We often hear of people saying that they meditate daily but have you ever stopped to ask yourself just why they spend time out of their busy day to sit in silence or be guided through a meditation online or in a class?
Well it appears there are many more benefits to meditation than just calming the mind as we will explore below but the question remains………
Can meditation actually change the brain?
Meditation has been scientifically proven to have profound effects on the brain and literally changes the brain through neuroplasticity by increasing the amount of gray matter in brain regions such as the insula (areas of the brain which control your organs and in turn your intuition), the hippocampus (the brain regions involved in learning and memory) and the prefrontal cortex the area involved in regulating emotions and the ability to put things into perspective).
Incorporating a meditation practice into our daily lives can increase our brain volume by increasing our gray matter. By altering the neuroplasticity of your brain you are able to build stronger neural pathways and connections in areas of the brain you wish to enhance and break certain neural networks that are associated with negativity. This in turn will help to keep our brains active, avoid shrinkage as we age thus improving memory, our mood and emotional wellbeing by enabling us to regulate our emotions, have a better grasp on realistic perspectives of situations, and help us to develop more empathy and compassion for others.
In effect we can regenerate our brains by meditating and stay in homeostasis with the use of this wonderful tool that we can draw on at any time of the day whenever we need it.
Meditation for teenagers with anxiety
Anxiety and depression are growing concerns in many teenagers today and as a result of the knock on effect of these issues many parents unfortunately suffer from the backlash of the behaviour of their suffering teenager. As a parent, when you see your child suffering with something that to you has no logic or reason as such behind it, you may feel helpless and look at things you may have done incorrectly or things you could have done better however it is important to understand that in these situations, you are dealing with a child that lacks the ability to reason yet with them perhaps looking at situations in a distorted light, all purely through the structural changes they are making to their brain. Continual negative thinking, just as continual positive thinking can actually alter the structure of your brain and cause physical changes in your brain cells which when discussing the negative thinking creates this out of control spiral thinking. Looking at the areas of the brain that are affected by meditation it is clear how this practice can benefit both parent and child and help train the brain to be resilient and to bounce back a lot easier.
Speaking from someone who has sadly experienced loved ones suffering from anxiety I can see how each area above follows suit where the brain is concerned. If mediation can benefit all the brain regions above associated with emotional wellbeing, fear, anxiety, perspectives, self referencing etc then surely continual waves of negative thoughts and emotions can also have a detrimental impact on these areas.
This appears to be true with one particular area in the brain scientifically studied ‘the amygdala’. This is the area of the brain associated with fear, anxiety and stress and has been found to be enlarged in people with anxiety and depression. A larger amygdala has been shown to have stronger connections with other areas of the brain responsible for perception and emotional regulation. This is more than likely the reason that children with anxiety or depression have a distorted impression of themselves and the world. Sadly, their perspectives have drifted quite far from reality which in turn allows the negative spiral to continue. As stated above, by having a daily mediation practice you are able to control the size of the amygdala and physically decrease the cell volume in this area of the brain, thus making you feel happier, in more control of your emotions and have a better grasp on reality.
The difficulty many face is getting your turbulent teenager to understand the effects their thought processes are physically having on their brain and to get them to sit with their own thoughts for a little time and to notice them but not to focus on them, just to allow them to pass. Teaching them how to allow their thoughts to come and go without focusing on the thought itself will hopefully enable them to feel more in control of their emotional wellbeing.
Mindful Meditation practiced in various ways
Mindful meditation can be performed in a number of ways other than simply sitting cross legged with your eyes closed and focusing on your breath. Sitting down and focusing your attention on some form of art such as drawing, painting or sculpting can be just as effective and is still a form of mediation. By focusing your attention on your art you are mindfully living in the moment, focusing on the present and not giving your attention to other thoughts that may usually dominate your mind. This is a great way for a child to meditate, as they are able to minimise random negative thoughts without getting bored as they may do in full seated meditation.
Playing a musical instrument is another fantastic way to meditate and focus on the now. Many creative tasks such as art, dance and music take concentration on the task at hand and allows you to tap into your creativity, your happy place, which all helps to strengthen the positive pathways in your brain.
Playing sport or practicing yoga is another great way to practice a moving meditation for those who do not like to stay still for periods of time. Or simply going for a walk in the woods or in nature and paying attention to all the sounds, smells, and the finer details and beauty of nature. By focusing your attention on things you may not normally notice, such as a bird singing, the leaves rustling in the trees or the sunlight bouncing off the leaves, you are staying in the present moment and helping to build new connections and pathways in your brain. Having awareness and the ability to be grateful for the beauty of nature will help to create more positive connections in your brain and wire the new positive thinking nerve cells together, which ultimately over time, release the negative thinking nerve cells.
Overall, any type of mediation practiced as often as possible over an eight week period, is said to physically assist with increasing the immune function, decreasing pain and inflammation, increase gray matter, increase cortical thickness in the brain, and improve your attention, focus and memory. On the mental and emotional side mediation can help increase positive emotions, decrease depression and anxiety and reduce stress creating a sense of inner calm and an ability to respond to whatever life throws at you in a more peaceful way. To be able to be the observer rather than a participant and allow any negative thoughts to pass by without much effect on your overall wellbeing.
So why aren’t we all meditating daily? Why isn’t this a skill that is taught to our children in schools as an everyday practice? These are questions I continuously ask myself as the results above speak volumes as to how this wonderful practice could benefit our youth now and continue to do so as they grow into adulthood.