but with the benefit of no side effects. (7)(8)
However, the body is capable of creating inflammation through several genetic pathways. One pathway involves the cell protein called nuclear factor kappa B (NFKB). According to Dr. Holden “ Multiple studies show that mindfulness meditation reduces inflammation by turning off NFKB.” ((7)(8)
- Self-directed Neuroplasticity – Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to physically adapt and change. Originally, the thought was that only children had this ability as their brains developed and grew. However, it has been discovered that the adult brain can change its neuronal pathways. As long as either your environment or actions are changed for the long term, the brain will create new neuronal pathways. (8) Examples of this are, learning a musical instrument, a new language, adapting to the loss of a limb, or regular meditation.
“In 2005, researchers imaged the brains of experienced meditators. They found that long-term meditation produces neuroplastic effects. It thickens areas of the brain associated with attention, interoception, and sensory processing.[vii] Interoception is your awareness of your body’s internal regulation.”(8)
So, regular meditation is a way of creating positive long-lasting neuronal pathways – self-directed neuroplasticity. Regular meditation helps to redirect thoughts to the present moment and therefore increases attention span, focus, and lowers stress. Sensory information is processed from a different perspective with the use of meditation and possible benefits are increased intuitive state. Meditation increases self-awareness which may result in better regulation of the autonomic nervous system (more research has to be done to prove this). Meditation is also thought to help the onset of brain-related atrophy, which could slow down the aging process, and reduce age-related illnesses such as memory loss and possibly go as far as improving brain function in the elderly, again more research is needed in this field. (8)
Mindfulness Meditation and Coaching
In theory Mindfulness and Meditation sound simple to carry out. There are many apps developed to walk people through the process to make it easier. However, there is a difference between simple and easy. For example, if one is going through an 8 week MBSR or MBCT course, the actions are outlined clearly for the client to follow. This is the simple part, however it does not mean it is easy. (9) Through the process of cultivating new long term sustainable habits and experiencing mindset shifts, having a Coach supports one through this process. A Coach supports a client whilst they are developing new skills through Mindfulness and Meditation, which are perfected over time with a lot of patience and persistence by the Client. This often results in an increased inner intuition and self-awareness for the Client, and a Coach can support the Client in how to go about what they would like to do with these new personal discoveries and insights.
On the flipside, Mindfulness Meditation fosters Coaches in their ability to create a judgment-free space for their Clients. Learning to acknowledge passing thoughts, and let them be, and then re-focusing attention back to the Client is a skill that is essential in becoming a Coach. Re-focusing attention, and viewing the Client words from a bird’s eye perspective instead of within the Coach’s own story is another skill that Mindfulness Meditation can help Coaches to develop and foster. The added benefits of Mindfulness Meditation to the Client and Coach are evident through all the research that has been conducted over the past few decades.
With the outstanding results seen so far from extensive research, one would argue that if Mindfulness Meditation was a drug it would be taking the world by storm. However, that is a whole new can of worms! For the rationalists (Dad) that inspired me to dig deeper and see what Scientific research that has been conducted on Mindfulness and Meditation, I have this to say – I merely covered the tip of the iceberg, however there is compelling evidence to suggest that what the Hippies introduced to the Western world many moons ago along with ancient Eastern Religions and Philosophies, they were onto something far greater than I think they ever imagined. Here’s to Science proving to the world of rationalists what our Eastern Ancestors already felt and new in their BEING.
Mindfulness: An Eight-Week Plan For Finding Peace in a Frantic World. By Mark Williams and Danny Penman. (Book)
Emotional Intelligence – why it can matter more than IQ. By Daniel Goleman (Book)
Altered Traits. By Daniel Goleman and Richard J. Davidson (Book)
Understanding MBSR and MBCT. The Centre for Mindfulness Studies. Published May 2017 (youtube)
The mindful way through depression. Zindel Segal. TEDx UTSC. TEDx Talks Published 22 April 2014 (youtube)
Mark Williams talks about Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy and Depression. Published 15 October 2010 (youtube)
Your Brain on Meditation. By Kristi Lee Schatz. Noteworthy, The Journal Blog. Published 11th February 2019.
“Power of the Mind in Health and Healing” by Keith Holden MD (Book)
Coaching for Emotional Intelligence: Michelle Maldonado on Mindfulness Coaching. By Key Step Media, published 8th May 2018.